Five takeaways from our Reranking Recruiting Classes series

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Over the course of the last two weeks, we’ve rolled out a series re-ranking the eight recruiting classes from 2007-2014.

It was a fun project to put together, in part because of the trip down memory lane that came with a number of the players we discussed, but also because it is interesting to take another look at these rankings once the players involved have reached — or approached — their peak years.

Here are five things that we learned while reranking the recruiting classes:

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PLAYING, AND STAYING, IN THE NBA IS AN EXCEEDINGLY DIFFICULT THING TO DO

I knew this before diving into this project, but rolling through each and every one of those eight recruiting classes reinforced the simple fact that having an NBA career is a damn-near impossible dream for many, if not most, basketball players.

On average, there were a couple of all-stars in each of these classes. Once you got outside of the top ten, however, it was difficult to find players that spent their career as starters. By the back-end of the 20s, you were digging through players that spent most of their career on the end of an NBA bench when they weren’t bouncing around between Europe and the G League.

It doesn’t exactly work out this way, but there are roughly 25 five-star recruits in each recruiting class with is roughly the same numbers of kids from each recruiting class that end up getting more than just a cup of coffee in the league.

That doesn’t mean that the guys on the fringes of the NBA are bad basketball players.

It’s quite the opposite actually.

I wrote a long story on Nigel Williams-Goss earlier this summer. He was identified as an elite talent way back in middle school. He was the first four-year player at Findlay Prep, one of high school basketball’s powerhouse programs. He won two high school national titles. He made all of the all-american teams and played in all of the all-american games as a senior. He was all-Pac-12 at Washington before transferring to Gonzaga where, as a senior, he was a first-team All-American on a team that might have won the national title had he not rolled his ankle in the national title game.

And, after getting picked 55th in the 2017 NBA Draft, Williams-Goss went out and had a monster, nearly-unprecedented season with Partizan, a storied basketball club in Serbia that is known for producing NBA talent. His rights are still owned by the Utah Jazz, but even that wasn’t enough to get him a guaranteed spot on their roster, which is why he will be playing for Olympiacos in Greece next season.

He’ll be paid very well and he’ll play in the Euroleague, which might be the best basketball league in the world outside of the NBA.

But it’s not the NBA.

And it should be proof of just how difficult it is to get there.

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LASTING IN THE LEAGUE IS ALL ABOUT THE ROLE YOU CAN PLAY

A few years back, I was grabbing a beer with a longtime scout that was working for an NBA team, and we got to talking about the differences in evaluating high school players for the college level and college players for the NBA game. The biggest difference, he said, was that with high school players, you try and predict what the player can be as he continues to grow into his body and develop his game.

You think about the big picture.

But at the NBA level, scouting is in the details. What role can that player have for our team? What can he do at an NBA level? Will he be willing to accept that he is just a glue guy that is going to be asked to only do the things he can do at an NBA level? Does he have the positional size to be able to defend?

Because the truth is this: There are a lot of players that are not in the NBA that are “NBA players”, that are good enough to be deserving of a roster spot somewhere in the most competitive league on earth.

Actually getting one of those spots, however, depends on whether or not you fit into exactly what a team is looking for. Just being able to score 20 points in an NBA game isn’t enough, because unless you are one of the absolute best scorers on the planet, you aren’t going to be good enough in the NBA.

Take Andre Roberson, for example. He was unranked as a high school senior and never averaged more than 11.6 points at Colorado, but he’s been a starter in the NBA for five years and is now heading into the second year of a $30 million contract because he can rebound and he can defend and he is perfectly willing to do nothing but rebound and defend.

Is he a better basketball player than, say, Reggie Bullock, who was a top ten prospect coming out of high school? If you were playing pickup, would you ever pick him over, say, Jerian Grant, who was an all-american at Notre Dame?

Probably not.

But he’s likely going to end up making more money and playing more NBA games than both of those guys combined in his career.

The complicating factor in all of this is …

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… THE NBA IS CONSTANTLY CHANGING WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING FOR

The way that basketball is played today is totally different from the way that it was played even just four years ago, and the result is that players that were, at one point in time, thought to be can’t-miss talents are on the verge of being out of the NBA.

Let’s call this the Jahlil Okafor Phenomenon.

Okafor was a high school superstar in the city of Chicago. He ended up going to Duke, where he teamed up with the likes of Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen as freshmen to win the 2015 national title. He would go on to be the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft — behind Karl-Anthony Towns and D’angelo Russell — before averaged 17.4 points and 7.0 boards as a rookie with the 76ers.

That was the 2015-16 season.

By October of 2017, Okafor was demanding a trade out of Philly because the Sixers had decided not to pick up the option on the fourth-year of his rookie deal, which is almost unheard-of for a player picked as high as he was picked. Granted, there are some off-the-court issues involved here, but the biggest problem that Okafor faced is that the game had passed him by. He was a dominant low-post scorer that couldn’t make threes with limited range that defended on the perimeter like he was wearing cement blocks for shoes.

Philly also had a guy by the name of Joel Embiid on the roster, but it’s telling that Okafor was traded for, essentially, a second round pick and that after half a season in Brooklyn, he signed for a minimum deal in New Orleans.

Four years after looking like he would be the next Tim Duncan and three years after averaging 17.4 points and 7.0 boards as a 19-year old, Jahlil Okafor is Just A Guy.

And it’s not just Okafor, either.

As of today, the position that every team in the NBA is looking for is the big, versatile wing that can defend in space, are switchable and can make threes. Everyone wants the next Trevor Ariza. The O.G. Anunoby’s of the world are in high-demand. It’s why someone like Jaren Jackson Jr. can be looked at as a better prospect than Marvin Bagley III by really smart basketball people.

That’s because the last thing that everyone in the NBA was trying to find — players than can defend the rim on one end of the floor and that can space the court on the other end — were rendered somewhat obsolete by the Golden State Warriors putting together two playmakers that can do both of those things (Draymond Green and Kevin Durant). As valuable as the likes of the Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka and the like are, if they can’t handle the constant switching that is required these days, they become a liability.

And all that is happening because the NBA has become increasingly more reliant on ball-screens this decade.

The ever-changing landscape of the NBA combined with NBA teams that are drafting players that need two or three or four years of development means that the goalposts are constantly moving.

Think about it like this: Is there any chance in hell that Clint Capela would drop all the way to 25th in the 2014 NBA Draft if NBA teams knew that in three years the only way to hope to compete with the Warriors would be to have a rim-running, shot-blocking center than can switch out onto point guards?

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IF YOU MAKE THE NBA, YOU LIVED UP TO THE HYPE

After working through this project, I’d hazard to guess that somewhere around 60 or 70 percent of a player’s success in the NBA has to do with the organization that they land with and the circumstances that they are put in while there.

For some guys, the stars align and they get their chance to shine. Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell have NBA Championship rings — and a likely future in the league — because they ended up being the perfect fit for what the Warriors were looking for. For other guys, they wind up in an organization — like the Spurs, like the Celtics — that prioritizes and excels in player development. For others, they get drafted by the Kings or the Knicks and are all-but guaranteed to be cursed, regardless of how good they actually are.

Does that mean they are “better” than other guys that don’t get their shot?

Not necessarily. It just means they took advantage of their chance when they got it.

To be fair, there are varying degrees of this — it’s hard not to argue that someone like Josh Selby or Byron Mullens was a bust — but given everything that I just said, if a player gets to the NBA and hangs around for a while, they made it, in my mind. Shabazz Muhammad’s career has been a disappointment relative to the expectations he had in high school, but he averaged 13.5 points one season and just signed with Milwaukee, meaning he is heading into his sixth season in the NBA.

He made it.

FOR THE MOST PART, THE GUYS DOING THE RANKINGS DO FINE

No one is ever going to be perfect when making projections, particularly when your projections involve guessing how a 17-year old will react to getting millions and millions of dollars when he turns 19.

They’re ranking a kid’s personality as much as you are their basketball ability, and I don’t know how many scouts there are with psychology degrees.

Some of the biggest busts we found in this project (Josh Selby, Cliff Alexander, Mullens) were ranked high despite their red flags. Some of the biggest misses (Russell Westbrook, C.J. McCollum) had growth spurts while in college, while others (Steph Curry, Paul George, Damian Lillard) were overlooked by recruiters, not just people doing rankings.

It’s an inexact science by definition.

And that makes it a hard job.

But for the most part, the guys that look like the best players in the class at 17 years old often end up being among the best players when they reach the NBA.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.