Without summer recruiting, college basketball teams and prospects at a disadvantage

Nike and the other grassroots basketball circuits have effectively been shut down in 2020 due to the coronavirus. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

In the age of coronavirus, the college basketball recruiting calendar we once knew seems like a distant memory.

In years past, we would be finally settling down after a grueling monthlong period that saw college coaches and grassroots teams from around the country traveling to different tournaments from South Carolina to Las Vegas. NCAA-sponsored camps were added to the fold last year, as were three weekends of events in the month of June. The action would have come to a close and we would be entering peak recruiting season, where prospects cut their lists and then take official visits to their final five schools every weekend.

It's a landscape that has all but disappeared in 2020.

There was some hope of a live period in August, with two coaches from each college staff allowed to travel and watch players, but that was nixed when the NCAA extended its recruiting dead period -- meaning no visits, no in-person evaluations -- until at least the end of August. We don't know what the fall will look like just yet, but the summer has been different for everyone involved in the recruiting business: not only coaches but high school prospects, event operators, sneaker companies and scouting services.

Despite the lack of in-person evaluations, events have continued to happen around the country, with games livestreamed. But are coaches watching?

I polled around 20 college coaches from the low-, mid- and high-major levels to get a gauge on how much they have been watching the livestreams. The answers ranged from "none" to "four minutes" to "10 games per tourney" to "all."

There was a split down the middle among those polled -- half the coaches admitted to watching at least a decent amount of livestreams, and the other half watched only a handful of games at most.

There were multiple complaints about the quality of competition and the viewing experience.

"I've watched a lot and gotten nothing out of it," one mid-major coach said. "I give kids that look bad the benefit of the doubt. So if I already like them and they don't look great, I'm not holding it against them. We put more stock in [high school film] anyway, even before all this. There's one I watched that you couldn't see the basket because it was cut off."

"As bad as AAU basketball can be at times, especially late in the period, this might be even worse," one ACC assistant said. "I just can't get a good evaluation from these streams. But we are working through Hudl film [Hudl is a service that provides high school player highlights across a number of sports] from the year to get somewhat of an evaluation with some of these [class of 2022 recruits]. But some of these streaming deals, I think, are worthless. [The] competition is bad."

While multiple coaches said they've preferred to review high school footage instead, checking out the livestreams has given coaches a chance to see the progress of certain players since their high school seasons ended.

"We're just trying to get as much intel as possible on kids," one SEC coach said.

Prospects still breaking out

Whether coaches are watching or not watching from their couches and offices, there is still recruiting to be done, players to evaluate and offers to hand out. And there were several prospects who "blew up" during the spring and summer, despite the lack of in-person recruiting.

James Graham, a four-star small forward from Wisconsin, was one of the first players to raise their stock via livestreams and film this spring. Graham cut his list to nine schools in July: Auburn, Florida State, Georgetown, Marquette, Maryland, Memphis, Michigan State, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin. None of the nine schools had offered before the spring. Graham ended his intense courtship on Wednesday, when he committed to Maryland.

"[The enhanced interest] was a nice feeling, but I have never allowed myself to be satisfied, so I quickly got hungrier," Graham said. "Also, I feel it was a credit to my marketing skills. I was constantly sending video and film, making sure [schools] evaluated me."

Sometimes, it takes just one game for a player's stock to skyrocket -- and even in a livestreamed world, that was the case for Sean Pedulla. The 6-foot-1 guard from Oklahoma had 31 points against Drive Nation EYBL and five-star 2022 guard Keyonte George. Pedulla went from a player with mostly mid-major offers to one with offers from Minnesota, Virginia Tech, Tulsa, SMU and Saint Louis, along with interest from Iowa State and Dayton.

"I was more so worried that I wouldn't get the chance to play at all. So I'm glad I got that chance. The circuits being canceled was a bummer but being able to play at all was all that mattered," Pedulla said. "I still knew coaches were watching on the livestream, so in a way it still had that recruiting-type setting to it."

ESPN 100 guard D'Marco Dunn didn't come completely out of nowhere this spring and summer. He had several offers entering the grassroots season, but he exited July with scholarship offers from the likes of North Carolina, Louisville and Arizona.

"You always want to perform to your best wherever and not really think about those things, but it's a different time right now, so you want to play real well," Dunn said.

Missed opportunities

More than ever given these unusual circumstances, we can expect players to fall through the cracks in the 2021 and possibly 2022 classes. Without coaches present at the biggest tournaments and events all spring and summer, there are fewer chances for recruiters to stumble upon a steal in a side gym in July. There are fewer breakout performances at the high-stakes events like Peach Jam, akin to those we've seen in the past from guys like Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb. There is certainly no Anthony Davis, who came out of nowhere in April of his junior year to take the country by storm.

The situation could prove beneficial for low- and mid-major schools, which generally see their local prospects before high-major schools, and then lose them to higher levels when the players gain national recognition. But for now, there will be players in need of exposure who simply couldn't get it this spring and summer.

"I think it was a chance for some of us to gain and unfortunately, it's hindered the recruiting process for a lot of people," Dunn said.

"Watching in person is different than seeing highlights," Graham said. "I mean, all hoopers can attest to it being different when you can visibly see [recruiters] watching. It changes your intensity and how you talk on defense and all that stuff ... I have so much pressure to play good because they can honestly just close their screen and forget about you! It's a ton of pressure to play well."

One player who seemed poised to become a national name was Shaedon Sharpe, a 2022 wing from Canada who showed flashes of his ability at Sunrise Christian Academy (Kansas) last season. Sharpe averaged 13 points for Canada at the 2019 FIBA U16 Americas Championship last summer, and there has been steady buzz about his potential.

"It has hurt him more than anyone," said Dwayne Washington, Sharpe's coach with UPlay Canada. "He is a top-15 player right now in the 2022 class."

Sharpe, who has a handful of high-major offers, will attend Dream City Christian (Arizona) next year.

"Buried on the depth chart at the high school level as a 16-year-old playing on one of the deepest, most talented prep teams in the country at Sunrise, and being at an early stage of development skillwise, it's easy to understand why Sharpe has flown under the radar to an extent," ESPN NBA draft analyst Jonathan Givony told me via a written evaluation. "Sharpe has tremendous physical tools, with a terrific frame, a long wingspan and ... athleticism that makes him a highlight reel candidate anytime he gets out in the open floor. More than just a leaper, Sharpe shows flashes as a passer and shooter that suggest he has significant room for growth as an all-around basketball player as well.

"While he has holes in his game, Sharpe is clearly a much better long-term prospect than the majority of players ranked ahead of him in his class and would likely have emerged as a five-star-caliber recruit and potential McDonald's All American had the pandemic not erased opportunities to blow up on the Nike EYBL circuit and FIBA U17 World Cup this past spring and summer."

Recruitments speeding up

Recruiting timelines generally could have been impacted by the pandemic in one of two ways. They could have been delayed until prospects could take visits to campus and until coaches could watch players in person again. Or they could have sped up, with prospects content with their current offers and visits making decisions earlier than usual.

It's been mostly the latter. By the end of this week, there will be roughly 50 prospects ranked in the ESPN 100 who have already committed. Players have been flying off the board over the past couple of weeks, and a few more are scheduled to make decisions this week.

Having at least half of the top 100 already committed at this point is unusual. But players who already had a good number of high-major offers or had already taken several visits have been committing, as have players who spent much of the past few months on Zoom calls with coaching staffs. Many prospects simply felt comfortable with the schools already on their list and made a decision to end their recruitments.

"I was going to take five official visits before I committed," said five-star guard Max Christie, who committed to Michigan State in early July. "But I only ended up taking one to Michigan State due to coronavirus."

"The dead period was extended and there didn't seem to be an end in sight with some conferences eliminating fall sports," said top-50 prospect Malaki Branham, who committed to Ohio State in July. "It seemed like only a matter of time before others followed suit."

Without grassroots events and tournaments every weekend in April, May and July and camps in June, players also had more time to focus on their recruitments. Top-30 prospect Trey Patterson had taken visits before the pandemic and spent much of his quarantine time building relationships with his smaller list of schools. He committed to Villanova in June.

"I would say corona definitely impacted my recruitment. I was fortunate enough to take three official visits this year before corona happened, so I was able to meet with those coaches, see the different campuses and watch practices/games," Patterson said. "But because of corona, it gave my parents and I the opportunity to sit down and build relationships with the different schools through Zoom calls. During that time, it was apparent as to which schools made you a priority, by how much they would be in contact with you. It sped up the timeline for my decision, because normally during the spring, I would be traveling for AAU so the recruiting process wouldn't have been as much a priority as it was.

"It would've been nice to go on more visits, but we weren't able to do so, and there came a point in time where, in my heart, I knew where I wanted to go."