26 September 2020

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High School Basketball Stardom: An Unspoken Issue

We are currently amidst the college recruitment season and tons of players are announcing to which colleges they are heading to next season. Unluckily, all of them are forced to do it in the same way, via a video on their social network of preference, due to the corona virus outbreak.

But this seems to be no problem, as almost all of the top recruits from this year’s class have amassed a large following along their high school careers. And this personally makes me question the same thing year after year. Are we giving these kids too much attention way too soon?

CHATSWORTH, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 04: Joshua Christopher, one of this year’s top prospect, who recently committed to Arizona State University (Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images)

Let’s look at some examples first. One of the first high school phenoms that haven’t played a single minute of NBA basketball but yet have a higher amount of followers than some league players is LaMelo Ball. He has been in the spotlight for almost 5 years and his fame has only increased ever since he made the starting line-up in his old high school, Chino Hills, alongside his two brothers, Lonzo and LiAngelo. LaMelo has played in these past few years in California, Lithuania, Ohio and Australia. He even played in a league created by his own father. Let me remind you at this point that he is only 18 years old. He also has 5.3 million followers on Instagram and over 600 thousand on Twitter.

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Another, more recent, example is San Ysidro freshman Mikey Williams. Yes, that’s right, he is a freshman. At just 15 years old, the 6’2″ combo guard out of San Diego has gained a large number of followers due to his amazing performances throughout his first season of high school basketball. Almost 2 million Instagram users follow him along this journey that will most probably end up with him playing in the NBA.

Because that’s the thing, most of the people that follow these players do it for the mere reason that they can one day tell their family and friends that they had been following that guy since his AAU days. And people take pride in that, just like the people that went to LeBron’s games at Saint Vincent-Saint Mary. And I wonder why? I guess it probably is the sense of belonging to something big, and a player’s journey to professional basketball and, maybe, stardom is quite big to say the least.

But there is baggage that comes with all this attention that young players get. First and foremost is distractions, tons of them actually. All this popularity might come at a very young age for these athletes who might lose sight of what’s actually important which is developing their game. Along with that comes the pressure. With the latest example of Mikey Williams, you can see opposing fans chanting “Overrated” at him, like in one of his games back in December 2019. This pressure can get to some and they might succumb to it, which ends up affecting their performances negatively.

But, it can also be argued that this is a positive aspect, because as the saying goes “pressure makes diamonds” and if these kids ever make it to the pros they will be under a lot of scrutiny from fans, critics, the media and the organization they end up playing for. Back to the example of Williams, he ended up dropping 51 points in that same game, so he doesn’t seem to be bothered about what others have to say about him.

As well as all this, another negative aspect from high school stardom are temptations. A great example of this is LeBron James’ case in 2003, when he accepted a pair of throwback t-shirts worth 845$ as a gift. Because of this he was suspended for one game. The Ohio High School Athletic Association was after him for the Hummer H2 worth over 60,000$ which he was seen driving back when he was still a senior as well.

LeBron James poses in front of his Hummer after declaring for the NBA draft in April 2003. (AP)

There’s also this sense of entitlement some players at this stage might get of feeling like they are great already. But they must always keep in mind that dominating at AAU games and HS state championships does not mean they will continue to be as dominant in college or in the league. For them, there’s still an extremely long way to go if they want to be great.

But it isn’t all negative aspects when it comes to this early acquired fame. Social media popularity gives the players some power back in my opinion, as organizations such as the NCAA or high school athletic organizations feel as if the players owe them for their success. It must be said that they provide a platform, a stage in which youngsters can showcase their talents, but their entire business is supported by the players and only them. Because when people go to college games they don’t usually go because of the coaching staff or just to be with their friends, they pay for the spectacle provided by these hoopers.

You can see this aspect in the new path that has been created for young players that dream of playing one day in the NBA but want to avoid the whole ‘one-and-done’ thing. Two of the top recruits in the 2020 class, Jalen Green and Isaiah Todd have declared that next season they will be playing in the NBA G-League, as part of a new initiative that will be paying elite prospects $500,000 or more and provide a one-year development program outside of the minor league’s traditional team structure.

Another interesting aspect regarding all this is the teams. When you are part of a team that has any of these young superstars, you definitely benefit from it. Brands start knocking on your door, giving you free apparel, equipment, sneakers, also more and more scouts start coming to your games, giving the other players a better chance of getting noticed and ending up getting a scholarship. So not only does the star get more attention, everybody around him gets some too, and it can help entire basketball programs like SVSM with LeBron James or Chino Hills with the Ball brothers.

Let’s also bear in mind that a lot of these kids eventually get drafted and start earning ‘the big bucks’ and some, more often than not, decide to give back to the community and help the people who still live where they grew up. I’m not saying this is always the case, but it’s not rare to see a player on social media posting about how he’s helping his community by building a rec center or donating to an organization or whatever they may need.

And last but not least, this can become a fuel for these players. A very interesting article published by the Sport Journal called ‘Does the Media Impact Athletic Performance?’ stated that media criticism can be both a detrimental or a motivating factor, which is up to the player’s mindset and resilience. Some give in to the critics and their careers come crashing down afterward, whilst others thrive in situations where everything and everyone seems to be against them.

To sum it all up, high school stardom is one of the best tests for young basketball phenoms and, indirectly, one of the best ways for NBA teams to analyze the prospects coming into any given year’s draft. This path can either make you or break you and it all comes down to each player’s mental strength, an aspect that teams sometimes seem to forget when making their draft decisions.

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