AAU events valuable tool for basketball coaches to evaluate players

NCAA coaches swarm upon North Central High School in Indianapolis as they watch the adidas Invitational, a summer-league basketball tournament
that features dozens of top college prospects.

MATT DETRICH/INDIANAPOLIS STAR

NCAA coaches swarm upon North Central High School in Indianapolis as they watch the adidas Invitational, a summer-league basketball tournament that features dozens of top college prospects.

INDIANAPOLIS — The adidas Invitational AAU tournament was like a Who's Who of college basketball this week.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams sat high in the stands to the left, Florida's Billy Donovan walked in and sat down alone on the right.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins found himself a chair at the side of the court, and Kansas coach Bill Self buzzed in and out of the gyms at North Central High School.

The tournament took place at eight schools with 24 courts on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and featured 220 teams among the 17-under, 16-under and 15-under divisions.

As if those 2,000 prospects weren't enough for coaches to sift through and chase after, two other AAU tournaments were going on in Indianapolis at the same time.

The July evaluation period in college basketball is a frenzy like no other, with every basketball program anxious to represent and be represented.

Three coaches from each program are allowed out on the road at one time, and so three coaches it will be, spread across gyms and tournaments from coast to coast. Many coaches wear khaki golf shorts, embroidered polo shirts and expensive tennis shoes. Some dress down as though ready to run a practice, but always, the school's logo, name and or colors are prominently displayed.

Never mind that the coaches aren't allowed to talk with any of the players, AAU coaches or parents, either in person or on the phone during these tournaments.

"I hear a lot of people complain about AAU tournaments,'' Southern Cal coach and one-time UT coach Kevin O'Neill said. "But without them, we'd be screwed. This is a valuable place to evaluate players.''

And it's a place to be seen and recruit.

Indiana coach Tom Crean strategically positioned himself next to an exit Wednesday, somewhat crowding the door as the Indiana Elite AAU team passed by.

It would have been impossible not to notice Crean, who was wearing a bright Hoosier red T-shirt, nodding at each passing player, silently mouthing "hello" to some.

There were two dozen other coaches around Crean at the time, and none seemed to be alarmed or take offense. It was apparently one of those gray areas coaches work within.

That's recruiting.

The Mission

"You don't come to a tournament like this with a wide-open spectrum approach,'' Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "You'd drive yourself crazy trying to evaluate the whole gym.

"You're here to see certain players, so you're constantly moving from gym to gym. This is one of the most valuable times of the year, because from this point on, we're only allowed to see players in a high-school environment.''

Coaches are required to check in at the tournament, at which point they can buy a tournament book with the names, phone numbers and home addresses of players. The book costs $275, but it's free to the handful of media attending.

The book is a road map to the who, what, when and where of the tournament, and it proves invaluable.

Each coach has his own strategy to see and be seen as much as possible.

"There's a difference between evaluation and recruiting,'' Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "Some guys you know you're going to take, and so you're here to recruit them by letting them see you.

"Other guys, you're evaluating, you're still trying to make a decision. You're seeing them in a game-like setting before the September period, when you're doing your official visits and trying to close the deal.''

The 16-under games get the biggest crowds and most attention. At least 100 colleges and universities were represented at the "big" games between teams with multiple high-level Division I prospects.

The 16-unders are the players heading into their junior years, and it was only June 15 that NCAA rules allowed schools to initiate their first contact.

"I got one call at 12:01 a.m.,'' said Jarnell Stokes, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound prospect ranked in the top 10 in the Class of 2012 who attends Central High School in Memphis. "It was from Memphis.''

Mission accomplished for Pastner, who will forever be able to remind Stokes that he was the first to call.

Stokes, however, was one of three players on the 16-under Atlanta Celtics to attend Tennessee's elite camp, joining Oak Hill Academy players Damien Wilson and Jordan Adams.

"I want to win,'' Stokes said. "Tennessee went to the Elite Eight. They're one of the schools I'm considering.''

The Players

Stokes is an interesting study; a player from Memphis playing on an AAU team from Atlanta.

The rules state AAU teams can have three players from out of state on their roster, so long as the player(s) comes from a bordering state.

"I used to play for the Memphis Y(MCA),'' Stokes said. "But while we were finishing 10th in these tourneys, it seemed like the Celtics were always in the Final Four.''

The Celtics won the adidas Invitational, too, beating the Indiana Elite in the finals, 73-59. At one point, Atlanta led by 30, and no team played the Celtics within double-digits throughout the tourney.

Stokes is clearly the top prospect on the team, but he's also the new guy so he doesn't start. He only attended two practices before the Indianapolis tournament.

Chemistry is tough to come by on these all-star teams; it takes time for the players to bond with one another.

"AAU is about being seen, but it's also about making friendships,'' said UT rising junior Scotty Hopson, a McDonald's All-American and former star of the AAU circuit. "You get to know the guys as the season goes on and you have good times. You're just playing basketball with no worries.''

Freshman Trae Golden, who along with UT teammates Cameron Tatum and Jordan McRae is an alumnus of the Atlanta Celtics, said there isn't much more to it than meets the eye.

"With the Celtics, we'd go to the gyms to win, and then we go back to the hotel and get ready for the next day,'' Golden said. "We'd want to show the college coaches we're hard-working guys who are dedicated.

"There's a lot of rest and a lot of Gatorade on those trips, and while we laugh and have fun, we always stayed focused.''

The Coaches

A Blackberry in one hand, the massive tournament book in the other, the college coaches scurry around between games like worker bees.

Handshakes, back slaps and small talk with fellow coaches are part of the stops in each gyms. The AAU tournament takes on the feel of a floating convention.

None of the coaches stay in one place very long; there's always a place to be and another prospect that needs to be seen.

Pastner is working two cell phones, perhaps the better to keep up with his assistant coaches and their whereabouts.

UT assistant coach Steve Forbes has a tattered sheet of paper filled with names, some highlighted. He quickly stuffs it into his pocket when approached by a media member.

"Let's just say I've got a lot of kids to see on this trip,'' Forbes said. "My day starts at 6 (a.m.), and I'll be here until around 10 p.m.

"By the end of this month, I'll have no idea where I'm at when I wake up in different hotels and different cities. It's a grind, but I love it.''

The Vols had another assistant coach, Jason Shay, in Charlotte, N.C., to see UT commitment Chris Jones play this week. Coach Bruce Pearl was stationed in Germany, watching three other high-profile recruits before returning to the U.S. to watch players in Cleveland, Myrtle Beach. S.C., and Louisville, Ky., to finish the week.

As difficult as recruiting is, it seems each coaching staff takes pride it in and finds a way to enjoy it.

"I love going to these tournaments,'' O'Neill said. "When I come here I want to see which players will play hard, which ones play together, and how they'll react to (officials') calls. These are emotional situations, and you can learn a lot.

"I'd say (AAU) is equally as valuable as watching them play in high school. You need to see both. But there's a higher level of competition here on a game-by-game basis.''

Pearl, like O'Neill, can't get enough of the evaluation process.

"The more I watch a player, the better of a feel I have,'' Pearl said. "You might see a kid play well one day, but at night, not play so well. Then he's playing well the next afternoon. It can be tough to judge, so you put yourself in position to watch as many situations as possible.

"At the end of the day, the decision to take that kid is going to be mine.''

And, at the end of the day, the player has to pick the program of his liking, be it the one that calls at 12:01 a.m., shows up at all of his AAU games, or crowds the exits with a warm smile.

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Comments » 7

Bigger_Al writes:

Good article, Griff.

Slystone writes:

Getting Stokes will be a tough chore for Pearl. But he got Chris Jones out of Memphis, so it is possible.

jzt writes:

Sounds like the elite 8 appearance is already paying off

memphisrecruiting writes:

way to go coach Pastner!!! get in there early and sign him up.

EarthBoundMisfit writes:

in response to Slystone:

Getting Stokes will be a tough chore for Pearl. But he got Chris Jones out of Memphis, so it is possible.

if Pastner wants Stokes, he will get Stokes.
UT got Jones, because Pastner already had who he wanted...

Colliervol writes:

in response to EarthBoundMisfit:

if Pastner wants Stokes, he will get Stokes.
UT got Jones, because Pastner already had who he wanted...

Well of course Pastner didn't want Jones. Isn't that the way it always is when UT gets a Memphis player? They go from being 5 stars to 1 star and not wanted. (Sort of like football players in Alabama when they get away from the Tide.)

You might want to check around but I believe Jones more than held his own against players that Pastner "wanted". And that includes your beloved new little point guard. The kid can play whether you want to admit it or not.

memphisrecruiting writes:

in 2011 Memphis will only have room for maybe 3 recruits...with Adonis Thomas being target #1...there will be talent left over once Memphis is done.

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