NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Peach Jam was what it has always been this July.
The best high school basketball players in America – from Cade Cunningham to Patrick Baldwin to Emoni Bates to Bronny James – were in attendance as every relevant college basketball coach in the country sat on the sidelines looking on. Local fans turned big games into over-capacity firecode violations. It all combined, as it always does, to create an event and environment that is irreplicable anywhere else in summer hoops.
“This is what high school basketball used to be,” one top 25 head coach told NBC Sports this week. “This is the only place where players have to face this kind of game pressure and intensity.”
It is also the only place where coaches are going to be allowed on the road this summer to evaluate kids at AAU and grassroots events. Last summer, acting on the recommendation of an NABC committee and the Condoleeza Rice-led Committee on College Basketball, the NCAA changed the recruiting calendar to take away two of the three five-day July live periods. Instead of having 15 days on the road to evaluate prospects, they have four.
“It makes no sense.”
That quote came from a high major assistant coach, but it was the gist of every single one of the dozens and dozens of conversations that I had with coaches at the Riverview Athletic Center this week. Hell, I couldn’t find a single person here – no media member, recruiting analyst, college coach, AAU coordinator, event operator, Nike employee – that thought taking away the final two weekends in July was a prudent move.
The problem, you see, is that coaches value these weekends as a way to evaluate the players they are recruiting. Who has gotten better since the end of the high school season? Who has put on weight since the April live period? Who has lost weight? Who grew a couple inches? Who is playing like they spent the last three months on the couch instead of in the gym?
“It’s not so much not seeing everyone play, but not seeing guys play enough to really develop a clear hierarchy for my boss,” an assistant coach at a top ten program told me. “There’s not enough time to really evaluate your positional leaderboard.”
The complicating factor here is that Peach Jam is not the only live period in July. Coaches are also allowed to attend the USA Basketball training camp in Colorado Springs in two weeks as well as a series of regional camps that will take place the final weekend in July. But the USA Basketball event will only feature the elite of the elite. If you’re not Duke, Kentucky or one of the handful of schools that are capable of competing with them for a player, there is literally no value to that event.
And the NCAA funded camps, which sources told NBC Sports will cost as much as $10 million to run, are even more useless.
“I do this for a living,” one of the most prominent recruiting analysts told me, “and I knew one in ten names on their list.”
“We don’t have one 2020 kid going to those camps,” a top ten head coach told me. “We have one 2021 kid. So we’re not going to any of it.”
“I’m not opposed to working but I hate wasting time,” another prominent high major assistant coach said. “Those camps are a f—ing waste of time.”
Tell me how you really feel.
So why would anyone think that any of this is a good idea?
The answer is, to be frank, the people that made these decisions and these changes didn’t know what they were doing. The goal of these changes was to take the control and the influence out of the hands of the AAU coaches that have been deemed evil by, well, everyone, but the truth is that these changes made it even more important to get hooked up with a shoe company team.
Peach Jam was held in Augusta this week. So was the Peach Invitational, an event that takes play 15 minutes down the road from the Riverview Athletic Center that features all of the Nike teams that didn’t qualify for Peach Jam. The Under Armour Association held their event in Atlanta, meaning that every mid- and high-major coach in the country will have been in the state of Georgia for most, if not all, of these four days. If you weren’t playing on a Nike or an Under Armour team, you probably didn’t get seen, especially if you aren’t already a known entity.
As one high school basketball power broker put it, “they made it easier for the kids that don’t need it. That sucks.”
The changes were not all bad, let me make that clear.
The NCAA opened up two weekends in June for high schools events run by state federations, and the majority of the coaches that I spoke with were happy with it, particularly coaches at the low- and mid-major level.
“It is a good setting to evaluate because the kids are playing with their high school team,” one coach said. There was a familiarity that you don’t see when teams are thrown together at a camp. Kids were playing in a system. Perhaps the biggest benefit was that players from smaller schools were given a chance to get some court time with coaches watching. And while the biggest benefit is for coaches outside the sport’s power structure, one benefit high major programs had, according to an SEC coach, was that it let the kids know who was actually recruiting them. If you see a coach at every game at a high school event, you know he’s on you. If you see him at every game at Peach Jam, there might be five other guys on your own team he could be looking at.
“It’s great for the players,” one talent evaluator told me.
There were some hiccups along the way. There was no consistency from event to event, and while some were great – Philly, Washington D.C., Georgia and the NEPSAC event were specifically mentioned as terrific – some were not. Florida, Texas and California didn’t even host events. There are issues that need to be ironed out, don’t get me wrong. Who is paying for the travel and the gym time? Can prep schools and public schools play at the same event? Can teams from out of state participate? What happens in states that are big and spread out?
But it was the first year, and some of those issues can be worked through.
So give the NCAA credit for that.
This was a good change.
Eliminating the final two weekends in July? Replacing them with camps that will be loaded with Division II players?
That was not a good change.
They have 12 months to make it right.