College basketball recruiting 2021: Top players and storylines as COVID-19 alters evaluation periods
How a pandemic and the G League could impact the 2021 college basketball recruiting class
College basketball recruiting is an international enterprise with top programs regularly plucking talent from far outside the borders of their states and even the country. But as the world grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, the effects are trickling down to the recruitment of the 2021 class.
With the status of marquee summer events like the Peach Jam that attract top coaches from around the country to evaluate rising seniors uncertain, coaches could lose a key opportunity to build rapport with prospects outside their backyards.
The effects of the pandemic coupled with the rise of the G League to compete with blue-blood programs means the 2021 recruiting cycle could turn into a chaotic chase for talent. Here are the top storylines to monitor.
Don't expect a change atop the leaderboard just because of the uncertain times. Kentucky and Duke have finished in the top-three of the 247Sports team recruiting rankings for seven years in a row after inking the No. 1 and No. 2 classes, respectively, in the 2020 cycle, and the safe bet is that both will have similarly strong classes in 2021.
The Blue Devils are off to a particularly strong start with a commitment from No. 7 overall prospect AJ Griffin. Several 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions also suggest Duke is the favorite for No. 3 overall prospect Patrick Baldwin Jr., No. 13 overall prospect Max Christie and No. 15 overall prospect Kennedy Chandler.
The early surprise in the 2021 class is Texas A&M under second-year coach Buzz Williams. The Aggies have commitments from No. 28 overall prospect Manny Obaseki and No. 35 overall prospect Jaxson Robinson and appear to be on track for their first top-15 class since 2015.
What does less evaluation mean?
The potential loss of big summer events that draw in AAU teams, prospects and college coaches to a centralized location is one thing. But the cancellation smaller events on the AAU circuits leading up to those major summer showcases will have an impact, too.?
"There's no spring, so you're missing out on the spring evaluation period, and that's often times a couple weeks where high school prospects really emerge," 247Sports director of recruiting Evan Daniels said. "This 2021 class was already weak, and we were really looking for some guys to really emerge."
The end result could be that some players who would have seen their stock rise over the summer will remain diamonds in the rough without offers from major programs as they enter their senior seasons in high school.
"It's going to hurt the under the radar guys who were going to emerge not only in April but also in May when scouts can be out," Daniels said. "And if there's no July it's just going to further the point. It's going to impact things in a wide variety of ways. Guys are going to fly under the radar. It's going to be a little more difficult if you're a college coach to find new names and get a chance to evaluate them."
Will the G League keep poaching prospects?
One foil to the continued dominance of Duke and Kentucky in recruiting could be the G League's new developmental program for elite prospects. The inaugural class for the program features former Michigan commitment Isaiah Todd and former UCLA signee Daishen Nix. But thus far, the Blue Devils and Wildcats have not had a commitment or signee poached by the program, which has been met with skepticism in college basketball.
Memphis coach Penny Hardaway about the G League's recruiting tactics last week that are likely representative of how many college coaches feel.
"It's almost like tampering," he said of the program's efforts with the 2020 class. Memphis missed out on Jalen Green, the No. 3 prospect in the 2020 class, as he chose the G League over committing to Memphis.
Hardaway said he thought the new G League program was designed to attract top prospects who were clearly not interested in playing college basketball. But G League program leaders demonstrated in the 2020 recruiting cycle that they won't stop pursuing players just because they are considering playing college basketball.
"It will affect how we recruit if the NCAA doesn't do something about it, if they don't keep taking steps forward to help these kids make money," Hardaway said.
The NCAA isto allow athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. Those rules are likely to be in place for the 2021-22 athletic season, meaning potential one-and-done players in the Class of 2021 could benefit from them.
That could help college programs with their recruiting pitches to elite prospects. But with the specifics of the forthcoming name, image and likeness rules still uncertain, colleges could be faced with a question as they pursue top prospects in the 2021 class: does it make sense to pour time and energy into recruiting players when the G League wields the ability to offer a lucrative financial package even after a player has committed or signed?
"I think the G League option and path is here to stay," Daniels said. "I think they'll continue to recruit. They're going to recruit the guys that are interested in the professional path. I don't think that's going to change. In fact, I think it's kind of just getting started."
2021 recruiting battles to watch
With the G league involved in the recruitment of 2021 prospects, it could make for some especially interesting recruiting battles. Only two of the top-25 players are currently committed (Griffin to Duke and No. 11 overall prospect Khristian Lander to Indiana). Here's where the decisions stand for the top five players in the Class of 2021 as ranked by 247Sports:
- Jonathan Kuminga | SF | Congo:The top prospect in the class said recently that he is "50-50" on whether to reclassify to 2020. His top 10 schools are: Duke, Kentucky, Washington, Florida State, Memphis, Texas Tech, Michigan, Georgia, Michigan and Auburn.
- Chet Holmgren | C | Minneapolis, Minnesota:?The 7-footer has 28 offers and is "warm" on Minnesota, Purdue, Gonzaga and Texas, according to 247Sports. He's not received an offer from Duke or Kentucky yet.
- Patrick Baldwin Jr. | SF | Sussex, Wisconsin: The lanky forward has offers from the nation's top programs and is "warm" on Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Marquette, North Carolina and Northwestern but considered "warmer" on Duke.
- Paolo Banchero | PF | Seattle, Washington: The son of two former Washington Huskies athletes announced his top six recently. It includes Arizona, Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky, Tennessee and Washington.
- Jabari Smith | PF | Tyrone, Georgia: The Atlanta-area prospect appears to be flying somewhat under the radar, despite his lofty ranking from 247Sports. Smith does not have a Duke or Kentucky offer yet, though several SEC schools in pursuit.
Will more players stay local?
Several top players in the 2020 class elected to stay within driving distance of home, including No. 1 overall prospect Cade Cunningham who is headed four hours north from Arlington, Texas, to play at Oklahoma State. Evan Mobley and Ziaire Williams, ranked No. 3 and No. 4 in the class, are also staying in California and going to USC and Stanford, respectively.
But for every homebody, there are also players like No. 11 overall prospect Jalen Suggs who is heading from Minnesota to Gonzaga and No. 9 overall prospect Terrence Clarke, a Boston native who signed with Kentucky.
Suggs committed to Gonzaga in January after visiting the school in October. It's unclear if 2021 prospects will be able to make similarly timed visits as part of this recruiting cycle as campus logistics and the safety of travel remain in flux.
Ultimately, the uncertainty could lead to more prospects electing to remain close to home for college.
"I think it could help some mid-major schools or lower-end high-major schools that have built relationships with these guys that would ultimately end up blowing up in July," Daniels said. "There's an opportunity there for them to take that relationship and get a commitment that maybe they wouldn't have been able to get."
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