In a recruiting world where sixth-grade basketball players are ranked nationally, seventh-graders are considered prospects by the NCAA and eighth-graders are positioned as potential NBA superstars, the tale of Michael Snaer is refreshing.
When Snaer was in middle school, he was so far from the radar that he needed a telescope to see it. Yet he showed flashes of raw ability that later would make the Rancho Verde (Moreno Valley, Calif.) guard the No. 44 recruit in the ESPNU 100 and the Gatorade boys' basketball state player of the year. This week, Snaer will conclude a stellar high school career when he plays in the 32nd McDonald's All-American Game on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
But as he entered high school, it was a different story.
"I don't think he or anyone else had any idea how good he could be," seventh-year Rancho Verde basketball coach Travis Showalter says.
Back then, Snaer remembers reading a Sports Illustrated story on fellow eighth-grader and SoCal native Demetrius Walker. A 6-foot-3 man-child who dunked with ease, Walker was being called the next LeBron James.
Snaer faced Walker in an AAU contest and remembers getting embarrassed.
"He got mad buckets on me," Snaer says. "They killed us. After that, I was like, 'Man, I gotta get in the gym and get better.'"
So Snaer began a fanatical routine. He was always working on his game. He hit the weight room, put up hundreds of shots a day and absorbed the finer points of the game.
"His work ethic was almost obsessive, and I was a little worried about him," Showalter says. "I didn't know if it was that healthy for someone his age to be that driven. But he said he knew what he was doing."
It wasn't easy. Snaer battled asthma, and it often was hard to keep going. But he never stopped.
"I just kept pushing myself," Snaer says.
And he started reaping the benefits. As a freshman, he copped his first scholarship offer, from USC, after an assistant with the Trojans thought he was a diamond in the rough.
So he kept working. He would set the alarm for 6 a.m., roll out of bed while his classmates were sleeping and hit the gym.
He became a full-time starter as a sophomore and the team's undisputed star as a junior.
Snaer kept going because he wasn't just working for himself. As the second-oldest of eight kids born to a single mom, Snaer sees his NBA prospects as a ticket out for his family. He has younger sisters who want to be lawyers and doctors, and he knows how expensive college tuition can be -- and how an NBA paycheck can ease those concerns.
It's not as if he needs any reminders, but one always stares him in the face. The basketball he practically lives with -- the one he shoots with in the gym, totes to his classes and stashes in his car -- has been autographed by his mom and seven siblings.
"That's who I'm working for," Snaer says.
And it's paying off.
As a junior, Snaer led Rancho Verde to its first basketball championship, the Class IIA Southern Section crown.
After a standout summer on the AAU and national camp circuit, Snaer entered the 2008-09 season as the No. 44 senior in the ESPNU 100. He fielded offers from top programs such as Kansas and UCLA before eventually signing with Florida State.
He more than lived up to the billing.
Snaer averaged 28.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game while being a lockdown defender and the emotional leader of a young Mustangs team. He beat out three other McDonald's All-Americans (Renardo Sidney of Fairfax in Los Angeles and Travis Wear and David Wear of Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif.) for Gatorade honors and nearly led Rancho Verde to another section title, this time in the more competitive Class IAA.
In the section quarterfinals, the Mustangs faced a Mater Dei team that was undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 and boasted four high-major Division I recruits in its starting lineup.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Snaer did everything humanly possible at both ends to keep his team in the game. Despite giving up 5 inches in height, he guarded the Wear brothers in the post. He also scored 31 points, but it wasn't enough, as Mater Dei prevailed 72-65. It was the Monarchs' smallest margin of victory up to that point all season.
With his high school career winding down, Snaer has shattered several myths about prep hoops. You don't need a hype machine pumping you up in middle school. And you don't need to attend a national basketball powerhouse nor transfer schools every other year to thrive.
Snaer had opportunities to go to schools with bigger national profiles than Rancho Verde. But every time, he rejected the overtures. He had planned on making it big, but it was going to happen on his terms.
"I've never been the guy who had all the fame," Snaer says. "I wanted it, but I wanted to earn it. I didn't want to go to a program that was already big-time. There, you're just a part of something. You didn't do anything to change things."
Snaer certainly has flipped the script.
Such as with Demetrius Walker, the kid who five years ago was dunking on Snaer and being hailed as a potential successor to LeBron's throne. He's still a great player, but Snaer has passed him. Walker, who plays at Saint Mary's (Phoenix) and has signed with Arizona State, is No. 80 in the ESPNU 100.
Snaer's trip to the top has been an incredible one. But he has more to do and isn't interested in looking back quite yet.
"It's been a great journey, but I'm not done," he says.
Ryan Canner-O'Mealy is a senior writer for ESPN RISE Magazine.