I Can Keep Going

May 9, 2022

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I've gotten a few "what about basketball recruiting?" comments after my recruiting rant (published Friday evening), so maybe I should just keep going. Those were my thoughts on football recruiting (and player rankings) - how 'bout a Part II talking about basketball recruiting?

But first, a few comments on rankings in general. I always talk about "exit ramps" when writing something. Get close to a point that the reader has already filed away as "decided" in their brain and zzzipp up the exit ramp they go, no longer interested in what you're saying because they already think they know where that highway leads. Please try to stay on the highway here.

I believe in ranking high school athletes. I believe in ranking entire classes and comparing them to everyone else's class. I believe you can learn so much about how good a college basketball team will be just by looking at the number next to their name in the rankings. There will be surprises and there will be busts but if you're consistently bringing in top-100 players you're probably going to be pretty good.

BUT, and this is a big but - there's been a sharp downturn in the last five years. On the football side, it's rankings continuing to align with certain teams (as covered in the last post). On the basketball side, it's similar, but I'd say that it's more "lack of effort" than anything. My guess - I don't know this to be true, but this is my guess - is that the legwork of the old scouts (Clark Francis, Van Coleman) is a thing of the past and now the shortcuts (who is invited to which camp, which players are pursued by the private high schools, etc) make lists easier to compile but less accurate.

Let's start with Matt Painter and then we'll get to Brad Underwood. I think I linked this in another article this spring, but I could not agree more with what Matt Painter says here. If you're, like, reading this at work and you can't play sound so you just normally skip the audio clips, put some ear buds in (or do what I always did - head to stall #2) because this is important:

Not even gonna lie - my feelings towards the entirety of Purdue basketball shifted because of this clip. I mean, I'm not a fan, but I'm pretty sure they dropped two spots on my hate list just because of this one clip. He hit every note:

  • Everyone can tell you who the top 20 players are, but from 21 to 500, there's no reliable rankings.
  • A player is ranked low and commits to a blue blood and jumps in the rankings - why?
  • A player is ranked high and signs with a non blue blood and he drops in the rankings - why?
  • Some guy will be unranked with coaches following him everywhere all summer while there's some guy ranked in the 30's with very little recruiting buzz - why?

I'll pause here to talk about how each one of these bullet points has been neutered by bad actors trolling around looking for Twitter likes. There's a legitimate point here - the rankings have gotten significantly worse and no one is calling it out - but no one wants to stand behind it because of the other people who on that side of the fence. Let me see if I can explain this.

Brad Underwood finds some gems (Alan Griffin, Giorgi Bezhanishvili). Both had big senior seasons in HS but went mostly un-noticed. That March (after he committed), Griffin had this massive breakout moment with a huge run in the state championships. He had probably earned 4-star consideration at that point. But there's no real mechanism in place to do that anymore. Rankings are set so some guard going to a Big Ten school - rank him, I don't know, 190-ish. The old lists - mostly by a function of rankings not coming out until the spring/summer after a player was finished with high school, always caught players like this. If someone was having a breakout state tournament, Van Coleman would hear about it. But now, it never seems to be caught.

I'm getting off track. My point here is that while Giorgi and Alan were great examples of "there really need to be deep evaluations done after senior seasons are complete", that does not mean every player signing in the spring is that kind of player. But Twitter will be alive with "I don't care what you say - if Underwood wanted Bernard Kouma, then Bernard Kouma is a top-100 player." The complaint starts to become some kind of rule. The fans want to hear that their player isn't ranked high enough, Matt Painter is over here saying that the ranking services base rankings on which school the player signed with, and so you have fuel for the Twitter fire: EVERY player committing to Illinois is ranked too low.

And because Painter's point has fallen into the hands of those only interested in social media buzz, it is bludgeoned to death. There are legitimate concerns with the laziness of college basketball rankings these days. But when that point is used by people who just want to tell you that every single Illini recruit is incredible, no one is going to listen to any well-reasoned "actually, I think he's a bit undervalued" take. And they're going to get angry at you when you tell them that Skyy Clark isn't going to be a 5-star for long (which he's not now, but... no one has reached out to apologize).

ANYWAY, let's get back to Painter. He makes the point of Zach Edey. Edey's composite ranking: the 440th-best player in the 2020 class. "Trying to rank players beyond 200-or-so being a bit ridiculous" not withstanding, having someone like Edey ranked that low is, well, to quote Matt Painter, "how foolish are they?". Edey was a big deal for Team Canada - here he is with Chet Holmgren on a FIBA all tournament team (including next year's #1 pick in the NBA Draft, Victor Wembenyama from France)...

...and the rankings have Edey 440th while Mady Sissoko was headed to Michigan State ranked #41. There are many reasons for this (international game has changed things, private, basketball-only high schools have clouded things further), but I feel like the biggest part of it has been the individuals who only existed to rank the classes (Bob Gibbons and Van Coleman, sure, but also Dave Telep and Rob Harrington) being replaced by rotating groups of experts who don't really attach their names to the rankings. My theory: when Rivals and 247 rank people under the masthead and not "Dave Telep's rankings", it's much easier to do the "drop him from 45 to 74" thing that Matt Painter is referencing there.

Which is why you hear coaches speaking up about it more and more the last decade. A good example: I did this sit-down interview with Brad Underwood in 2017 after he got the job. Here's what he had to say at the time about recruiting rankings:

"I've never been one to give two hoots about the star system. Most of the guys doing those evaluations have never coached a second or done a scouting report. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's about putting a puzzle together. And it's our puzzle. Just because a kid is really, really talented - we may not need that spot."

So yeah, would I ever shy away from a one-and-done? Absolutely not. I coached Michael Beasley and Bill Walker and they were great. But can you win without (one and dones)? Absolutely. The national college player of the year this year is Frank Mason (Kansas) and he's a four-year guy. I think you find the pieces that fit, the style that fits. We like motored-up guys, high-character guys, guys with some IQ, and we like toughness."

Let me try to compile all of this together into one coherent point (because I do still believe in a system of ranking players). Even with all the noise, I still compile my list of RSCI top-100 players because it means something when 4-5-6 different services all rank the same kid in the top-100. I'm not talking about abandoning all rankings. This is not headed for some "Underwood wants him, so I want him, end of story." If Underwood never finds another Ayo or Kofi, he'll never climb to #2 in the polls again.

My point here is simple. As Matt Painter said, everyone can name the top-20. Mostly because they're already on the NBA radar, some for years. Landing one of those kids is a massive boost to a program (see what Paolo Banchero did for Duke this year or Cade Cunningham getting an otherwise average Oklahoma State team to 4-seed last year). But college basketball programs are built upon those players ranked 21 and up. At Illinois, we haven't landed a kid ranked any higher than Dee Brown (#19 in the 2002 RSCI) in the last 35 years, so we live in that 21-500 range that Matt Painter was talking about.

And in 2022, the rankings of players in that range are just bad. Sorry, but they are. Too many defaults are applied. The legwork of Dave Telep and Van Coleman appears to be a thing of the past. It just feels like an Alan Griffin can't be properly ranked anymore. In the past, one of those guys hears serious spring buzz and knows "where there's this much buzz about a kid, I need to get him in my final rankings". But now, it appears to be "a kid who was the MVP of the New York state tournament is going to Illinois? Just put him around 190 or so."

(Actually, with the Illinois reputation getting a boost the last three years, now it might be "put him around 120 or so.")

So I think Underwood nailed it. There used to be evaluators at AAU events with massive networks of contacts. And they'd use those contacts and listened to every "you know that kid who Purdue signed is gonna be a star" in order to fine tune their rankings throughout the year. Now, a Carsen Edwards doesn't even crack the top-100.

Edwards is probably the perfect example here. He blew up his junior year playing high school ball in Houston, averaging 24 ppg. Purdue pounced quickly - he got offers from Vandy, Baylor, Texas Tech, Houston, and Purdue and committed to Purdue after his junior year. Then, as a senior, an even bigger blowup as his high school team was at one time ranked as the #1 team in the country, playing national showcase events across the country. And Edwards was their star, averaging 26.3 ppg. He'd go on to be two-time First Team All Big Ten, a 2nd-team All American as a junior, and leave early after his junior season (went 33rd to the Celtics).

His composite ranking coming out of high school? 118th.

In the past, there was no way a Carsen Edwards would have been under-ranked. If anything, he would have been over-ranked because the high school star of the #1 high school team playing tournaments around the country would be considered a superstar by default. Sure, he's only 6'-0", so knock down his ranking for his height, but still the point here (I think?) is to be naming the top players going off to play college basketball. And for 247 to say that Carsen Edwards is the 139th-best player in that class tells me that this was a default number (going to Purdue, didn't have any blue blood offers) and not an actual player evaluation. If there's a Clark Francis working the phones, he's hearing from 25 people "that Edwards kid from Houston is a future superstar". And then he'd have the autonomy to move him up to #34 in his rankings.

THAT'S my issue with college basketball rankings. No, it does not mean that every kid going to Duke is over-ranked and bad. No, it does not mean that every kid going to Michigan State and ranked 41st (like Sissoko) will be a bust like Sissoko. And no, you may NOT use this point to say that Sencire Harris is wildly under-ranked and Jayden Epps is wildly under-ranked and that Ty Rodgers is wildly under-ranked and that Skyy Clark is wildly under-ranked. You're only saying that because you're an Illinois fan and you want every recruit to be awesome.

I'm saying that the rankings have issues right now, and so they require a deeper dive than just taking the number at face value. I completely whiffed on Griffin and Bezhanishvili when handing out Tom Cruises, and now I think I understand the places where the system has broken down a little bit. In 2022, basketball-only high schools are the new AAU, and international recruiting isn't just for Gonzaga anymore, so there are about three dozen "Mady Sissoko vs. Zach Edey" situations playing out in every recruiting class. I think I can find them if I dig deep enough.

One final point: I really wish I could hear some of the conversations that go on when coaches are sitting next to each other at spring and summer tournament games. I'd love to hear Underwood and Painter sitting next to each other discussing the latest 2015 rankings. "Justin Simon moves over to Brewster Academy, picks Arizona, and he's ranked 33rd. Carsen Edwards stays at his public high school, picks Purdue, and he's 118th." They have to think that people like me look so silly when quoting the latest player-ranking updates.

But quote them I shall. I'm dumb enough to believe that I can dig through these bad rankings and separate out the next Giorgi from the next Greg Eboigbodin. What's the old X-Files statement?

The Truth Is Out There.


RedbirdIlliniFan on May 9, 2022 @ 11:58 AM

This was a super helpful perspective on something I always suspected, that the rankings were 90% click-focused 10% player-focused. I realize that ranking 2024 guys is a silly and inexact science here in 2022, but I think Morez is a great example of none of these "scouts" are doing the homework.

Is there an argument for James Brown ahead of Morez? Probably, maybe he's got more upside due to his different build, or maybe Meanstreets and St Rita are putting Morez in a role to put up better numbers and Brown will thrive in a different system. However, I don't think either of those things are obvious enough for every ranking service to have Brown 10-20 spots ahead of Morez. Which isn't to say that Morez should be higher in the ranking, just that the order of Brown & Morez seems silly given how all-state teams shook out, and how the EYBL has gone thus far.

Why is Brown higher? Thats something I'd like to know the honest answer to. My suspicion is some of it is Morez is already committed and its easier to click-bait with a guy who is uncommitted.

Robert on May 9, 2022 @ 12:25 PM

Yeah, that's an interesting one. I remember this quote this winter from Michael O'Brien of the Sun Times (obviously not someone compiling national top-100 lists, but someone who watches more Chicagoland high school ball than maybe anyone):

Been a long day and I don’t want to go too crazy off a quarter and a half but oh my goodness Morez Johnson is a special player. The St. Rita sophomore has a higher ceiling as a prospect than any local player in a long time. You have to watch it, stats don’t do it justice.

When I read a local guy saying "higher ceiling as a prospect than any local player in a long time" (and he's not talking about Sioux Falls here, he's talking about Chicago), then I expect that player to rocket up the early rankings, possibly into someone's top-20. Especially with all the other buzz.

So when he then debuts in the rankings with three very similar rankings (ESPN has him 51st, Rivals 43rd, 247 40th), I just get the feeling that one of them set a ranking and the other two just added him to their lists in similar spots. Someone somewhere said that Brown was the better prospect and everyone just goes along with it.

The old days where Clark Francis ranked Joe Bertrand 34th (while everyone else had DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul as the top two players in the state and Bertrand un-ranked) seem to be gone.

And I think you hit on the big part of that (at least the way I view it). Those little details you mentioned (all-state teams, EYBL stats so far, etc)... I'm not sure there's anyone researching players like that anymore? The "consensus" seems to happen before the composite rankings, not after, and there's really no incentive to fix it. And besides, this is just the 2024 class, so if they have something wrong, they have two years to fix it.

So I feel like if you raised this concern to one of the rankings services, you'd honestly get a "who cares?" answer. The whole thing just doesn't seem to have the intensity it had 10-15 years ago.

Robert on May 9, 2022 @ 12:35 PM

Here's a decent example of what I mean. I clicked on the 2009 rankings on RSCI (so 15 years before Morez Johnson's class). Let's just take the player ranked 25th in each.

2009: Abdul Gaddy is 25th in the early rankings (before their junior summer). The individual rankings from each service that landed him at 25: 84, 14, 35, 9, 25.

2024: Donnie Freeman is 25th. The individual rankings: 20, 22, 33.

There used to be 5-6-7 services ranking players. And you'd get this wide variety (which could be condensed down to a "composite" ranking). Now we're down to three services (On3 is trying to be the 4th) and their rankings are all disturbingly similar.

RedbirdIlliniFan on May 9, 2022 @ 03:26 PM

Agree its fishy that all the services now seem to debut guys in basically the exact same spot. You'd expect scouts to have huge differences in opinions of underclassmen, especially since the scouting is just beginning. Its just not physically possible scouts have seen the same amount of every guy, so them all coming to the same answer makes the whole process seem out-of-wack.

I'm trying to be optimistic about On3, but things like their NIL value just being a count of social media followers make me discouraged they're going to buck the trend. (Seriously, they think Derrick Lively is worth 33 grand? I'll bet he clears that the day he steps foot on campus)

Less objectively, that's in addition to the fact that they're far and away the most pessimistic on the 22 Class for U of I. (Ty and Epps not top 100 hurts my soul)

thegoah on May 9, 2022 @ 01:04 PM

When you think about it, really, it makes sense. What is the market for an honest assessment of the talent? Coaches aren't going to pay for it. They aren't going to (and shouldn't) trust anyone outside of their own assessors. So the only person they're evaluating for is the subscriber, and until there's some sort of accountability mechanism, who is gonna even know that the sites were that far off?

It would be interesting if someone had the time and inclination and math skills to create some sort of database with some number (similar to MLB's WAR) and track each player's WAR vs. his expected WAR (eWAR?) based on his rankings from each service. Then you could have an easy, one-number-to-look-at bias filter.

If a site is consistently negative on WAR minus eWAR for a school--boom. There's your bias. (Or if they're always plus on the blue bloods).

Probably someone is already doing something like this. I seldom have an original thought. I'm getting too far into the details here but my main point is that there's no tracking system to hold predictions/evaluations accountable, so until they begin to look ridiculous, they're just gonna keep following the $.

SactownIllini on May 9, 2022 @ 02:49 PM

I think this would work well if the recruiting rankings weren't also focused on NBA potential or if players were evenly dispersed across teams of equal abilities. I'm sure if Alan Griffin's bro played for Kent State, he could have put up even more ridiculous numbers than playing for Duke. And now he's a one and done after not playing a full season. His WAR probably would show he was a bust but he'll be a lottery pick. You'd somehow have to factor in the post college life of a player potentially. And the draft slot may not be good evaluation tool either. You have guys like Skal Labissière getting drafted on potential they never quite reach (sigh for another blown Kings pick). So, I think it would be very hard to do just on numbers alone. You'd probably need a qualitative element.

Giovantischixstripz on May 9, 2022 @ 06:23 PM

As a stats nerd, this would be so cool. Sites like Torvik or KenPom could weigh production based on conference coefficients (frankly with the increased movement these days, they will be able to approximate better how stats translate on average from one conference to another), and there could be a few different numbers: raw production that favors 4 year players, per 40 minute production, and projected production for players who go to the NBA early (aka what they could have been expected to do had they stayed in college). Not only would you be able to hold recruiting sites accountable, you could see which coaches recruit/develop well above recruiting rankings.

Robert on May 10, 2022 @ 10:00 AM

The issue with most of this (and I agree with a lot of what is said here) is the difference between the two sports (NBA and CBB). In a ranking system looking for college production, Kofi would be #9 in his class and Coleman Hawkins 84th. Using a system looking at future potential in the NBA, Hawkins would be 27th and Kofi 98th.

I'd prefer a system that ignores NBA potential (which is really just ranking the players who have exceptional height and length for their skill set) and simply looks at potential college production. Ranking based on height is what puts Carsen Edwards 118th, and what good is a system that puts Carsen Edwards 118th?

Giovantischixstripz on May 10, 2022 @ 11:28 AM

Absolutely agree, recruiting sites should be ranking players based on their potential to be effective college basketball players. Talking about NBA potential is what NBA big boards are for.

Do recruiting sites explicitly say they rank based on next level potential? I feel like they try to toe the line between both (and they shouldn't, just focus on college please). Obviously the top guys are also the top on the draft big boards, but once you get into the 20s and 30s you have some smallish guards who are unlikely to become lottery picks

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