OSKALOOSA, Iowa — Xavier Foster walks into the Oskaloosa High School gym on a Tuesday afternoon. He’s wearing a USA Basketball T-shirt and carrying a red, white and blue backpack. He’s feeling restless and asks for a basketball.
“Time to get more buckets,” he says.
Two days prior, Foster was in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was among 56 high schoolers invited to the Men’s Junior National Team Minicamp at the Olympic Training Center. He was one of 19 players from the 2020 class, yet another line in a rapidly growing recruiting résumé.
At 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Foster oozes with potential. The power forward received an offer from Iowa last month, then two more from Iowa State and Creighton in the past week. He’s considered one of the brightest talents of the class of 2020. He is just 14.
That’s the most intriguing part: Foster is only a high school freshman. He hasn’t gone through an official high school basketball practice yet, much less a game. Major recruiting outlets haven’t even assigned ratings to the 2020 class. His working profile, at least for now, is built entirely off potential.
“Because he’s so young, you don’t want to make any grand proclamations or anything,” said Eric Bossi, a national basketball analyst for Rivals.com, “but I think as he gets older and adds strength, he has a chance to be one of the next great prospects out of the state of Iowa.
“Obviously, he has the early Iowa and Iowa State offers, and I certainly would’ve offered him, too. I think you’re going to see Big 12 and Big Ten programs come and take a look at him at an early age versus finding out about him later.”
As Foster’s recruitment takes flight, the louder the corresponding noise will get. His coaches and parents are determined to help, hoping he can revel in the attention but also remain humble.
So before he can get more buckets on this Tuesday afternoon, Foster must first go through a photo shoot. Ryan Parker, his coach at Oskaloosa, tells him to wear his team uniform instead of the USA Basketball gear. Foster nods, then stops and looks back at Parker.
“Hey, coach,” he says. “What number am I gonna be this year?”
Just before the photo shoot begins, a small crowd forms in the northeast corner of the gym. Foster walks over to say hello. One boy marvels at Foster’s height and asks if they can measure hands. When they put their palms together, Foster bends his fingers down to completely envelope the smaller hand.
The boy then asks if he can palm a basketball. Foster laughs. Of course, he says.
He’s always been big. He was 3-foot-5 by the age of 2. It was around that same time that basketball entered his life in the form of a Little Tikes adjustable hoop. His mom, Kristi, said he almost never let the ball go. When he first used the “big-boy” bathroom on his own a few years later, the ball was there, too.
Foster soon figured out the game and spent hours dunking the ball. As a challenge, his father, DaJuan, raised the height of the hoop. On occasion, DaJuan blocked Foster’s shots, hoping to bring out his son’s inner competitor.
“We’ve literally been working on his shot since he was 2,” DaJuan said. “It was always about basketball, just playing with him. You want them to hopefully start enjoying the game, and if you can shoot, it makes the game of basketball a heck of a lot easier.”
It didn’t take long for Foster to take a liking to basketball. He joined the local travel team, the Osky Indians, in fourth grade. The squad drove all over Iowa in search of competition. There were only seven kids on the team, Foster remembered, and at 5-foot-6, he saw his fair share of playing time.
Two years later, Foster joined Pure Prep Academy, a high-level basketball skills development program in the Des Moines area, and helped his new team win 72 games over three years. As the team kept winning, he continued to grow — and fast. He outgrew clothes every couple of months, and his shoe size was always a bigger number than his age (he wears size 17 now).
All the while, Foster sharpened his skills. He worked daily with DaJuan at the Penn Activity Center on the William Penn campus in town, developing his shooting technique and laboring on his defense. By the time he reached Pure Prep, he was way ahead of his peers.
“He had good fundamentals and a pretty good IQ,” said Burchette Greer, the director of basketball at Pure Prep. “He actually grew into his body so rapidly that he didn’t have any foot speed. He was so tall and gangly and lanky at that time, but he still had a good feel for the game.
“He also protected the basket. That was the one thing that impressed me more than anything. He had great timing when it came to finding the ball without fouling. He protected the rim and got blocks without fouling.”
At Pure Prep, based in Urbandale, Greer refuses to hang banners or showcase trophies. His focus, he said, is to help build a foundation of sound basketball fundamentals, and in Foster, he saw a bright future.
It took a while before the results came. Once, on a breakaway in seventh grade, Foster went up for a dunk and planted the ball on the front of the rim. The next year, he flushed nearly everything he took to the hoop.
“How far we’ve come since then,” Greer said with a laugh. “He got plenty of repetition with his skills, but it was the core training that helped him move a little faster, that helped him move up the court, and helped him play above the rim a little more and be more physical.
“We knew the skills would come forth. From Day 1, when he was walking around slowly and falling over himself, we always knew. He followed the game plan for how to get there. He followed it to a T, and the results are paying off.”
After the photo shoot, Foster tells a story. Before one of the practices began in Colorado Springs, he met Michael Porter Jr., a Washington commit who is considered one of the top two players in the class of 2017. The two played a quick game of 1-on-1.
It quickly became a lesson.
“I’ll walk you through one play,” Foster says. “He went up for a layup, and about hit the ground — and still hit the shot. It was like Allen Iverson’s shot from behind the backboard. I didn’t know what to say. He’s just a really good player.
“I always figured I was good, but going somewhere like that, I learned how not big I am. There are some good kids out there. They kind of showed me up and made me work for everything.”
His trip to Colorado was the third camp Foster experienced this summer. He attended the Under Armour Next Combine Series in Houston last June and the CP3 Rising Stars Camp in August. They each showed him a glimpse of how much further he could still improve.
With each stop, he also continued to attract the attention of recruiting experts. Bossi was in attendance at the Olympic Training Center. He came away impressed.
“I thought he was good,” Bossi said. “He had some game. He made some jump shots. He got some tough finishes in traffic. There were times when he looked a bit timid and a little bit unsure of what he should do, but that’s to be expected.
“But he didn’t try and do things that were out of his comfort zone. Some kids want people to notice them, so they start doing dumb stuff and play not-smart basketball. For the most part, he did what the coaches asked him to do, and just let his natural talent and upside shine through.”
Word soon made its way to the Iowa coaching staff, and assistant coach Sherman Dillard visited Oskaloosa on Sept. 12. Nine days later, Dillard returned with head coach Fran McCaffery to evaluate Foster in a workout.
“I was nervous, because when Fran came in, every time I looked over toward him, he had zero facial expression,” Foster said. “He was just sitting there, and I was like, ‘Oh.’ Nothing. He was just sitting there watching. I was like, ‘Man, I gotta work.’”
Parker remembers McCaffery remarking that he’s “never seen anybody like (Foster).” The Hawkeyes offered that evening.
Iowa State’s Steve Prohm stopped by a few days later and then again in early October to officially offer. Then came Creighton and another offer. More workouts are scheduled in the coming weeks, followed by, of course, the season.
“It’s weird not playing a game yet and having offers,” said Foster, who plans to attend Iowa State basketball’s “Hilton Madness” on Friday in Ames. “It makes me feel like I have to work a little bit harder, prove my point.”
Foster’s made his goals well-known — he wants to reach the NBA and, even more, to play regularly. Experts from 247Sports and Rivals believe he has tremendous upside, but Bossi was quick to express caution. He’s still more than 19 months away from legally driving a car, after all.
“It’s kind of an interesting situation,” Bossi said. “You don’t want to go too high or too low on the guy. For all we know, he may be the next Harrison Barnes, or the next Greg Brunner. It’s just too early to determine that.”
Parker stands off to the side in the Oskaloosa school gym while Foster goes through some shooting drills. For every shot made, Foster whispers to himself, “get buckets,” an ode to the “Uncle Drew” commercials starring Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving. Parker smiles. There’s still a part of Foster that’s very much a kid, he says, a side Parker wants to protect.
But can he?
“I don’t know if you can,” Parker says. “We’ll go to Pella or Dallas Center-Grimes or any place in our conference, and there’s going to be people in the stands yelling and screaming at him. How do you handle that?
“Everybody is going to see how you handle that, and make assumptions off of how you handle that. And that’s a lot to ask of a 14-year-old kid.”
For all the good the recruiting machine does for the top-level prep athletes, an immense amount of pressure tends to come along with it. Foster’s supporting cast is aware of what’s on the way. There will be more scouts, more interviews and more people wanting a piece of Foster’s potential.
“It’s one of those things that not a lot of people have been through,” said Parker, who is entering his third year as the Oskaloosa boys’ basketball coach and athletic director. “But if you look at it, what would you rather have? Somebody that doesn’t get the attention that Xavier gets, or somebody that does? Almost every coach in the country would want the attention.”
Before Foster, the last high-profile athlete to come from Oskaloosa was Tyler Sash,the late Iowa football star who turned in an all-state career for the Indians as a receiver and defensive back.
The basketball team has faced its own struggles, posting a record of 16-71 over the past four years. Foster, along with what Parker calls a talented group of freshmen, is expected to help drastically improve that mark.
There’s a part of the noise that’s already overwhelming for his parents. DaJuan, his dad, found it strange the first time he saw something written about Foster online. Now, he gets excited to read the national experts’ evaluations. Then he’ll go home and hear Kristi ask Xavier to make his bed and clean his room.
“Hopefully he can just take it all in stride and understand that so much of it is based on potential,” DaJuan said, “and potential is nothing if you don’t put in the work. You can’t cheat this game. If you put in the work, you’ll see the results. You won’t see them without the work.”
So far, that doesn’t appear to be an issue for Foster. Kristi said she nearly had to drag him out of the gym one night this week. He was playing basketball at the Penn Activity Center against college kids. He begged his mom for just a couple more games.
“I was getting buckets,” Xavier says.
After he finishes his shooting drills, Foster walks to grab his backpack. He meets a friend by the folded-up bleachers and chats about school. The friend asks if he wants to shoot hoops later. Not tonight, he says. Another college is visiting later. He needs to be fresh for his workout.
He dribbles the basketball between his legs and spins it on his finger. Then he turns back toward the basket and lofts the ball toward the rim. It clanks through and drops to the floor. Foster pumps his fist, then turns to Parker.
“Hey coach,” he says, “am I starting this year?”
“You have to earn that, man.”