How Iowa's 2021 basketball prospects are approaching recruiting in a global pandemic
Emarion Ellis and Landon Wolf are two of Iowa's more intriguing 2021 prospects.
Ellis emerged last spring and summer, opening eyes on the Adidas Gauntlet with his natural gifts and athleticism. He surged up to No. 5 in the Register's in-state 2021 recruiting rankings and was poised to land his first offers this AAU season.
Wolf made a name for himself this season with Cedar Falls. He jumped from unranked to No. 13 in the Register's rankings and looked like a top-10 talent at the state tournament. He, too, was poised for big things this spring and summer.
Now, with COVID-19 postponing any AAU basketball and recruiting live periods for the foreseeable future, those big things are on hold.
"I do think it's going to be really hard for some kids," said Tanner Carlson, who coaches Ellis and Wolf with the Iowa Barnstormers. "Some kids are easy to identify. You see a 6-10 kid that's athletic, someone's going to pull the trigger. For other kids, if you’re a skilled position, it's really important for coaches to see you live."
April, May, June and July are the four most important months for recruiting evaluation — especially for juniors playing their 17U season, and especially for juniors who don't yet hold any offers. Instead, this year, juniors are in a state of recruiting limbo.
Simply put: Will college coaches have enough chances to evaluate them to feel comfortable extending an offer?
"It really hurts," said Waukee wing Payton Sandfort, the Register's No. 2 in-state 2021 prospect, who was hoping to visit Stanford this spring before the coronavirus spread. "I mean, the 17U year is supposed to be the big year. Everyone’s watching. Big games all over. And I might not be having a chance to get that. That sucks."
In response to the coronavirus, the NCAA has enacted a dead recruiting period through May 31. That means no face-to-face contact between coaches and prospects. It also means no live periods where coaches can watch those prospects play.
There were two such periods for AAU basketball in April. Those are canceled.
Currently, there are two planned live periods in June: one at the NPBA Top 100 Camp June 17-18 (for the country's cream-of-the-crop talents) and one for regional high school camps that take place June 19-21 or June 26-28.
Then, there are two in July: one for AAU events July 9-12 and one for the NCAA development camps July 21-26.
The June events will likely get canceled. Some around the AAU community are holding out hope the July events will be played, but that also feels unlikely. AAU coaches the Register spoke with said they're hearing about live periods being potentially added in August — and even September and October — to make up for the lost periods.
"I really, really hope for our kids that things clear up and are good to go by at least July or something," Carlson said. "But, given the state of everything, I think that’s really hopeful thinking."
No live periods this summer wouldn't hurt as much for a prospect like Sandfort. If he doesn't get to play in front of college coaches before his senior year, he'll be fine. He already holds a handful of offers, with him listing Iowa, Drake, Minnesota and Utah at the top of his radar as he still eyes a fall decision.
Other prospects aren't as fortunate.
"If we don't get another chance, that’s so bogus," said Ellis, a Davenport producwho has interest from a range of Midwest mid-majors and low-majors.
Added Sandfort: "I feel like there's going to be a lot of kids that get looked over and don't get the offers or attention they deserve because of this."
Mount Vernon shooting guard Keaton Kutcher is the Register's No. 8 in-state 2021 prospect. He holds an offer from Western Illinois, plus interest from programs such as Missouri-Kansas City, Belmont and Illinois State. He'd planned to visit Illinois State this spring, but that was canceled due to the coronavirus.
Kutcher is trying to stay positive. Yes, he may not get as many opportunities as he'd like to impress college coaches ... but neither is anybody else.
All juniors are in the same unfortunate boat.
"I have a lot riding on this AAU season, personally," Kutcher said. "I’m just hoping that I can showcase my talents to some coaches one way or another and get my name out there a little more."
Bishop Garrigan power forward Angelo Winkel is the Register's No. 7 in-state 2021 prospect. He has interest from schools such as South Dakota, South Dakota State and soon-to-be-Division-I Augustana.
If all live periods do wind up canceled, Winkel said he'll likely extend his recruitment into his senior season. And he's not alone.
Drake assistant coach Matt Woodley told the Register in March he thinks there will be more unsigned 2021 prospects playing into their senior seasons than in any previous recruiting class. He predicted there simply won't be enough time for coaches to properly evaluate prospects, or for prospects to properly determine their best fit.
"I don’t want to use the word apprehensive," said Kingdom Hoops director Vance Mosley when describing college coaches offering 2021 prospects right now. "But it's a little bit of that. They only get so many scholarships."
Mosley said, in addition to extending recruitment into their senior seasons, he could see more prospects than usual playing as unsigned seniors in AAU basketball next spring.
Carlson said Barnstormers coaches have already discussed forming such a team.
"In certain situations, some kids had opportunities where they might have really blown up this spring and summer, and now that might not happen for them," Carlson said. "So I really do think there's going to be a lot of late commits and a lot of kids that may not have offers at times that they probably should."
AAU coaches are doing whatever they can to help players get exposure during the coronavirus. That mostly involves more phone, email and text correspondence with coaches, Carlson and Mosley said, and sending coaches tape more often.
Martin Bros program director Hank Huddleson said he's also collecting his players' highlight packages to promote on social media and send out to coaches. The Martin Bros' new practice facility in Cedar Falls will also have PlaySight installed, which would allow college coaches to watch their practices or fall league games.
Everybody's just trying to figure out how to adjust to this bizarre, global pandemic period of recruiting. And, unfortunately, the 2021 prospects will suffer the most. They only had two live periods last year as 16U players, and now they may have zero as 17Us.
Still, talent eventually gets seen by the right set of eyes.
At least that's the hope.
Matthew Bain covers recruiting, Iowa/Iowa State athletics and Drake basketball for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.
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