NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — The July live period returned this month after a two-year break. With that, the biggest to-do on the grassroots circuit — Nike’s Peach Jam championship event — is scheduled for this week and weekend.
But before we can get to bracket play, the EYBL’s regular season is wrapping up with dozens of games each day in the familiar confines of the Riverview Park Activities Center, located just across South Carolina’s border with Georgia. I was on hand talking to coaches and NBA scouts on a variety of topics, in addition to watching myriad five- and four-star prospects. There’s a lot to share, so here are my biggest takeaways on the latest in college hoops and recruiting in advance of the 2021 Peach Jam commencing later this week.
1. Emoni Bates was, unfortunately, overhyped
Don’t let that subhed lead you astray. I’m not about to write that Bates isn’t a really good high school basketball player. Because he is. But there’s a difference between being a really good high school basketball player and being the best prospect in 10-15 years, which is what so many felt compelled to say and write about Bates over the previous two-plus years.
But it’s just not the case.
The issue here is much larger than Bates, who is terrific in his own right but emblematic of some of the worst tendencies of media and hype culture in youth and collegiate sports. Will we — media, scouts, the basketball-loving public who tracks recruiting — ever stop trying to one-up ourselves when it comes to hyperbolic promotion of high school basketball players? Maybe I’m yelling into the void. (Hell, I myself felt compelled to feature Bates two years ago, when he was 15.)
Bates, Bronny James and Jalen Duren are the three biggest names in high school/grassroots basketball right now. And the thing they all have in common — through no fault of their own — is they’re victims of a basketball ecosystem that insists on overselling 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds way beyond what they deserve. This humanistic impulse to bank on the future and seek promise for bigger and better in youth basketball has only worsened with the evolution of how social media is used to sell those alternate realities.
Emoni Bates was once the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2022 in the 247Sports Composite.
Nike /Jon Lopez
As I sat with coaches and NBA evaluators and watched Bates play over the course of three days, everyone agreed: he is not what he was advertised as the past two-plus years. He’s not a once-in-a-decade talent, and certainly not the best prospect since LeBron James. As of today he’s not the sure-fire No. 1 pick in whatever NBA Draft he’s in. He could well become the top pick, but it’s not etched into the stone tablets.
And you know what? This is fine.
Tabbing Bates or anyone else as a once-in-a-generation type of player at the age of 15 or 16 dubious, because the truth is nobody knows — not a single person can say — what these players will be when they are 22 or 23 years old, let alone 10 years removed from their junior year of high school. Bates remains a must-see prospect who can produce two, three, four plays a game that lift your eyebrows. But the lanky 6-foot-9 (bordering on 6-10) forward is closer to the No. 1 spot on the leaderboard for turnovers (No. 8) in EYBL than points per game (No. 9). He’s currently not in the top 20 in rebounds, assists, steals or blocks either.
When 247Sports made the decision earlier this month to take Bates out of the No. 1 spot in the Class of 2022 rankings (he was usurped by Duren) it expectedly prompted some discussion regarding Bates’ trajectory and development. In speaking with multiple sources over the weekend, the general opinion on Bates is that he’s still a much better pro prospect than Duren. (Aside: Duren is his own story, and in a separate story I detailed his potential to reclassify and play college basketball this fall.)
Bates has grown a few more inches and put on, minimally, 10 pounds of muscle. After playing with Duren on Team Final earlier in the spring, Bates is back playing with his father’s program, Bates Fundamentals, in North Augusta. The team isn’t that good, at least for the level it’s playing at. Plenty of this doesn’t fall on Bates.
As for Bates’ future, he decommitted from Michigan State in the spring and is now projected most likely to turn pro according to 247Sports’ Crystal Ball, though scuttlebutt suggests Memphis has a healthy shot. If anyone has a chance to make at least $1 million playing Division I men’s basketball in the next couple of years, Bates is the best candidate — because that hype is nowhere close to wearing off. He’s still as marketable as he is talented.
2. LeBron shows up for Bronny
Right after being courtside for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, where he witnessed that unbelievable game-clinching sequence from Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James hopped on his private jet and flew across the country to see Bronny James play with his Strive For Greatness team. He also checked out No. 1 2023 prospect DJ Wagner for a half as well. James picked the right year to swing into North Augusta. Four years ago, when Zion Williamson’s team played LaMelo Ball’s team in a game in Las Vegas, the Cashman Center was so packed and under such a frenzy, James was advised by local officials to not enter the building.
But Sunday, with no one allowed into the building except for teams, team guests, coaches, select media and people working the event, it made for easy coming and going for James. There we no huge crowds. Carmelo Anthony was in the building as well; his son is a rising ninth grader who was playing in a separate tournament.
It was a big weekend for the James family, what with “Space Jam: A New Legacy” opening in theaters as well. As for Bronny, the opinions on his development and forecast vary. Bronny is a situation without parallel; being the son of one of the two best basketball players in history, and choosing to play basketball, is going to pin an unrelenting spotlight on you. He’s regarded as a high-major player, but the biggest question is how much he’ll grow over the next two years. He’s either 6-1 or 6-2, and evaluators I sat with pegged him mostly as someone in the top 75-100 of his class. But since his last name is James, tabbing him and removing who his father is, well, it’s a very hard thing to do.
3. DJ Wagner is a joy to watch
Easily one of the three best players I watched over the course of four days was DJ Wagner, the son of former Memphis star Dajuan Wagner, and the No. 1-rated prospect in the Class of 2023. The 16-year-old doesn’t have nearly the same build as his father did when Dajuan was the nation’s No. 1 recruit 20 years ago. DJ’s a point guard with good height, infectious toughness and a devastating instinct that pairs with his speed in transition. His eyes are always searching and he’s a positive vocal reinforcer to his teammates. No hype here, no projection of his NBA ceiling or any of that. It was just refreshing to be back in the gym, watch promising basketball talent and merely appreciate having in-person evaluations back. I’ll save all the rest on Wagner, as I’ll have a feature on him and his family later in the week.
4. Dereck Lively II: best defender in high school hoops
Team Final was prompting many of the biggest schools to all of its games not just for Duren, but for his teammate: Dereck Lively II. The 7-footer is ranked No. 7 in the Class of 2022. He is, definitively, the best defender playing in the EYBL. Lively’s averaging 5.0 blocks, and the way he swats ’em away varies from backboard pins to wall-up vertical suffocations to weak-side, tip-of-the-finger blocks that turn into transition opportunities. He’s also a high-quality switcher on the perimeter for a big man, and seldom gets caught over-committing.
Lively is also a fledgling shooter from the perimeter, which make him a fascinating prospect. Some coaches told me he’s better right now than Duren. Others who leaned Duren in the here and now said that Lively is clearly the better long-term NBA prospect of the two. Lively has a 100% Crystal Ball reading for Kentucky over at 247Sports.
5. Five more EYBL notable players
I watched parts, or the entirety, of more than 25 games while in North Augusta. There was no shortage of intriguing talent, but here’s a snapshot of five players who stood out for different reasons.
Dariq Whitehead and Judah Mintz: Teammates on Team Durant, which is looking like one of the best squads that will compete in the Peach Jam. Whitehead is as smooth as he is tough, and he’s got an edge to his game that reminds me of Collin Sexton. The 6-6 wing is projected to go to Duke, and the expectation is that he’ll announce that commitment in the coming couple of weeks. It couldn’t have hurt that Duke’s projected starting five traveled together from North Carolina down to North Augusta to see some potential future teammates play in the EYBL. (All five Duke players formerly played on the Nike circuit.)
Whitehead ranks No. 6 in the 2022 class, meaning he’d be the first five-star prospect to commit to Duke in the forthcoming Jon Scheyer era. His teammate, Mintz, is a four-star who is slotted No. 80 in the 2022 class and has committed to Jeff Capel and Pittsburgh. Mintz is a 6-3 combo guard with a penchant for scoring in a variety of ways. He’s second in EYBL scoring as of Tuesday (22.4 ppg).
Jett Howard: I was stunned to learn that Juwan Howard’s son had not yet committed to Michigan to play for his father. If/when he does, the Wolverines will have, far as I can tell, one of the best small forwards headed to college basketball in 2022. Howard has strides to make defensively, but his offensive arsenal and attitude on the court are undeniable. He’s ranked 41st in his class of now, but I can’t see how there are even 25 better players in 2022. He can be a really nice college forward.
Terrance Arceneaux: Probably the most irresistible player I watched at EYBL. He’s a 100% projection to go to Houston, per 247Sports. Kelvin Sampson’s never had a player quite like this at UH. Arceneaux is high-energy with great pop, great shot form, a confident stroke and wonderful footing on the defensive end. He has loads of verve. They say Texas is stacked with talent for the 2022 and 2023 classes, and Arceneaux (ranked 67th in the 247Sports Composite) is a prime example of that.
Alex Karaban: The 6-7 forward is No. 88 over at 247Sports. He came up big in a couple of games with huge baskets and/or rebounds late, including a 3-pointer to send a game to overtime for his Pro Skills squad. Tough, a little cocky, a lot of interest from schools all over the country. Eager to see him play in college, where he looks like a really good three- or four-year guy.
Nike’s biggest event on the grassroots circuit has been closed off to the general public for 2021.
6. The new thing: fake-recruiting for future transfers
Now here’s something so deliciously diabolical, it could only happen in college sports. The new rule that allows for all college athletes to be immediately eligible after transferring for the first time has brought about one of those unintended consequences that we’re always hearing about. So here’s how it’s playing out right now, according to a few coaches I spoke with.
1) With the transfer rule being what it is, many players will probably leave for another school after their freshman or sophomore seasons. (This past season saw more than 1,800 players enter the portal.)
2) Many of those players will transfer because they are good but not getting the amount of minutes or touches to satisfy them.
3) What’s starting to happen now is coaches are fake-recruiting players out of high school. By that I mean: there are some coaches — allegedly — who are recruiting players under the guise of showing interest to have them commit out of high school, but in reality they DON’T want that commitment out of high school. Instead, they want to play the field. For varying reasons, they want to player to start somewhere else in college. But the scheming coaches want to establish the relationship now, so that if and when that player eventually transfers, a relationship has already been developed. Even better: the player, in theory, will be more college-ready. The first school did the heavy lifting with development. Now it’s time to scoop up the goods. And since the player already has an established connection with a coach or two on a staff, it makes the portal recruiting process that much easier to navigate.
It’s not something happening everywhere, but multiple coaches at different levels of the sport swear it’s going on.
7. Coaches embrace NIL
If there’s one thing I learned about coaches and the NIL rules, which slightly vary by state and/or university, it’s that these guys don’t have any idea of what’s happening. At least not yet. Many have intentionally sidestepped it as to not get bogged down by it — or accidentally walk into trouble.
“I don’t go anywhere near it, don’t talk to my players about it, don’t advise them,” one power-conference coach out west said.
Most everyone believes it’s being used to maximum hyperbolic means in recruiting, which was obviously inevitable.
“I already had one kid tell me he was promised this amount, and could we match it,” a high-major assistant told me.
I kind of thought I’d get some intriguing ideas from coaches on how NIL could be implemented to benefit their players and their programs, but to this point it’s much more of a compliance project and something athletic directors and associate athletic directors are dealing with. In speaking to maybe 20 coaches about it, not one of them objected to it, even while speaking on background.
8. NBA scouts back in the gym … and it’s fine
We don’t want our people in high school gyms. That was the directive of the late David Stern, circa the mid-2000s, when the NBA instituted its age limit of 19 years old and effectively gave rise to the one-and-done era. But last week and this week — and this only applies for Nike’s event, though no one I talked to could explain why — NBA scouts and decision-makers are allowed to attend the EYBL and Peach Jam. Whether this becomes a permanent thing, with scouts back at grassroots tournaments and/or in high school gyms, remains to be seen.
But with the G League’s pathway program now competing against college basketball, in addition to overseas options and the well-funded but still-uncertain Overtime Elite league, the NBA is looking to get eyes on the X-number of players who would prefer to not go the collegiate route. Is this an indicator that the age minimum is going to be collectively bargained back down to 18 in the next two years? Could be. If that’s the case, NBA personnel will again populate these events across the country the way they did in the early 2000s.
Whereas this used to make some uncomfortable, that doesn’t seem like the case anymore. (At least from what I gathered in North Augusta.)
9. A unique, one-year-only experience for Peach Jam
My final thought here on what Nike and Position Sports have been able to do here in July 2021, because it could have easily opted to not hold the event. Nike was the first of the shoe companies in 2020 to cancel its grassroots circuit, which was a significant (and necessary) decision on many levels. Under Armour and Adidas soon followed. And while Under Armour and Adidas still hold coveted events with great high school players, the Peach Jam remains the crown jewel of the summer circuit. Earlier in July, Nike put out this statement: “Nike EYBL appreciates the continued support of the North Augusta community. We are excited to return to South Carolina in July 2021, but will have new health and safety protocols in place to provide the best experience possible to our participants. The events will not be open to the general public this summer, but we aim to return to the traditional EYBL / Peach Jam format with fans in 2022.”
Amid a pandemic with vaccination rates still not hitting the thresholds that public health officials are hoping for, including a heavy percentage among young people who are eligible to be inoculated, Nike deciding to not allow the general public into the Riverview Park Activities Center wasn’t just sensible, it was the only safe choice. That place is normally a sea of humanity (in many ways the Peach Jam is too big for that building), and this was the right call. And since this 12-day event is technically private, Nike was under no mandate to include testing for its grassroots coaches and players. But it is. And it’s the only major grassroots event doing so, which is important to point out. With more than 1,300 people participating in the event, and testing happening daily, it’s common sense and solid practice (and a big cost expense to Nike, which can easily afford it all the same).
So, it’s a more restricted event — out of necessity. And for those who’ve been fortunate enough to be at it, the reviews were positive. With capacity nowhere close to being reached, it’s made for the most casual and loosest (and oh-my-god coldest; can someone please dial back that AC. We are all begging you) EYBL experience ever. With no Final Four last year and no Final Four to visit this year, the sport didn’t have its convention, its mega-gathering. Those things are the congregations that make college basketball such a fraternal sport; its society of coaches is probably more connected and friendly than any other major American sport. These recruiting events were like mini-reunions every hour on the hour, and despite the fact that the players were mostly only playing in front of family and coaches, when you walked in and out of the gyms, snaked through the hallways or saw people congregating near the exits, the overriding feeling — more than any time I can remember at a recruiting event — was joy.