Heralded recruits weighing options

Area schools being considered by top undecided players

acarter@newsobserver.com April 7, 2012 

Dave Telep makes his living covering college basketball recruiting for ESPN.com and even he recently described Amile Jefferson’s recruitment like this: “I have no idea who the favorite is.”

Imagine, then, how difficult it has been on those hoping Jefferson, one of the top remaining uncommitted prospects in the Class of 2012, chooses to play at Duke, or Kentucky, or N.C. State, or Villanova. Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 forward from Philadelphia’s Friends Central High, will choose among those four finalists.

During most years, Jefferson would represent something rare: a top prospect undecided in the days approaching the start of college basketball’s late signing period. This year, though, he is one of several top prospects whose decisions will add drama to the period, which will begin Wednesday and end May 16.

“Generally in past years, most of the top-10 guys have already made their decisions,” said Bob Gibbons, a longtime college basketball recruiting analyst from Lenoir. “And there’s more top unsigned prospects this year than any year I can recall in the past 10 or 12 years.”

Among the 24 high school seniors who participated in the annual McDonald’s All-American game last month, five remain uncommitted. All five of those players – Lithona, Ga., power forward Tony Parker; Henderson, Nev., power forward Anthony Bennett; Las Vegas small forward Shabazz Muhammad; De Kalb, Miss., power forward Dovonta Pollard; and Jefferson – include Kentucky among their possible destinations.

And three of them – Jefferson, Muhammad and Parker – list North Carolina schools among their finalists. Duke is in the running for Muhammad and Parker, and N.C. State hopes to make an elite recruiting class even stronger with the addition of Jefferson.

“He’s a baseline slasher and he’s an energy guy,” Telep said of Jefferson, who helped his high school to a 98-14 record during his four seasons. “He’s a team guy.”

Jefferson averaged 19.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots while leading Friends Central to a 22-5 record this season.

If he chose N.C. State, he’d bolster a recruiting class that’s among the best in the nation. The Wolfpack’s class includes three McDonald’s All-Americans: point guard Tyler Lewis, shooting guard Rodney Purvis, a standout at Raleigh’s Upper Room Christian Academy, and small forward T.J. Warren.

“He’d be a huge coup for N.C. State,” Gibbons said of Jefferson. “… If C.J. Leslie were to decide to leave (for the NBA), he’d be a great fill-in for that position.”

Leslie, who emerged as one of the ACC’s best players halfway through this season, has yet to announce whether he will return for his junior season. Duke, meanwhile, is waiting to find out if junior forward Mason Plumlee will return.

The Blue Devils’ incoming recruiting class consists of one player – Houston shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who also played in the McDonald’s All-American game – but Duke could significantly improve its roster with the addition of any or all of its remaining recruiting targets.

Muhammad, a 6-6 small forward who is considered the nation’s top prospect, is the most sought-after prize. His finalists include Duke, Kentucky and UCLA, and he’s expected to announce his decision Tuesday on ESPNU.

The Los Angeles Times recently devoted a 1,400-word story to what Muhammad’s arrival would mean to UCLA’s beleaguered program.

“Shabazz Muhammad is the guy they have to get,” Joel Francisco, ESPN.com’s West Coast recruiting coordinator, told the newspaper. He was speaking about UCLA, but the words fit any program still hoping to lure a player who is likely to play one season of college basketball before departing for the NBA.

Meanwhile, Duke and N.C. State are awaiting the end of another recruiting battle – one they’re waging, along with Kentucky and Villanova – for Jefferson.

“They’ve recruited many, many players against each other,” Gibbons said of Duke and N.C. State. “That’s not a new thing. But what is different is being involved in a player who’s going to announce on the 10th or 11th of April. It’s going down to the wire.”

During a recent interview with ESPN’s Telep before the McDonald’s All-American game, Jefferson attempted to put into words the difficulty of his decision-making process. Part of him, he said, would like to stay home in Philadelphia and play at Villanova, where his family would be nearby. He said another part of him wants to go far away, so he can grow on his own.

“One day it’s one,” Jefferson told ESPN.com, and “one day it’s the other.”

And one day, soon, the waiting game will come to an end.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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