Now that the high school basketball season for boys and girls in the state of Arizona has officially come to an end, and all of the media outlets have determined our All-State, All-Arizona and selections for honorable mention among the state's top performers during the high school season, it is now time to turn our sights to the next season - the highly anticipated club season.
Over the years, the club season has developed a great deal. The club season, also widely regarded nationally as "the circuit," has developed in it's overall significance amongst high school players, parents, and college coaches over the past 20 years. Once regarded as simply another means to allow the top-rated basketball talent an opportunity to play through the off-season, the club circuit soon became an avenue for each state's top talent to compete against one another. Today, it has grown into the biggest resource for each state's players to gain maximum exposure to college coaches, media and national/regional scouts.
At one time, the basketball club circuit was just another way to gain college exposure. Today, for well underrecruited states such as Arizona, the club circuit has become almost the only way to maximize college recruiting attention.
In a state such as Arizona, college coaches rarely travel to the state to observe the state's best basketball talent. Because Arizona is not widely recognized as a hotbed for the best basketball talent, historically the state's best players have often gone unnoticed to college programs. But over the past 20 years, as a result of the rise of the club basketball circuit, individual players have been able to play their way into a college scholarship through performing at a high level on the club circuit.
Such past players as Matt Haryasz of Page High School, turned a dominant performance on the club circuit in 2000 into a scholarship offer from Stanford University. Haryasz began the club season as an unknown prospect from a rural part of Arizona, and left the club season as a nationally recognized Top 100 prospect nationally.
Other prospects such as Lee Cummard of Mesa HS utilized the club circuit to vault himself into becoming the top-rated prospect at his position on the West Coast. Cummard would go on to have a strong career at BYU. The list goes on and on as other top-rated prospects such as Brendon Lavender (University of Arizona), Zane Johnson (University of Arizona), Gavin Edwards (UCONN), Joey Shaw (University of Indiana), Mike Perez (Nevada via UTEP) and Bryce Cotton (Providence), just to name a short few, each utilized the club circuit to boost their recruiting stock amongst college coaches around the country.
While the club circuit has been beneficial to many in their pursuit of recruiting exposure, it can also be deterimental to some players, that do not make good choices for themselves. Playing for the wrong team or club program can also impact a player negatively, as a lack of playing time, or a lack of chemistry with a team can be catastrophic for a player looking to gain exposure. Not all exposure is good exposure, and for such past players as Collin Woods (UC-Irvine) and Sai Tummala (Salt lake City JC), the experience was detrimental to their college recruitment.
Each of these three prospects entered the spring of 2010 as highly rated prospects amongst the state's best in the 2011 class. But rather than play for a local club program that would cater their team towards the talents of each of these three individuals, all three prospects chose to leave the state of Arizona and play for a California-based club program, the Compton Magic. After spending several months with a loaded Compton Magic team, having very few practices with their teammates and receiving very little playing time on the team, each of these three prospects saw their recruiting options dwindle quickly. In fact, for Brophy's Sai Tummala, who was highly sought after going into the spring recruiting months, Tummala was forced to walk on at a college program as a senior as his recruiting options evaporated.
For Horizon HS graduate Collin Woods, who went into the spring of 2010 with double-digit scholarship offers, Woods will see his list of offers drop to 2 or 3 schools by the end of the summer months, as she shared time in the backcourt with Jahii Carson (Arizona State) on the Compton Magic team. The dominant force of Carson on the handle forced Woods to have to play the shooting guard position all summer, while programs that were recruiting him were evaluating him as a point guard.
Today, many Arizona kids continue to follow the lure of playing for out-of-state club programs. While it has worked for some, it has definitely not worked for others. Last spring and summer, three Basha HS superstar prospects, Torren Jones, Jaron Hopkins and Maurice Kirby each decided to play for out-of-state club programs after the high school season, but chose to play on three different teams - comething not seen in the state since the orgination of club basketball. While it would be thought that these three individuals would want to carry on their teammwork and play developed throughout the high school season onto the club circuit, that was not the case. Jones would play for the California Supreme (CA), Hopkins would play for the Compton Magic (CA) and Kirby would play for several different Calif0rnia club programs throughout his summer performance.
As a result, Hopkins would see his college recruitment tail off a great deal, although he would salvage it with a commitment to the University of Colorado. Hopkins began the spring as the top overall prospect in Arizona's 2013 class, but saw his recruitment fall after a subpar summer performance. Kirby would drop from an early commit to the Arizona State Sun Devils, to a low to mid major division-I recruit. Many basketball enthusiasts even believed that Kirby had fallen from a once high-major division-I prospect, to a division-II prospect. While the thought was absurd, Kirby's college recruitment took a major hit until Rock Johnson, Club President of the I-Can All-Stars, salvaged the recruitment of Kirby and delivered a scholarship offer from Virginia Tech of the ACC. Kirby signed with the ACC program this fall.
For Torren Jones, a stint with the Nike-sponsored California Supreme (CA) would eventually take Jones from the state of Arizona completely, as the program's coaches would relocate Jones from Basha HS and the state of Arizona - sending Jones to a prep school in the state of Indiana. Jones would eventually sign a scholarship with the University of Missouri in the fall - a great accomplishment for him.
As we head into the spring now of 2013, several more top-rated Arizona prospects will also be competing for California-based club programs, as 6-foot-10 junior post Payton Dastrup of Mesa Mountain View HS will be competing this spring and summer for the California Supreme. He will be joined on a part-time basis by Westwind Prep's ultra-athletic 6-foot-8 junior forward Zylan Cheatham. Cheatham plans to share time this spring and summer with the Cal Supreme and the Arizona Magic. While both prospects are considered the top two overall prospects in Arizona's 2014 class, they will not be representing the state of Arizona this spring and summer against the nation's best club programs, but instead will be representing California.
"I want to put Arizona on the map," said Zylan Cheatham in reference to his future play on the EYBL circuit.
An interesting comment from a prospect looking forward to playing with a California-based club program. Arizona is already on the map, as Arizona's best basketball talent is now being recruited at a level never before seen in the state. Former St. Mary's HS star guard Jerryd Bayless became one of the top 10 prospects in America's 2007 class while playing for an Arizona-based club program. Bayless is currently a developing star guard in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The lure to play on the Nike club circuit, known as the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), has been enough to pull away some of Arizona's best prospects from Arizona-based club programs to instead compete with out-of-state shoe sponsored giants.
It has also been rumored that another top-rated Arizona product, Pinnacle's Dorian Pickens, may also be playing this spring and summer with the nation's top club program, the heavily Nike-sponsored Oakland Soldiers (CA).
Other top-rated Arizona products that will be playing for California-based club programs this spring include Millennium's Elston Jones and Dobson's Kodi Justice (Arizona State commit) with the Compton Magic (CA), and also Mountain Pointe's Chris Davis and Gilbert Christian's Sam Jones with the Pump N Run (CA).
While the rewards could be great while playing for a major shoe-sponsored program, the losses could be much greater if things do not go well for an Arizona product. Former Mesa Mountain View HS star guard and 2008 graduate Brendon Lavender left his club program, the Arizona Magic, in the middle of the summer recruiting months to play in one event with a California-based club team sponsored by Rap star "Master P." Lavender made the move after giving a verbal commitment to the University of Arizona just weeks before. After playing for the California-based club team in one event, Lavender was urged by the Wildcat coaching staff to go back to his original team, as the team-change was hurting the perception of Lavender to national scouts and media. Lavender saw very little playing time with California-based program, before returning to the AZ Magic in the next event.
The club season has become a difficult season to follow, as top-rated prospects now often jump club teams often throughout the spring and summer - a fact that has diluted the organized play and teammwork - creating a brash culture of recruiting politics and negativity. Parents can be seen throughout the summer months jockeying for their kids to jump programs, if not receiving their desired fair treatment from their current team. Unlike the organized high school basketball season, which is led and dominated by the coaches and administration - the club circuit is instead led and dominated by the players. Those that have the best players can organize shoe deals and often get reduced rates on tournament entry fees. It is not a fair practice but one that is widely accepted across the country, even though the NCAA has cracked down on a lot of this behavior.
Understand, the majority of those involved in the club season across the country includes fathers, high school coaches, volunteers and local businessmen with a group of kids looking to play some basketball and get an opportunity to showcase their talents to any college coach or anyone desiring to sit down in the gym and watch the game. Most club teams across the country with players will never play in front of a college coach or even a college scout. Instead they will pay for travel expenses and tournament fees just for the right to have an opportunity to be seen by someone like myself, which is why I continue to work so hard to see as many players as possible throughout each proposed tournament - to give each kid a chance to have their turn to shine.
While the NCAA has attempted to create rules and guidelines for the AAU/club circuit and continues to look at different legislation to govern the leagues and tournaments across the country, the club circuit continues to roll on without any true organization or barriers. Local club coaches continue to fight with one another for the state's top players, while out-of-state club coaches continue to raid the state for top talent as well. It has become the Wild West as the state now produces more than 100 different club programs at different age groups, with each looking to make their claim among the state's best programs.
So here we go again, as another spring and summer awaits us. Another spring and summer where every single weekend has been swallowed up with an expsoure or showcase event. Another spring and summer with players playing on almost different club teams every weekend. Another spring and summer of players seeing their college recruitment and stock begin to soar after a strong performance, and also players seeing their recruiting value diminish.
While it has become a very crazy season amongst Arizona basketball, it is still a very enjoyable one for parents and players. For many of the players who did not get their opportunity to play to their expectations during the high school season, the club season creates a venue for many previously unnoticed players to showcase their talents - a nice aspect that the circuit can bring for aspiring players.
Regardless of what stories will develop this spring and summer, and what club teams prospects will play for, the club season is an enjoyable one to watch - filled with excitement, top match-ups and great competition. Each weeked presents another event and another opportunity to see a kid get a chance at taking his game to the next level, or seeing a club team get their chance at taking the next step towards respectability. It is fun to watch develop and I have enjoyed reporting it for you over the past 15 years.
It all goes back to the old saying - "Basketball teams are made in the winter, and basketball players are made in the summer."