basketball

Xavier Booker, an award-winning recruit, points out that the shoe circuit is not the only way

LAS VEGAS – Few could have foreseen the Xavier Booker, who as a sophomore has barely climbed his bench from his high school team, in his current position: reviewed and recruited by NBA scouts from Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and a cadre of others.

Then again, who wouldn’t love a 6-foot-11 left-hander who can rip a rebound, create his own quick break and either pick up a 3-pointer, pass a precise pass or drive for a dunk?

But as the recruiting season reaches its climatic month, the booker is a unicorn in a different sense.

He does not play in any of the July Marquee recruitment events run by Nike, Adidas and Under Armor, shoe companies investing millions in high-level travel basketball programs in hopes of fostering a relationship with the next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry. .

Instead, Booker, 17, is the rare elite prospect to appear in the basketball off Broadway circuit, playing tournaments by independent organizers with little or no shoe company sponsorship – and without a whole host of name-verified college coaches appearing in court. to sit.

The Booker, from just outside of Indianapolis, has turned down offers for several Nike-sponsored teams and at least one Adidas outfit to play to maintain his loyalty to a coach, Mike Saunders, who helped him for the George Hill All Indy to bloom, an Indianapolis team bankrolled by Hill, a veteran NBA guard.

“Mike did a lot for me,” Booker said. “He was a big part of where I am now.”

It’s hard to overestimate the influence that shoe companies have on youth basketball. They invest in travel ball coaches who recruit the best players – pay annual scholarships that reach six figures, provide equipment teams and cover travel expenses for tournaments around the country.

In contrast, coaches are expected to separate elite players into colleges with which the shoe companies have clothing agreements. Adidas, for example, pays Kansas $ 14 million a year. The Duke of Kentucky is on the Nike Payroll, and Auburn is an Under Armor flagship school.

Occasionally, when a 2017 federal corruption case was uncovered, shoe company representatives acted as sack men – making payments to the families of the recruits easier as an incentive to visit one of their schools. Now, with athletes benefiting from their fame, shoe companies can pay athletes over the table, as Adidas announced it will do with a network that allows athletes in one of the 109 schools it sponsors to allow brand ambassadors for the company. to be.

Nevertheless, there are shoe company sues that encourage even younger players to hopscotch the country to play different high schools every year and new touring football teams apparently every tournament. (A Midwestern prep school coach attended a showcase event in Las Vegas last month solely to have one of his players poached by another prep school.)

The booker, however, remained in his senior year.

He still plays for Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, which helped in March for his first state championship since 1998. He also stayed with the George Hill All Indy team, where he started turning heads a year ago.

“We don’t want to be one of those families or kids who jump around different AAU teams or high schools every five minutes,” said Booker’s father, Fred, who spent 27 years in the Marines and now works for the Department of Defense. . “I tell him,‘ Boy, if things are not right, you have to get things out. You can’t run or jump every time you think there’s a better opportunity out there. ‘”

He added: “If you now get attention with a team that is not on the circuit, what will you gain?”

Some college coaches have had to retire for more than a decade, following in the footsteps of Otto Porter Jr., whose father forbade him to play travel basketball, in order to remind a player as highly regarded as Booker, who bypassed the shoe company Circuit. Chas Wolfe, who runs a national scout service, has noticed two others in recent years – Malik Williams, a three-year captain in Louisville, and Pete Nance, who transferred from Northwest to North Carolina last month – but said that the case of the Booker is extremely rare.

If booking is an overnight sensation, it’s just for newcomers.

His first toy as a toddler was a 3-foot basket with a sponge ball, and when he was in elementary school, his hands were rarely without basketball. His two older brothers, both in the Air Force, played in the Army All-Service Team. And while Booker is not in the mood to shoot baskets at his family’s home in a suburb of Indianapolis, he often watches classic NBA games and tries to transform his body in the gym like Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Even though the booker was always big for his age, his father excelled at dribbling and footwork, once the domain of the guard, so that he had the skills to play away from the basket.

These tools were not clear to Saunders, the soccer coach, as he sat in the stands during a cathedral game a year ago. Booker checked into the game, picked up some rebounds, blocked a shot and hit a basket – and was back on the bench after a few minutes. Saunders was there to watch his nephew continue to plague him as Booker, who averaged less than nine minutes per game, was able to do so much more.

After that, Saunders introduced himself to Fred Booker, who offered to send Saunders video clips revealing the extent of his son’s abilities.

“I watched them, and I think this may not be the same kid sitting on the bench for his high school team,” Saunders said. “I called him back and said, ‘Fred, if he can show us what he has in a game, his whole world will change in three weeks.’

It was not far away.

Dinos Trigonis, an independent tournament operator, took a look at Booker at a tournament in Indianapolis and invited him to Las Vegas last June for his Pangos all-American camp, which features many of the top 100 prospects in the country. The camp, which two years ago attracted Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith – the three top picks in this year’s NBA Draft – is capable of attracting so many top players because it is held when college recruiters are not allowed to participate and thus not Conflict with shoe company events.

When the cathedral season began in November, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo sat behind the bench.

And when Booker returned to Pangos Camp last month, and played in front of NBA scouts, he was named as the most valuable player.

Things did not go so well last week at the National Basketball Players Association Camp in Orlando, Florida, where Booker, perhaps for the only time this summer, played against other top recruits in the presence of college coaches. Disturbed by a dead ankle and with a larger target on his back, the booker was not at his best.

For the two remaining windows when college coaches can personally evaluate – Wednesday through Sunday and July 20-24 – Booker will be with Hill’s team at tournaments in Atlanta and Milwaukee on the independent NY2LA circuit.

Jessie Evans, a former college coach who led Booker’s team for three days in Las Vegas, noted his wing span, quick feet and shooting ability, but he most admired his interest in being coached. “He’s a good player, but he does not know everything,” Evans said. “Some of these guys are 15 years old and think they have all the answers. That’s a testament to home, but he was also not on the radar and people told him how good he is.

More than a few NBA players sponsor travel teams. LeBron James’s Strive For Greatness, Russell Westbrook’s Team Why Not, and Carmelo Anthony’s Team Melo are on the Nike circuit. For many of them, it reflects their experiences to come.

Hill, 36, is no different.

When Hill, who grew up in a troubled neighborhood of Indianapolis, was in middle school, he was repeatedly invited by Saunders to play organized basketball. Eventually, he agreed to open a door that Hill felt obligated to keep others ajar. Of the eight players from the initial boys’ team, Hill said, three are in prison and two are dead. It was the shooting death of one of them in 2008 that encouraged Hill to start the program and call on the Saunders to run it, shortly after Hill was drafted 26th overall by the San Antonio Spurs.

“I could have been one of those kids – dead or in jail for selling drugs or beating gangs,” Hill said. “I come from that background. I could easily fall into that trap. Mike gave me this opportunity. That’s why I go so hard that they do not fall into the trap of some of my former teammates.

For a while, Nike sponsored Hill’s team. After that, he worked for five years with Peak, a Chinese sportswear company. When this arrangement was over, Hill said that Nike refused to take him back. He also had a brief deal with Under Armor. A few years ago, he decided to go it alone.

Hill, who has earned more than $ 100 million in salary over his career, according to Basketball Reference, said it costs him about $ 150,000 a year to fund his team.

“I ask nothing of my players. You can say, ‘Oh, it’s a financial burden,’ but what we get out of it is tenfold,” said Hill, who invited his players to his ranch outside San Antonio next week. .

Saunders, who said eight players on the team have scholarship offers, believes what separates his program – and other independence – from the shoe company teams is that he is not driven by wins and losers. For example, teams must qualify to reach Nike’s Peach Jam, a tournament that will take place later this month in North Augusta, SC. The same market forces also exist with Adidas and Under Armor.

Saunders said his tenets were development and highlighted talent.

“If you’re referred to as a travel or AAU coach, they see us as second-hand sellers because we all have the same pitch – you have to play here to be seen,” Saunders said. “But good people know good people. It’s more than just opening the trunk of your car and showing a child equipment. If you can look the parent of a good player in the eye and tell them it’s about development and growth and that we care about profit, it is not so difficult.

Saunders also notes that if a player tells him that he made 1,000 shots a day or spent hours on his dribbling, then the game will show him.

So when Booker told him he could handle the ball and shoot 3-pointers, the Saunders encouraged him to bring the ball to court when he grabbed a rebound. And when Booker got the ball over the bow, he was encouraged to fly it. Playing through mistakes, Booker said. The game would tell the truth.

“He just made me comfortable, let me be myself, let me express my game,” Booker said, describing his newfound confidence and also uncovering a recruitment parable – the right landing place is where you feel at home.

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