It was the first Wednesday in July, two days after Independence Day and the middle of a week that many Americans were either spending on vacation or, at the very least, enjoying as a short work week.
Jason Williford, however, was doing neither. The assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia was sitting in a hotel room in North Augusta, South Carolina, looking over notes and getting ready for the first of what would be a very hectic three weeks in July.
About 200 miles away, on the other side of the state, Robert E. Lee High School rising senior Darius George was also getting ready for a busy July. He and his mom, Maria Hill, were in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but both would spend much more time in a gym than in the ocean.
Williford, George and Hill were far from alone. Across the country this month basketball gyms are full of coaches, players and parents hoping July means big things for their future. Whether it’s the coach finding the next piece of his championship puzzle or a player getting offered a college scholarship, there are high stakes for those involved with college basketball this month.
It’s the July evaluation period, a time when coaches can watch prospects at NCAA-sanctioned events. These tournaments, throughout the country, have become a key part of the recruiting process.
Although many of the players have been with their travel teams since the end of the high school season, April and July are the months when NCAA Division I coaches get a chance to evaluate the players.
But it’s not just D1 coaches watching these games. Every level of college basketball is represented. Jeff Schneider, president of Big Shots, which hosted a tournament in Myrtle Beach, estimated 125 coaches were in the gym every day watching the 450 teams participating in the event.
And many think that, for athletes who are interested in playing in college, playing in these summer tournaments is crucial.
“It’s really important,” said Williford, a former player at Virginia in the early 1990s before beginning his coaching career. He spent the first weekend of the July period at perhaps the best summer tournament, the Peach Jam.
“I don’t know when the switch occurred,” he said, “but for about 10 years now (the summer tournaments) have kind of become the dominant force as far as exposure.”
As a high school standout at John Marshall, Williford played in the summer with the Richmond Metro AAU team, but he said most of the recruiting was done through high schools. That has changed.
The term that has become commonplace when talking about these tournaments and the teams that participate is AAU, although that is not entirely correct. AAU — the Amateur Athletic Union — is actually just one part of the current summer-basketball landscape.
The three major athletic shoe companies — Nike, Adidas and Under Armour — have their own circuits and there are plenty of other travel teams not associated with AAU or shoe companies. Grassroots is the term used to describe the entire enterprise.
While AAU has become synonymous with travel basketball, it has also, to many, become synonymous with the worst aspects — greed, sleaze and selfishness — of this brand of the sport. And it’s not just the casual fans who find fault with the summer game.
Bridgewater College women’s coach Jean Willi is quick to say she’s not a fan of grassroots basketball. She knows there are some good programs and coaches out there, but overall she thinks the system hurts the development of players with more emphasis on playing games and less on improving fundamentals.
“They don’t work on footwork, they don’t work on technique, they don’t work on defense because you’re not getting recruited for your defense,” said Willi. “You’re probably getting recruited from the offensive end of the floor.”
Schneider seems to back this up. Referring to his Big Shots Elite team, of which Darius George is a member, he almost sounded proud when he said, “We’ve never practiced. Never had one practice. We’ve never run one drill. Nothing.”
Willi isn’t the only coach who isn’t a fan of this style. John Richardson is an assistant on Jeff Jones’ staff at Old Dominion University. He will arrive in Australia this week to recruit and feels that, in some instances, international players are better prepared to play the sport he loves. In part, he blames grassroots basketball, especially the elite programs, for this.
“They are not as entitled overseas as the kids are here,” said Richardson. “It’s less coaching going on and a lot more coddling going on in America than it is overseas. Those kids overseas they understand how to play. The coaches teach them how to shoot a jump shot properly, how to dribble a basketball properly, how to make a fundamental play off a pass properly.”
He admits players in the United States are more athletic, but college coaches have to teach a lot of fundamental skills that should have been learned by the players earlier.
Yet, Willi, Richardson and almost every other coach understands that, even if there are negative aspects to the grassroots game, it’s here to stay and participation has become almost mandatory for athletes who want to continue playing basketball in college.
“It’s kind of a necessary evil,” said Jeremy Hartman, the former Lee High girls’ coach and current co-host of the Box and 1 podcast. “Especially if your high school team is not playing any other big-name teams or if your high school team is not making it to a state tournament, it becomes one of those things, if you want to be seen you almost have to play in the summer.”
And there are plenty of opportunities to do so for players from elementary school all the way through high school. According to AAUSports.org there are 22 organizations within a 50-mile radius of Staunton. And that’s just ones affiliated with AAU.
Frankie Lewis is the director of one of those programs, Madison County-based SQBA. Lewis attracts players from Woodstock and Staunton to Madison and Orange counties and all areas in between. Lee High players Lexi Hall and Peyton Hicks and Fort Defiance’s Clint Cox all play for SQBA.
Buffalo Gap’s Destiny Harper played for the organization last season. She gave a lot of credit to the exposure she got through SQBA with getting her a scholarship to play for Division II Goldey-Beacom College.
Lewis said there were even some Division I programs that expressed interest in Harper late in the process, after she had committed to Goldey-Beacom.
Lewis compares his group to a mid-major Division I college program, saying it’s not an elite program with big-time sponsorships, but it has a good track record when it comes to sending players to college. There’s even a page on the organization’s website that shows where former SQBA alumni played in college.
That’s a big plus for any grassroots team. The exposure to college coaches it provides athletes is the main reason most kids play, but there is also the opportunity to improve their game playing against better competition. Lewis said it’s more than just exposure and competition though. He knows there are some shady programs in grassroots, but he strives to put the player first.
“My main concern is that the young men and young women that come through are better people when they leave,” said Lewis, who’s been running SQBA for 20 years. “They learn about accountability, they learn about discipline, they learn how to deal with success, how to deal with failure.”
While SQBA is more a local program, the Big Shots Elite team, headquartered in Myrtle Beach, is an upper-tier program. All seven players on the current roster, including George, have received scholarship offers from Division I schools, according to Schneider, who was an assistant coach at several colleges and was a player at Virginia Tech as well, before starting Big Shots.
Schneider makes no secret about Big Shots’ main objective — getting scholarship offers for his players. During a 40-minute phone conversation, exposure and scholarships are subjects he revisits over and over. He has plenty of stories about how Big Shots — be it his Elite team or the tournaments his organization holds — is responsible for getting kids scholarships.
And the parents and players for Big Shots don’t seem to have an issue with that mindset. In fact, it seems to be the exact reason the players joined the team.
“Darius probably wouldn’t have half the recruiters he has if he didn’t play with Big Shots,” said Maria Hill, George’s mom. “The main objective is to get all of our guys recruited.”
Schneider said George’s game has improved leaps and bounds in the last year and he believes George will have “20 to 30 scholarship offers after this month,” all because of Big Shots.
That may be a bit of a stretch, considering the only offer he currently has is from Longwood, although Hill said her son has received interest from at least 10 other schools, including Virginia Tech, Providence and James Madison. And with tournaments in Richmond and Las Vegas still to come this month, there’s little doubt more offers will be coming soon. Just how many is the question.
A big assist
Tayler Dodson is a rising junior at George Mason. The former Spotswood High School star played for Washington, D.C-based Team Takeover in the summer and she’s adamant that her grassroots experience got her a Division I scholarship.
“Being from our area, which is so small, going to Team Takeover was a really big change for me,” said Dodson. “The players were a lot bigger than most girls in our area and they were a lot stronger and faster. It just helped me to elevate my game.”
She also got to experience a different position, going from the post at Spotswood to playing guard with Team Takeover.
“That was probably one of the main things that ended up helping me a lot to get recruited because I’m not a five in college,” said Dodson.
In addition to the exposure to coaches, grassroots basketball benefits players by giving them a chance to play different positions against better competition than they experience in the regular high school season. Dodson said the talent she played with and against with Team Takeover was close to the same level of talent she plays against at George Mason. All 11 players on her team signed DI scholarships.
Even those who aren’t completely enamored with grassroots basketball admit that is a plus.
“It does expose the kids to a lot more talent,” said Bridgewater’s Jean Willi. “The big fish in the little sea can become the little fish in the big sea. When you go out and you play against some of these other out-of-state teams … big kids, it should give you a real chance to do a self-evaluation.”