This is the time of the year when the critiques, evaluations and opinions fly back and forth. A summer's worth of work is being judged and performances are under the microscope of coaches, parents and fans. Of course I'm not talking about the players; I'm talking about the rankings and the folks who offer up their assessments of the athletes in each class.
When new rankings come out, the mud and opinions are slung with a passion you seldom see on the court from the recruits themselves. Naturally, their perspective is somewhat skewed by where their favorite player landed in the latest top 60 or top 100 but then the evaluation of the rankings themselves has never been much of a forum for objectivity.
When the shouting starts, often little thought is given to how someone's daughter or player actually might have played. A target is immediately drawn on the evaluators. Before anyone starts taking aim let's make a preemptive strike by defining rankings in their simplest form. They're opinion -- nothing more, nothing less.
Source of opinions
The genesis of those opinions most often comes from three areas. Performance seems to be the obvious source, but an evaluator must be careful not to overreact to a good game or a bad day. You also have to consider the competition faced and consistency of that level of performance before deciding how much stock to ultimately put into it.
The second approach is looking at players on a comparative basis. I don't mean the completely overrated head-to-head competition, but the comparative evaluation of basketball skills and physical attributes. The strength of those comparisons is enhanced by the evaluators' breadth of coverage.
Lastly, a lot of consideration has to go into the projection of a prospect's potential at the next level. Evaluators as well as college coaches look at players not so much for what they are but what they might become. Often that's where the head-to-head argument generally loses its steam. This is also where multiple evaluations over time offer a more efficient insight into the growth and possibilities in front of a prospect.
So, just exactly what is it that qualifies someone to issue a top 100 list? Actually, in terms of producing a list, there are no qualifications. However, if you're looking for some sort of validity in their efforts, then you have to go a bit deeper and look at the context of their point of view and the depth of their undertaking.
For some entities it's their livelihood and their recruiting lists and rankings are their product. Blue Star, All-Star Girl's Report and Colligate Girl's Basketball Report are examples of services that produce evaluations on a national basis and in turn sell their opinions to college programs on all levels. The financial aspect doesn't necessarily make their offerings gospel but you can rest assured that they're working fulltime, year round, and seeing the vast majority of players warranting consideration in any one class.
For others, like us at ESPN HoopGurlz, our rankings are public and produced for information, entertainment and conversation. The fact that we don't sell our rankings doesn't mean they are any less accurate or valid. We're in the gym every bit as much, if not more, as any paid service across the entire spectrum of high-school and club basketball. At the same time, our target market extends beyond recruiters to parents, high school and club coaches and the players themselves. Efficient college coaches are looking our way as well never wanting to miss another opinion or resource.
As you consider rankings, recruiting services as well as media, you have to look deeper still at the number of people evaluating and contributing to the end product. Blue Star and ESPN HoopGurlz, for example, utilize a considerable number of individuals and get multiple points of view on a large majority of the players in their rankings. Others may see just as many athletes but use just one or two individuals to compile their lists. You can make arguments for either scenario being more effective. With more eyes on the court you could vouch for more accuracy but with less cooks in the kitchen you could just as easily lay claim to more consistency. Take your pick.
When it comes to evaluating and ranking athletes there's one component almost as important as simply being in the gym. It's being able to look at a guard from Georgia and know that she's a better athlete than the one in California but less skilled than another in Illinois. Thorough rankings mean having seen as many top players as possible. Nobody can see them all but it's hard to call somebody a top 25 player if you haven't seen most of them and seen them multiple times at that. When someone says, "I don't have to see anyone else to know how good she is," odds are he or she has no clue.
Consider the source
Of course the opinions of each individual evaluator vary based on their particular background and experience. Regardless of what each resume says, every opinion is filtered by the previous players that evaluator has seen, coached or written about and has just as much credibility as the next person's. It's still just opinion, and conferring credibility is up to the reader. At the same time rating or ranking players with college prospects in mind has to be taken with a certain degree of latitude.
I may have spent 24 years as a Division I recruiting coordinator but as I look at players today I do so without the same pressure and potential impact of those decisions and efforts on my job. Evaluators also do not look at athletes with the framework of a specific style of play or system nor do they look at them with roster needs in terms of class and position. In some ways without those constraints the evaluations and rankings are more literal and possibly more accurate depictions of what a player can do right now. What she might do in the future may be best interpreted through the characteristics and needs of the program with which she ultimately signs.
Any time new rankings come out it's important to keep in mind that just because a player is tops in one service's eyes doesn't mean she is automatically entitled to the same tier with another. The lower spot just may be the more accurate one. Additionally, it's also not the responsibility of any recruiting service or media entity to facilitate an athlete's consideration for McDonald's All-American status or any other postseason recognition. That responsibility lies with the player on the floor not with mom, dad or coach on the phone or with the e-mail when they don't like her ranking.
The obsessive interest and emotional response to rankings is evidence of a distinct misalignment of priorities. Somewhere along the line they've evolved into a perceived right rather than the achieved honor they should be. If an athlete has scholarship offers for an education and a career of basketball opportunities, then she's achieved the ranking that truly counts and it's no longer opinion, it's become tangible. It's important that ego never overshadow real achievement.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.