This summer, it’ll be Kansas Coach Bill Self’s turn to spend some on-court time with many of the top basketball recruits in the country.
Self was announced Tuesday as the head coach of the USA Basketball U18 team, a squad that usually features a mix of rising college freshmen and high school stars. Many of those prep standouts will arrive at the U18 training camp in Colorado Springs on May 31 still uncommitted in their college recruitments, and that could work toward the Jayhawks’ favor.
Self is, obviously, not the first high-profile college coach to be put in such a position. Others who have coached uncommitted five-star recruits during USA Basketball summer stints in the recent past have had mixed results, but Self’s predecessor with the U18 team — Texas Coach Shaka Smart — benefited greatly from his time with Team USA.
The U18 squad that Smart coached two summers ago included then-uncommitted prospects Mohamed Bamba — one of the top players in the class of 2017 — and point guard Matt Coleman, a top-50 national recruit. Both ended up committing to the Longhorns, and Bamba, who picked Texas over Kentucky, specifically cited his time with Smart and USA Basketball as a reason for his decision.
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“Coach Smart may not have been aware of it, but I put him through a weeklong job interview last summer when he coached me on Team USA in Valdivia, Chile,” Bamba said when announcing his commitment. “We instantly formed a bond. … His attention to detail is truly unbelievable — I can’t tell you how many times he picked up on something I mentioned in passing and brought it back full circle several months later.
“I’ve seen firsthand how much he genuinely cares about me and my family and how he’s going to challenge me to be in a state of continuous improvement.”
Could Self have a similar impact on the next wave of five-star seniors (and possibly negatively impact UK’s recruiting efforts)?
USA Basketball has its own selection process and protocols for identifying players and inviting them to events such as the U18 training camp, but a look at birthdates of top recruits from the class of 2019 yields a talented list of possibilities for Self’s summer in charge.
Top 2019 recruits eligible for the U18 team include five players with Kentucky scholarship offers: Matthew Hurt, Scottie Lewis, Bryan Antoine, Tyrese Maxey and Keion Brooks. All five of those players are also set to participate in USA Basketball’s new event for high school players on Final Four weekend, so it seems likely they’ll all be invited to the U18 camp, too. (It’s worth noting that Kansas is already the leader on Hurt’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page).
The other two uncommitted players with UK offers for 2019 are James Wiseman and Vernon Carey, the No. 1 and 2 prospects in the junior class. Both players also have Kansas offers, though the duo played last summer for the USA U16 team and are young enough to be eligible for this year’s U17 squad, which will likely be led by longtime USA Basketball youth coach Don Showalter.
UK’s only 2019 commitment — D.J. Jeffries — is too old by four days to be eligible for the U18 team. (The only one of UK’s three signees who would be eligible to play would be Tyler Herro, but that’s unlikely to happen).
Self could also get a head start on coaching one of his top signees for next season, Quentin Grimes, who would be eligible to play for the Kansas coach with the U18 team this summer. KU’s other two incoming McDonald’s All-Americans, David McCormack and Devon Dotson, are too old to play for the team, as is top remaining Kansas target Romeo Langford. Another top 2019 prospect, Kentucky target Ashton Hagans, is also too old to play for the U18 squad.
Still, that’s a long list of possibilities for Self, who will oversee the training camp from May 31-June 8 and then coach the final 12-player squad at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Canada in mid-June.
Dayton’s Anthony Grant and Wake Forest’s Danny Manning will serve as Self’s assistant coaches.
Manning was also an assistant coach last summer for John Calipari, who oversaw a U19 camp that included several top prospects, a stint that didn’t result in much of a recruiting advantage for Kentucky (though Calipari did get to spend some extra time with UK freshman Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and PJ Washington).
Another one of Calipari’s players last summer, Immanuel Quickley, committed to UK a few months later, but Quickley was seen as a virtual lock for the Cats before he played for the UK coach.
“I think you definitely get closer to somebody that you spend almost a month with, especially going overseas,” Quickley said shortly after returning from his trip to Egypt with Calipari’s team. “So I got to know him quite well.
“I definitely think it helped (UK’s) cause, me getting to spend time with him. I didn’t get to spend time with the other coaches. So, I mean, it can really only help you to get to know somebody.”
Cameron Reddish was another major Calipari target on that team, but he chose Duke — the favorite throughout his recruitment — a few months later. Much was made throughout the summer of five-star prospect Bol Bol being cut from Calipari’s squad, but UK’s interest in his recruitment started to wane anyway. Calipari decided not to extend a scholarship offer to Louis King after coaching him in Egypt, and UK stopped recruiting Langford after that summer, too.
Bol and King eventually signed with Oregon. Langford is considering Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt and should make a decision in the next few weeks.
Knox played his first two USA Basketball summers for Showalter, a former high school coach, before participating in Calipari’s training camp last summer (after he had already signed with Kentucky).
His father, Kevin Knox Sr., talked to the Herald-Leader last year about the benefits of playing USA Basketball and was asked then if he would consider it a recruiting advantage for college coaches who are put in charge of uncommitted prospects.
“That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “Of course it is.”
Knox Sr. explained that such situations allow coaches to get a much better feel for prospects, as well as getting the obvious face-to-face time with those players.
“You’re able to see the kid up close and personal,” he said. “Is this the type of kid that we want? Does he hustle? Does he work hard? Does he process information? Does he like to play defense? Can he hit big-time shots? What kind of personality does he have? Does he like my coaching style?
“All those things are put into play. So, yeah, it is an advantage.”
It’ll be a few more months before we see whether it pays off for Self on the 2019 recruiting trail.