Top-five prospect Wendell Carter talks Duke and Kentucky
And we’re back from North Augusta, S.C., and the Peach Jam, Nike basketball’s premier summer tournament that features, year in and year out, the deepest field of college basketball prospects in the country. And so no wonder it’s always a who’s-who of college coaches walking the halls at the Riverview Park Athletics Center.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was there. North Carolina’s Roy Williams was there. N.C. State’s Mark Gottfried was there. Most of their assistants were there. And coaches from just about everywhere else were there, too. As is the case every year.
This was my first time covering the Peach Jam, the highest-profile tournament in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL). Here are some things I’ll remember, being a Peach Jam rookie and all, and some observations from a first-timer covering the event:
▪ You know you’re covering the Peach Jam (or any other high-profile event with a lot of coveted prospects, for that matter) when on your first night while working late in the hotel lobby you overhear two guys talking about one school’s bag man, and how said bag man guaranteed someone associated with a prospect a large sum of money in exchange for a commitment. If you don’t know what a bag man is, imagine for a moment a man delivering a bag of cash to a high school prospect’s front door. Or, just watch Blue Chips. I didn’t catch the entire conversation. I’m not quite certain about the school involved. So, no juicy details. Just some random late-night hotel talk about a program buying a prospect. Ah, college basketball recruiting.
▪ After covering the Peach Jam for the first time I can vouch for the headline of a local story covering the event: “Peach Jam tournament outgrowing Riverview Park Activities Center.” The Peach Jam has always been a big deal in North Augusta, and an event that draws the attendance of most major (and even non-major) college programs in the country. Fan interest and media interest has grown, too, in recent years – and the championship game on Sunday was nationally televised. So yes, we’re going to need a bigger gym for this thing. Which it sounds like they’re working on.
▪ Roy Williams, if you were wondering, is moving around well following the knee replacement surgery he underwent in late May. He showed no signs of the surgery while walking around among the courts at the Peach Jam. He’s moving so well, in fact, that I couldn’t track him down for a few quick words about his surgery and his recovery. That’s a good sign for him, though, that he could elude such deft pursuit, and it looks like he’ll be relieved of at least some of the pain that persisted throughout last season.
▪ Speaking of Ol’ Roy, one of my esteemed media colleagues told me that last year at this same event he ran into Williams at the venerable T-Bonz steakhouse on the famed strip of Augusta, Ga. – you know: the one that includes Hooters, no shortage of run-down strip malls and, yes, Augusta National Golf Club. My esteemed colleague said he’d seen Williams sitting inside T-Bonz last year, wearing a pink sweater, presumably enjoying all that fine establishment has to offer. So I made a pilgrimage to T-Bonz. Sadly, no Williams this time. But they did have some fine iced tea, and the cheese fries didn’t disappoint (do they ever?). Anyway, my trip to T-Bonz led to a couple of revelations. For one, you know if a place is worthy of your time when it has a Z in its name in place of an S. Second, you have to imagine that T-Bonz is probably a pretty big selling point when the Augusta National brass goes on recruiting the next wave of Green Jackets. Can’t you just see Billy Payne and Condoleeza Rice sitting there in a darkened booth, mass-produced pictures of Masters glory hanging on the walls, talking golf and national security and whatever else over a piping hot plate of potato wedges slathered in ranch dressing and bacon shards? No? Maybe it’s just me.
▪ OK, onto basketball. A collection of stories I wrote off the Peach Jam:
On Mo Bamba, arguably the top prospect in the class of 2017, and what he’s thinking about Duke and North Carolina and other schools. No shortage of suspense here.
The name O’Bannon sounds familiar to college basketball aficionados. It sounds especially familiar to N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried. He goes back – way, way back – with Charles O’Bannon Jr., whom the Wolfpack has prioritized in this class.
Last but not least, who is Michael Jordan to today’s generation of high school prospects? It’s a question because Roy Williams said a while back that younger players don’t know who Jordan is anymore. Is that true? I tried to find out at the Peach Jam.
And this is not from the Peach Jam but from the Under Armour All-American camp in Charlotte. Stopped there on the way to North Augusta. Jalek Felton, a UNC commitment and the nephew of former UNC point guard Raymond Felton, was there, and he’s getting ready for UNC.
In addition to those stories, some more thoughts from the Peach Jam:
▪ Duke and Kentucky have separated themselves in recruiting. They have a rivalry on the court, despite not playing all that often. But what the Blue Devils and Wildcats share off the court, recruiting against each other, is fiercer. Both schools have become the destinations for players who prefer to stay in school for one season before moving on to the NBA. Both schools have had success with those players. And both schools, once again, are competing for the best of the best high school players. I’ll be writing more about this in an upcoming story, but Knox, the 6-foot-8 forward from Tampa, said it best when he described Duek’s recruiting prowess: “A lot of guys talk about Duke. A lot of the 2017 (class). There’s a whole bunch of kids. They all like Duke. They’ll probably be on my list, so I’ll see what they have to say.”
▪ UNC, meanwhile, has every bit (if not more) of the history and tradition of Duke and Kentucky but the Tar Heels haven’t matched those two schools in recent years when it comes to recruiting. (In fairness, neither has any other school.) UNC’s inability to recruit the best of the best high school talent has been a topic for a while now, given that James Michael McAdoo in 2011 was the most recent top-five prospect who chose UNC (and McAdoo wasn’t a consensus top-5 prospect). More coming on this, too, but here’s what Knox said about UNC’s relative recruiting woes, when it comes to attracting top-5 talent: “They’re really good every year. It (doesn’t) matter who they get. They get a lot of good talent. Coach Roy, he utilizes all of his players in a really good role. … They don’t get the top players like Duke and Kentucky do. But every year they’re really good and they do really well with what they have.”
▪ UNC is off to a strong start with the 2017 class with the Felton commitment. But the Tar Heels received bad news on Monday when Jeremiah Tilmon told Scout.com that he’d committed to Illinois. That’s a blow for UNC, which had shown some high interest in Tilmon. Days before he reached his decision, Tilmon spoke of his admiration for Williams and his staff. Tilmon spoke of how much it meant to him that UNC’s coaching staff had visited him in his rough East St. Louis neighborhood, where Tilmon was forced to transfer schools after a teacher’s strike brought classes to a halt.
▪ Getting a read on N.C. State’s top targets is a bit more difficult, and Gottfried clearly has done some of his best work late in the recruiting calendar. In each of its past two recruiting classes, N.C. State has done its best work in the spring and summer before that class enrolled. And so it’s difficult to know where the Wolfpack stands with some guys. O’Bannon is clearly a priority, and he raved about his visit to N.C. State, and about his life-long connection to Gottfried.
▪ Lavar Batts, a point guard from Concord, is another name to remember as it relates to N.C. State. Batts said N.C. State hasn’t been in as much contact with him lately, and he said late last week that he doesn’t yet have a scholarship offer from N.C. State. Maybe that changes soon, though, after Batts’ strong performance at the Peach Jam. This is considered something of a down year for in-state prospects, but Batts’ stock seems to be rising. He made it sound like he’d be interested in N.C. State, if the Wolfpack were to show more interest in him.
So there you have it. Another Peach Jam in the books – and maybe the last in the current construction of the Riverview Park Activities Center, and probably not the last that generates some dubious late-night lobby talk.