As Recruits Get Younger And Younger, Don't Forget The Risks

Jada Peebles' heart has belonged to NC State since she was a kid. So the 13-year-old went ahead and gave a verbal commitment to the Wolfpack as a seventh-grader. Courtesy Danny Peebles

Jada Peebles loves North Carolina State.

She is just 13 years old, but she has been a fan of the Wolfpack for eight years -- basically since the first time she picked up a basketball. In fact, she is so into the women's basketball team that a pair of sneakers, signed by members of the squad, hangs in her room. Her love of the school makes perfect sense: She lives just down the road in Raleigh, North Carolina, and both of her parents graduated from the university. Her dad, Danny, was even a star wide receiver for the Wolfpack in the late 1980s.

So when the family got into the car earlier this summer after touring the campus with the women's basketball coaching staff, no one was surprised when, two minutes into the ride home, Jada said, "I want to go there."

But this wasn't just an idle declaration; these words were, in fact, loaded with meaning. Because just a few weeks earlier, the NC State coaching staff, led by coach Wes Moore, had extended a scholarship offer to the local star.

Although Peebles' situation is unique because of her family history, her story is representative of an interesting development in women's college basketball: scholarship offers being extended to younger and younger players.

"But what if Notre Dame calls?" Danny asked his daughter as they drove home that day. (Jada is a fan of Skylar Diggins, the former star point guard for the Fighting Irish.)

"I don't care," she said.

"What if Connecticut calls?" he then asked.

"I don't care," came the response from the back.

After running through a few more prominent programs and hearing the same response from the backseat, Danny and his wife, Monique, told their daughter that if she still felt the same way upon arriving home, she should call Coach Moore and verbally commit to NC State.

And that's exactly what she did.

"When it came to committing early, we heard from various people we trust in our circle," Danny recently told espnW. "Half of them said we should wait. And others said, 'If that's what she wants to do, and you know that's what she wants to do, what's the point of waiting around?'"

The recruiting game can be brutal for college coaches. Some programs -- for example, Connecticut and Tennessee -- need not extend early scholarship offers to younger players. (Most players commit during their junior or senior season, usually after taking campus visits.) A school like UConn hardly needs to get in early with a player -- yes, not even someone like Mo'ne Davis, whose star is bright -- because the risk/reward model doesn't make sense for the Huskies. They can get the best recruits in the country, and they can wait until they know exactly what they're buying, until the kids have fully blossomed as people and as players.

But other schools know that to land a big-time, blue-chip recruit, they must occasionally take a calculated risk. Sometimes that means being the first in the door -- perhaps even before a player has hit puberty -- and making an impression by being bold and saying, "We want you, come play for our school!"

Take, for example, the story of 9-year-old phenom Jaden Newman, who says she has already been offered a scholarship by the University of Miami -- this despite the fact that, you know, she's only 9 years old. (For even more context, consider this fact: She's in fourth grade.)

A few erroneous reports circulated on the Internet that Newman verbally committed to Miami while she was on campus to see the school. She did not. Jamie Newman, Jaden's dad, said he understands why Miami would make a play for his daughter. After all, by the time Jaden hits high school, she might be out of Miami's league.

"The upside for the school is really high," Newman said. "When you see talent like that, it's smart, if you're a college coach, to put your name in the ring for that player. So when it comes time, with Jaden, Miami was the first school to show her major interest. Miami is the only one who can say, 'We went after her first.' And maybe that will matter to Jaden."

Of course, the risk/reward model that exists for coaching staffs that are extending these early offers exists also for families deciding whether to let their daughters accept them.

One of the biggest benefits of committing early -- besides the status that comes with being an "early commit" -- is skipping the recruiting process, which some families find emotional and time consuming. Certainly, some kids enjoy the attention of the phone calls and campus tours, but many others would rather avoid the strain and focus exclusively on playing basketball.

Many of the negative variables are logistical, driven by common sense. Head coaches in women's college basketball tend to stay in one place for longer than those on the men's side. But that's hardly a guarantee. And although odds are that Wes Moore will still be the coach of North Carolina State in a few years, when Jada Peebles is expected to step onto campus as a freshman, there is also the possibility that he will have moved on. Which means that any young player committing early needs to be committing to the school itself, not to the coaching staff, to the team, to the brand of apparel, or to any other variable. "This is her dream school," Danny said of his daughter's affinity for North Carolina State. "And that part isn't going to change, regardless of who's coaching."

But the biggest con for any young player who commits early is the target that gets placed on her back. News of an early commitment or an early offer, like the ones extended to Peebles and Newman, spreads quickly through the basketball community. Every time that player takes the court during the summer league circuit, opposing players have a measuring stick -- Yeah, she's the one going to North Carolina State! -- for their own games. They see an opportunity to stand out. There is also the human tendency toward skepticism and jealousy, which means that everyone who watches one of these young players will likely be looking for reasons why the girls aren't good enough to have already received (or accepted) a scholarship offer.

Anna Wilson, who committed to Stanford after her freshman season, knows exactly what this bull's-eye feels like. "All of a sudden, everyone wants to beat you, wants to cross you up," Wilson said. "Sometimes when people commit early, they think they've arrived. But that's actually when you need to work the hardest, when you need to work the most. That's actually when you need to have the edge."

A week after she committed to the Wolfpack, Jada Peebles was featured on the local news. Even though she hadn't talked with her parents about the effect that committing early would have, she knew intrinsically that she had upped the ante. She was aware that this would trigger everyone else; that they would want to play their best games against her -- always.

"Now we have to be parents who protect, for lack of a better word," Danny Peebles said. "We never had to think about that before. We just helped her along her journey, let her make her own decisions. But now we need to keep her from all the noise, on and off the court."