Friday, June 25, 2004

J.R. Smith out, 15-year old Eric Wallace in

Now that's it's official, with the Hornets taking J.R. Smith with the 18th overall pick, UNC has already started looking to the future (of course, it was official when Smith signed with an agent, but that would make for a tougher introductory sentence -- so let's just let that slide). Apparently, that future includes offering a scholarship to a 15-year old Eric Wallace, who just completed his freshman year of high school.

The Raleigh News & Observer is reporting that N.C. State has actually made an official offer, but Wallace's summer coach has called an official offer from UNC 'a formality.'

Wallace's high school coach, Lee Reavis, said Wednesday that Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek offered a scholarship to the 6-foot-6 wing earlier this month, after the teenager attended an NCSU team camp.

Wallace also visited Chapel Hill on Tuesday. But, Reavis said, "before they make anything official, [UNC coach Roy Williams] wants to see him play more this summer, and evaluate his game more."
There seem to be a couple of reasons why the recruiting game is starting even earlier than most remember. One of the reasons is pretty obvious -- a lot of kids are leaving school early (or skipping it all together) to go straight to the NBA, and as a result the wooing process now includes recruiting players who are barely out of junior high.

The other reason is a little less obvious, but maybe more important:

"It seems like it's mighty early when you start looking at freshmen, but the way Wake Forest is recruiting in-state and getting commitments from kids before you even think they're being recruited, you better start looking at young guys,'' recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons said.

Offers to recruits this young remain rare, but are increasing. California's Taylor King, who will also be a high school sophomore next season, has already made a non-binding oral commitment to UCLA.
So add one more variable to the recruiting game. Not only do coaches have to battle the ever-enticing allure of professional basketball, they also have to fight for recruits the minute they start high school. I guess in reality this has been going on for some time, but I don't ever recall reading a news account of Coach Smith ever actively recruiting a player fresh off an all-star performance in the junior high city championships (of course MJ was cut from the varsity his sophomore year, so he certainly wasn't in the mix).

Anyway, back to N.C. State (and UNC) recruiting 15-year olds. Apparently, this isn't the first time in recent history that N.C. State has tried to get a leg up on the in-state competition. Of course this makes a lot of sense when you consider that for the better part of a decade (maybe two), N.C. State has been the 4th best ACC School in the state (behind Duke, UNC and Wake Forest) and they can use any recruiting advantage they can get (Let's not forget that Jim Valvano used a lot of recruiting advantages -- and not all of them legal -- to put together some really strong teams in the 1980's).

Plus, State has jumped in early on a recruit it liked before. Shavlik Randolph had an offer from State before his sophomore season at Broughton. Randolph later signed with Duke. Quarterback Chris Leak committed to Wake Forest as a 14-year-old, but the Charlotte Independence player later signed with Florida.
This is probably the closest thing to a safe bet for coaches recruiting players so young. As a coach, you can guarantee a high school freshmen or sophmore a scholarship, but it's not official until they sign the letter of intent no earlier than sometime in their junior year. Now if a player gets hurt, regresses on the court (or off it -- see JamesOn Curry), the scholarship offer can be rescinded (although I would guess it would take extreme circumstances -- just like the Curry incident -- in order for a coach, at least one with any scruples, to rescind a scholarship offer).

Perhaps more importantly, these 'long-term scholarship offers' help coaches guard against the myriad high schoolers that are eschewing college for the pros (but that may all change if David Stern has his way -- he'd like nothing better than to see the NBA implement an age limit of 20-years old).

Slightly changing gears, but in the same ballpark (notice the mixed metaphors), let me say that I'll be very interested in how J.R. Smith's career progresses in New Orleans. Assuming he stays with the Hornets (and that looks to be the case for now), here's what ESPN had to say about how Smith should fit in in New Orleans:

This pick makes a lot of sense for the Hornets. David Wesley is too small to be the starting shooting guard. J.R., at 6-foot-7, has great size, strength and he'll be the best shooter on the team. Smith may be the most NBA-ready of any of the high school players in the draft.
Personally, I think that's overstating it a bit. First of all, how many 18-year old 2-guards can start in the NBA. I can think of one -- ever -- and he played in Cleveland last year. Also, I don't care how good of a shooter Smith was in high school, that won't mean much when he actually is playing against guys who can defend (instead of 5'11", white guys headed to Yale to study Political Science -- the stiffs he faced on a regular basis the last four years). [To be fair, I have no idea if the last sentence is anywhere near accurate -- and I suspect it isn't -- but it seemed to flow nicely; and not only that, it reinforces many of the stereotypes that were made famous in the 70's t.v. show the "White Shadow" and later in movies like "White Men can't Jump", but I digress]. But seriously, how many times did Smith beat a defender as competent as Kobe Bryant or Larry Hughes off the dribble last season? He'll be facing guys like this every night.

Anyway, a quick look at the Hornets roster makes it look like J.R. Smith might find himself learning from the bench for a year or two and the real question will be if he would have been better served in the long-run by going to school and getting some game experience on the court instead of bench-experience in N.O. I guess we'll have to wait and see.