Basketball Sanctuary vs. Factory
By Ian Powers
The question of mid major vs. high major was posed on this site 6 years ago when Ray McCallum was making his college choice. He was a McDonald’s All-American in 2010 and with that distinction came a list of suitors that included programs like UCLA, Arizona, Oklahoma and Florida. There was also Detroit where his father, Ray McCallum Sr., served as Head Coach. McCallum Jr. had the unenviable task of deciding if he should go to a traditional power that McDonald’s All-American's typically go to, or whether to stay at home and play for his father. A case was made for both, but the security of playing for his father, knowing that he would be utilized properly and not have to worry about being recruited over eventually won out. McCallum Jr. had a great 3 year career that allowed him to enter the 2013 draft, where he was the 36th overall pick. He overachieved considering where he was rated coming out of high school, proving his decision to be a smart one.
This year we’ve already seen a 2017 McDonald’s All-American candidate Mitchell Robinson shun blue blood programs in favor of playing under his godfather, Shammond Williams, an assistant coach at Western Kentucky. Robinson is a long and athletic 7 foot shot blocker out of New Orleans who has the mobility, skill and shot blocking ability that college and NBA personnel covet. A prospect with his game changing talent would generally pick a traditional power without thinking twice about it. His strong relationship with his godfather and the trust built over the years made it easy for him to decide to play at a school like Western Kentucky. Robinson will be the most heralded recruit in school history and will give Rick Stansbury the type of recruit that will help him build a winning culture there right away.
There’s also another component to this that should not be ignored. Stansbury has an obligation to see to it that Robinson is as successful as possible. He can’t afford to have a situation where Robinson does not develop. If he finds himself in that situation where Robinson is not successful, it will make it harder than it already is to land a player of his caliber at a non traditional powerhouse program. It could be generalized that his overall success as a head coach at this university depends on how well he develops Robinson and can lead to more wins, the ability to recruit better players and possibly another high major job in the future if he so desires.
That same incentive is not there for a coach of a blue blood program with job security that will last until he decides to retire. Not to say that coaches of high profile programs are not concerned with their player's development and growth, but the attitude that often prevails at the elite schools is to have less patience with highly rated kids and recruit over them, when possible. When a coach can recite dozens of players from their program experiencing NBA success, one kid not having the same success can be seen as more of an indictment on that particular player instead of the program and coaching staff. Coaches will often tell recruits that certain kids didn’t work as hard or certain kids didn’t buy in as a reason for their lack of success, when often times it is a two-way street and the head coach gave up on them entirely too soon. Players develop at different rates and McDonald’s All-American's are not all created equal.
AAU coaches and parents have become more knowledgable about how the recruiting process works and how what is told to players during that process can change once a commitment is secured. Recruits tend to gravitate more to strong personal or family ties when making decisions nowadays because of the trust factor involved. Being on the recruiting trail and hearing stories from numerous kids and parents, you often get the impression that most kids love the attention of being recruited and don’t necessarily use it an educational process. Prospects too often get caught up in the name of a certain school instead of the situation that may best suit them.
This year's class has another situation where a prospect is being recruited by a program that is not exactly a blue blood, with a family member on staff. That prospect is Jarred Vanderbilt and the school is Texas Christian University (TCU), who employs Vanderbilt’s cousin Corey Barker. Vanderbilt, a possible first rounder, is one of the most versatile and unique players in his class and has a list of suitors that most recruits could only dream of.
Jamie Dixon is in his first year as head coach and is looking to establish himself in the state with the likes of Texas, Texas A&M, and Baylor. Each of these programs have had more success in the past and present, which would be intriguing to anyone born in the lone star state. TCU, however, has the family connection that could prove invaluable. All freshmen will go through a transition period when entering their first and sometimes only year of college basketball. Most of the time the frustration experienced during that transition period is communicated from the player to assistant coach. The coach assigned with that task is more often than not, the assistant coach who recruited the player.
In Vanderbilt’s case, if he opts for TCU, that coach won’t only be his lead recruiter, but also his cousin. A person whose relationship with him isn’t merely based on whether he can allow him to keep his job or win games. This relationship would be with someone he’s known his entire life, who doesn’t have an agenda and only wants what’s best for him, because of their family ties.
The assistant coach is also the conduit between player and head coach, who can relay the frustrations of a player to the head coach in a diplomatic way to ensure no tension is created. Who better to be able to better express any frustrations or grievances than someone who has known you your entire life? Jamie Dixon’s incentive to develop and nurture Vanderbilt would mirror his need to establish himself as viable option for in-state prospects. Dixon’s resume as a coach is very impressive and can stand up to any of the top coaches in the game, but the lifeline of any program is the quality of their players. They help you win, and winning helps you get better recruits. Getting a kid of Vanderbilt’s caliber would be huge for Dixon in his first full season and Vanderbilt being successful in his program would open more doors within the Texas recruiting pipeline and beyond that may not have given TCU a first, let alone second look. In Vanderbilt he would have the guy to rebuild around and put his program into the state and national conversation.
Obviously there are benefits to following the path well traversed to "basketball factories" such as Kentucky or Kansas where competition on a daily basis in practices is better, and the program is well equipped in aiding top recruits with their studies and how to handle the off-court pressures. There is less pressure to be the man, and in many cases a player's deficiencies are more easily masked playing alongside such high level teammates.
Just a season ago Ben Simmons followed a family connection by going to LSU to play under assistant coach (and godfather) David Patrick, who played professionally in Australia with Ben's father Dave Simmons. That decision did not end up working out so well considering all of the criticism with LSU falling short of the NCAA tournament. However, LSU head coach Johnny Jones appeared overwhelmed and does not have nearly the same track record coaching or developing talent as Jamie Dixon.
Vanderbilt is a near lock to be a McDonald’s All-American, which would be the first in TCU history. At TCU he would not be going to a school that has one every year, and it's certain Coach Dixon would do everything in his power to mold Vanderbilt into a star for the next level. Even with the perceived issues of Ben Simmons in his lone year at LSU, he was still the first pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. If Vanderbilt went to TCU, it might be a great opportunity to see his talent shine through.