As University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino readies his team for a new season, he’s thinking about his future rosters, too, and he is dismayed that shoe companies could affect which players come to his program.
Pitino said the Cardinals’ recruiting prospect pool shrinks because they’re sponsored by adidas instead of Nike. Asked this month if he thinks college coaches are displeased with the system, Pitino said with a laugh, “I’m sure the Nike coaches don’t feel that way because they’re winning the battle.”
A Courier-Journal review of college signings shows that Pitino might be right in suggesting it is difficult to break amateur affiliations among the highest-rated basketball prospects, even as those athletes say apparel companies have little or no sway on their decisions.
Many of the nation’s elite basketball players are members of Nike-sponsored club teams, and for a variety of reasons, those athletes have proven more likely to sign with a Nike-sponsored college program. Only when they reach the professional ranks — when a player may independently sign a shoe deal — do those connections begin to appear less predictable.
UK coach John Calipari said his teams over the years have worn Reebok, L.A. Gear, adidas and Nike, and “all I can tell you is it’s not had an effect on how I’ve done this job.”
“I’ve had kids play for me in all different shoes. I’m not feeling (a controversy),” he said.
A Courier-Journal database shows that 58 percent of the Rivals.com’s top 10 seniors in the signing classes beginning in 2011, the first class from the Nike-backed Elite Youth Basketball League, came from Nike clubs, and of those, 69 percent, or 20 players, committed to college teams sponsored by that apparel company. Four committed to adidas-sponsored colleges.
By comparison, nine top-10 players have played for adidas-sponsored travel teams in those five classes, and only two went to adidas-sponsored colleges. Six went to Nike schools, according to the database, and one, a current senior, remains undecided.
Since the 2010 class, 75 percent of recruits signed by the Nike-sponsored University of Kentucky came from Nike-backed travel programs. During the same period, 43 percent of the signees at adidas-sponsored U of L came from Nike clubs.
Indiana University, another adidas-sponsored school, signed five players from Nike programs — or 25 percent of its high school signees — and 11 players from adidas programs during that period.
Players, AAU coaches and parents interviewed for this story said shoe-company allegiances rarely influence recruiting. That includes former U of L commitment Antonio Blakeney, a Nike-circuit player whose withdrawn pledge to the Cardinals last month is seemingly at the root of Pitino’s frustration.
Blakeney is now primarily being recruited by UK, Missouri, Florida State, Southern California and LSU — all Nike schools.
Asked about speculation that his “decommitment” was related to an allegiance to Nike, Blakeney said, “I think that’s a whole bunch of bull, which is not true. Nobody really knows my situation but me and my mom.
“(The speculation emerged) because I have been playing with Nike for a long time, and Louisville is adidas, and then of course all the other schools that were on my list were Nike, so that’s a conclusion that someone could make — and it’s a conclusion that could be true — but just in my case, it’s not.”
Another five-star UK target, New Jersey point guard Isaiah Briscoe, also plays for a Nike club team. His father, George Briscoe, said his son’s AAU background would have no role in which college he picks.
“We have control of our own recruiting,” the elder Briscoe said. “Isaiah is going to go to the school that best fits him, and if it’s Nike, that’s where it’s at. Actually, I love all the Nike schools.”
Nike’s director of grassroots scouting, Vince Baldwin, declined to be interviewed for this story. Carlton DeBose, chief of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League, didn’t respond to messages.
Some of the connection can be explained by Nike’s dominance at the club and college levels.
Nike sponsors 45 of the 65 “power five conference” programs compared to adidas’ 11, Under Armour’s eight and Russell Athletics’ one. With 15 of the 20 teams in the last five years’ men’s Final Fours affiliated with Nike, it then follows that, if Nike can maintain a stronghold on the bulk of top-rated club players and have deals in place with most of the country’s top college programs, many of those athletes would be likely to continue the connection at the next level.
Nike league popular
Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League features 40 clubs from across the country that compete throughout the spring, with 20 advancing to the prestigious Peach Jam tournament in North Augusta, S.C., in July.
The league’s events are can’t-miss stops for college recruiters. Recent alumni include No. 1 NBA draft picks Anthony Davis, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, and hundreds of lower-profile prospects.
As of Thursday, 153 EYBL players in the 2015 class had committed to colleges, including 110, or 72 percent, heading to Nike-sponsored schools. Twenty-four have committed to an adidas school, 16 to an Under Armour school and three to schools sponsored by Russell Athletic.
According to Rivals.com rankings, the nation’s No. 1 prospect in four of the five classes from 2011 to 2015 played on a Nike Elite Youth Basketball club. (Top-ranked Shabazz Muhammad, who played for adidas’ Dream Vision club, signed with adidas-sponsored UCLA in 2012.)
Of the players ranked in the Rivals top 10 during those five years, 29 played for Nike travel teams, and 19 of those committed to Nike universities. Five in the 2015 class remain undecided. Current No. 1 senior Ben Simmons, who was Blakeney’s club teammate in Florida, has committed to Nike-sponsored LSU.
Adidas clubs, meanwhile, produced nine top-10 players total from 2011 to 2015.
“The Nike circuit is the best thing going on, hands down, no comparison,” said George Briscoe, whose son led his team to this year’s Peach Jam title. “Adidas can’t match it, Under Armour. That’s my opinion.”
In 2011, every member of the national top five was a Nike player, and they all ended up at Nike-sponsored colleges, including Kentucky’s Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
In 2013 and ’14, every member of the national top four was a Nike Elite Youth Basketball player, and six ended up at Nike colleges. The exceptions were Wiggins in 2013 and Chicago power forward Cliff Alexander in 2014, both going to adidas-sponsored Kansas.
Numbers for UK, U of L, IU
Calipari’s recruiting juggernaut at UK has consistently landed Nike club players. Excluding 2010 signees Eloy Vargas, who came from junior college, and Turkish import Enes Kanter, 18 of UK’s 24 signees since the 2010 class came from Nike clubs, including all the U.S. high school signees in 2011 and ’12. The Wildcats also have a 2015 verbal commitment from Chicago Nike player Charles Matthews, and Calipari is still pursuing seven Nike players, including Blakeney, among his final 12 targets.
By contrast, only six of U of L’s 14 U.S. high school signees since 2010 have come from Nike clubs: Russ Smith (2010), Wayne Blackshear (2011), Angel Nunez (2011), Zach Price (2011), Terry Rozier (2012, before a year of prep school) and Shaqquan Aaron (2014).
Of Louisville’s three 2015 verbal commitments, Trinity power forward Raymond Spalding played for an unaffiliated club, Florida wing Deng Adel played for an adidas team and New Hampshire guard Donovan Mitchell was on an Under Armour squad. The Cards’ top remaining target in 2015, five-star guard P.J. Dozier of South Carolina, played for the Reebok-sponsored Upward Stars.
Indiana University, sponsored by adidas, has signed a mix of Nike- and adidas-circuit players since 2010.
The Hoosiers have picked up a big group of in-state players, including five-star prospects Cody Zeller and Yogi Ferrell, from Indiana-based adidas club teams, and five-star Noah Vonleh from the adidas-sponsored Mass Rivals club in New England.
In the last two signing classes, the Hoosiers have also landed top-notch Nike players James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson, Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams, who’s a nephew of legendary Virginia-based Nike club coach Boo Williams. In 2015, IU has a pledge from a Nike circuit player (Juwan Morgan) and one from an Under Armour player (O.G. Anunoby).
“I think whatever shoe they’re wearing never came across our minds in the selection process, whether they wore adidas or Nike,” said James Blackmon Sr., a former UK player who coached his son at Marion (Ind.) High School. “… The education, the team, the coach, those were the things we were looking at, not the shoes they were wearing.”
Pro deals can differ
Wiggins, a former Nike club player now a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, has signed an endorsement deal with adidas. It’s an example of how there’s not always a correlation between which shoe companies sponsored top players’ AAU and college teams and which ones sign them as professional endorsers.
Eleven players who signed with UK since 2010 are now in the NBA, and seven of them — Davis, Gilchrist, Julius Randle, James Young, Archie Goodwin, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — have worn Nikes as professionals, according to recent reports and photos. Those players all also wore Nike as AAU players, too.
Nerlens Noel (Reebok), Brandon Knight (adidas), Enes Kanter (Under Armour) and Teague (adidas) wear different brands. John Wall, a 2009 UK signee, endorses adidas. IU’s Zeller, Vonleh and Victor Oladipo have shifted from the adidas they wore in college to Nike and Nike Jordan Brand as pros. U of L product Gorgui Dieng wore Nikes as a rookie last season with Minnesota, and Russ Smith has worn them this preseason for New Orleans.
Rival leagues emerge
This year, adidas began a 36-team league called the Gauntlet that’s similar to Nike’s elite league, and that circuit is increasingly ripe with talent. Jaylen Brown, the No. 2 senior who’s visiting Kentucky this weekend, and 7-footer Thon Maker, who’s No. 1 in 2016, are top adidas participants. Invitations to the adidas Nations camp at the end of July in Los Angeles are highly coveted.
Under Armour has started a league format, too, called the UA Association. Five-star Milwaukee center Diamond Stone in 2015 and five-star wing Josh Jackson in 2016 have been among its signature players. The brand also sponsors the prestigious Elite 24 outdoor all-star game near the end of the summer.
If Pitino is finding it difficult to recruit at an adidas school while trying to land players from the Nike circuit, Kansas’ Bill Self seems to have encountered no such obstacles. In 2013 and ’14, Self landed a veritable Nike elite league all-star team with Wiggins and five-star players Alexander, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Wayne Selden.
Blakeney’s AAU coach, Steven Reece, said Wiggins’ decision to go to Kansas — over Nike schools UK, North Carolina and Florida State — was evidence that the influence of shoe companies on recruiting is overblown, especially in Blakeney’s case.
“Antonio is not the No. 1 kid in the country, you know what I mean?” Reece said. “You’re talking about the No. 14 kid in the country. So if they’re not going to make Andrew Wiggins go to a Nike school, why do you think they’re going to make Antonio Blakeney? Just think about that.”
Steve Jones can be reached at (502) 582-7176 and followed on Twitter at @SteveJones_CJ