Recruiting young hoopsters draws scrutiny
AP Sports Writer
APPLE VALLEY, Minn. (AP) – When Tyus Jones took the floor for his first varsity practice last fall, Tubby Smith was there to watch the budding star – who happens to be an eighth grader.
For kids like Jones, who plays at Apple Valley High School in this Minneapolis suburb, it’s not unusual for a college coach to enter the picture well before calculus appears in the curriculum. Young teens are attracting ever-more attention from coaches in the competitive and lucrative world of major college basketball.
A concerned NCAA is trying to keep control of the situation, having recently clarified a rule to try to better protect middle-school prospects and raising the possibility of future prohibition on the earliest scholarship offers.
With help from family and coaches, Jones is just trying to stay grounded and get better at his game. It’s too early, he says, to actually consider where he might want to play next.
“Down the road I’ll have to look into it a little more,” Jones said.
Sleek and slender, 6 feet tall and 13 years old, Jones helped lead Apple Valley this season to a 20-8 overall record.
“There’s so much curiosity about him,” head coach Zach Goring said. “We’ve had the biggest crowds we’ve ever had. He represents our program so well. When he makes a great play or a big 3-point shot, there’s no hot dogging..”
Said Tyus’s mother, Debbie Jones: “I knew he’d be fine competing. I just didn’t know he’d be able to go in and excel like he has.”
When his days were done at the middle school up the road, Jones would walk over to practice with the Eagles and develop his point-guard skills against guys much bigger and older. With four more years to grow and mature, one can only guess about his potential.
That’s why Smith, the seasoned coach at Minnesota, was there at the start.
“That was kind of exciting,” Jones said, smiling. “But I had to stay calm and humble about it. I didn’t want to get big-headed or anything.”
For top prospects like Jones, a coach like Smith must start tracking his development right away or risk falling behind in the race to secure a commitment – and eventually a signed national letter of intent – from a prize recruit in the area.
“It’s almost silly what age you can find kids ranked at,” said Reggie Minton, vice president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “You can find out who is the top fifth grader, sixth grader, seventh grader in the country. It’s out there, it’s on the Internet, and it’s starting to carry some weight.
“The young person may be precocious athletically, but do we really know where they are academically or emotionally? The recruiting process is a pretty intense thing.”
Coaches aren’t allowed to communicate much at all with recruits until midway through high school. In the past, summer camps for young prospects were an indirect way to start the process early, but the NCAA last year amended a men’s basketball rule to prohibit coaches from sponsoring those camps for elite seventh and eighth-graders.
The camps had drawn scrutiny as they became, according to Minton, “in some minds, a meat market.”
There is no existing rule, however, prohibiting a scholarship offer to a middle-schooler.
“Obviously we still have some young people who are being offered athletic aid prior to the ninth grade, but our hope is the restrictions are eliminating some of that,” NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs Kevin Lennon said.
The NCAA is continuing to examine the issue of young recruiting.
“I think this is a growing concern, and many believe this is an unfortunate byproduct of today’s recruiting culture,” Lennon said. “We need to examine why we’re making these offers to individuals who haven’t even enrolled in high school.”
One possible change would be to limit scholarship offers to after the sophomore year or later, Lennon said.
The current situation puts both player and coach in a bind, said Jerry Meyer, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, which doesn’t start ranking prospects until they’re sophomores.
“They’re enamored by the attention, but then it becomes tiresome and they want to get it over with and commit,” Meyer said. Then, coaches are in “an arms race. We’d rather not build nuclear weapons because they destroy the world, but what else can we do when other people are building them? They would rather not recruit eighth graders, but you know what your competition is doing so you’ve got to keep up.”
So how young is too young?
North Carolina coach Roy Williams spoke last week about a couple of his top incoming recruits – Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes – telling him previously how he was one of the last coaches to offer them scholarships.
That was two years ago when they were sophomores, which already “scared” Williams.
“I think it’s awfully early,” Williams said. “The NABC asked for coaches not to offer a scholarship until June 15th after a kid’s sophomore year. It was just a request, and so far I have done that every time.”
Smith was asked about the youngest player he ever started recruiting.
“My sons,” he said, straight-faced. “I started tracking them when they were conceived.”
Said Minnesota assistant coach Ron Jirsa: “Tubby is very level-headed when it comes to our players, or young players at any age. He’s not one to make quick decisions.”
Wisconsin has also sent some representatives to watch Jones, and materials from schools around the country have begun to arrive. So what if a scholarship offer were to come, say, next year?
“I just think it’s too early to make a commitment,” his mother said.
For now, Jones is just a teenager who likes LeBron James and Lil’ Wayne and his XBox360. He’s grateful for the welcome he received by his older teammates at Apple Valley. He’s looking forward to more success as a freshman next year.
College? Well, that can wait for now.
“I just know I’d have to like the campus, the atmosphere, definitely the coaching staff. I’d have to like the style of play. That’d have something to do with it,” Jones said, offering a theoretical answer. “I don’t know too much about that stuff right now.”
AP Sports Writers John Marshall and Doug Tucker from Kansas City, Mo., Aaron Beard from Chapel Hill, N.C., and John Kekis from Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.