Sports · July 6, 2022

Xavier Booker, a respected rookie, shows that the shoe circuit isn’t the only path

LAS VEGAS – Few could have predicted Xavier Booker, a sophomore barely stepping off the high school team bench, in his current position: scrutinized by NBA scouts and recruited from Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and a group of others.

Then again, who wouldn’t want a 6-foot-11 southpaw who can snatch a rebound, create their own counter-attack and pull up for a triple, deliver an accurate pass, or lead for a dunk?

But as the recruiting season reaches its climax, Booker is a unicorn in another sense.

He will not attend any of the July marquee recruiting events run by Nike, Adidas and Under Armor, shoe companies that invest millions in top-tier travel basketball programs in hopes of fostering a relationship with next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. or Stephen Curry.

Instead, Booker, 17, is the rare elite prospect who will perform on the Off Broadway basketball circuit, playing in tournaments run by independent organizers with little or no shoe company sponsorship – and without a string of college coaches with the name on the sideline.

Booker, just outside Indianapolis, turned down offers to play for several Nike-sponsored teams and at least one Adidas team to maintain his loyalty to a manager, Mike Saunders, who helped him blossom for George Hill All Indy, a Hill-funded Indianapolis team, a veteran NBA guard.

“Mike has done a lot for me,” Booker said. “It was a big part of where I am now.”

It is difficult to overestimate the influence that footwear companies have on youth basketball. They invest in travel ball coaches who recruit top players, pay annual grants of up to six figures, provide equipment to teams, and cover travel costs for tournaments across the country.

In turn, coaches should funnel elite players to colleges that shoe companies have apparel deals with. Adidas, for example, pays Kansas $ 14 million a year. Duke and Kentucky are on Nike’s payroll and Auburn is an Under Armor flagship school.

At times, as a 2017 federal corruption case revealed, shoe company representatives acted as bag holders, facilitating payments to recruits’ families as incentives to attend one of their schools. Now, with athletes able to profit from their fame, shoe companies can pay athletes at the table, as Adidas has announced it will do with a network that allows athletes from any of the 109 schools it sponsors to become. brand ambassadors for the company.

However, it’s the shoe companies’ money that incentivizes even the youngest players to play hopscotch in the country by playing for different high schools every year and new travel ball teams apparently every tournament. (A coach at a Midwestern prep school attended a showcase event in Las Vegas last month solely to prevent one of his players from being poached by another prep school.)

Booker, however, was stuck at the start of his senior year.

He is still playing for Indianapolis Cathedral High School, which contributed to its first state championship since 1998 in March. He also stayed with the George Hill All Indy team, where he started turning heads a year ago.

“We don’t want to be one of these families or kids hopping around different AAU or high school squads every five minutes,” said Booker’s father Fred, who spent 27 years in the Marines and now works for the Department of Defense. . “I tell him, ‘Son, if things don’t go right, you’ve got to get things out. You can’t run or jump every time you think there’s a better opportunity out there. ‘”

He added: “If you are attracting attention now with a team that is not on the circuit, what will you gain?”

Several college coaches have had to go back more than a decade, to Otto Porter Jr., whose father forbade him from playing basketball, to remember a player as highly regarded as a booker who bypassed the shoe company circuit. Chas Wolfe, who runs a national scouting service, has spotted two more in recent years – Malik Williams, a three-year captain in Louisville, and Pete Nance, who moved from Northwestern to North Carolina last month – but has said Booker’s case is extremely rare.

If Booker is an overnight sensation, it is only for newcomers.

His first toy as a child was a 3-foot hoop with a sponge ball, and when he was in elementary school, his hands were rarely without a basketball. His two older brothers, both in the Air Force, played on the All-Service team of the armed forces. And when Booker isn’t in the driveway shooting for a shot at his family’s home in an Indianapolis suburb, he often watches classic NBA games and aspires to transform his body in the gym like Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Although Booker was always tall for his age, his father trained him in dribbling and footwork, once the domain of the guards, so he would have the skills to play away from the basket.

Those tools weren’t immediately apparent to Saunders, the travel ball coach, when he sat in the stands at a Cathedral game a year ago. Booker checked in, swallowed some rebounds, blocked a shot and scored a field goal and after a few minutes he was back on the bench. Saunders was there to watch his nephew, who kept nagging him about how Booker, who averaged less than nine minutes per game, could do so much more.

Next, Saunders introduced himself to Fred Booker, who offered to send Saunders video clips that revealed the extent of his son’s abilities.

“I’ve looked at them and I think this can’t be the same guy sitting on the bench for his high school team,” Saunders said. “I called him back and said, ‘Fred, if he can show us what he has in a game, his whole world will change in three weeks.’

It wasn’t far.

Dinos Trigonis, an independent tournament operator, caught a glimpse of Booker at a tournament in Indianapolis and invited him to Las Vegas last June for his all-American court of Pangos, which features many of the country’s top 100 potential customers. The camp, which two years ago attracted Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren, and Jabari Smith – the top three picks in this year’s NBA draft – is able to attract so many top players because it’s held when college recruiters can’t attend. and therefore does not enter into conflict with the events of the footwear companies.

When Cathedral’s season kicked off in November, Michigan State manager Tom Izzo was sitting behind the bench.

And when Booker returned to the Pangos camp last month, playing in front of the NBA scouts, he was named the most valuable player.

It didn’t go so well last week at the National Basketball Players Association’s field near Orlando, Florida, where Booker, perhaps for the only time this summer, played against other top recruits in the presence of college coaches. Bothered by a sprained ankle and with a larger target on his back, Booker was not at his best.

For the remaining two windows that college coaches can evaluate in person – Wednesday through Sunday and July 20 through 24 – Booker will be with Hill’s team at tournaments in Atlanta and Milwaukee on the independent NY2LA circuit.

Jessie Evans, a former college coach who led Booker’s team for three days in Las Vegas, mentioned his wingspan, quick feet, and shooting skills, but admired his interest in being coached the most. “He’s a good player, but he doesn’t know everything,” Evans said. “Some of these kids are 15 and they think they have all the answers. This is a testament to home, but he hasn’t been on the radar either and people have told him how good he is. “

More than a few NBA players sponsor travel teams. The effort for greatness of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook’s Team Why Not and Carmelo Anthony’s Team Melo are fixed on the Nike circuit. For many of them, it reflects their upcoming experiences.

Hill, 36, is no different.

When Hill, who grew up in a troubled Indianapolis neighborhood, was in middle school, he was repeatedly invited by Saunders to play organized basketball. Eventually, he agreed, opening a door that Hill felt obliged to keep ajar for the others. Of the eight first-team players from childhood, Hill said, three are in prison and two have died. It was the death of one of them in 2008 that Spurred Hill started the program and enlisted Saunders to run it, shortly after Hill was drafted 26th overall by the San Antonio Spurs.

“I could have been one of those guys, dead or in jail for drug dealing or gang banging,” Hill said. “I come from that background. I could have easily fallen into that trap. Mike gave me this opportunity. That’s why I put so much effort into him, so that they don’t fall into the trap of some of my former teammates. “

For a while, Nike sponsored Hill’s team. Then he collaborated for five years with Peak, a Chinese sportswear company. When the deal ended, Hill said Nike refused to take it back. He also had a brief deal with Under Armor. Several years ago, he decided to go it alone.

Hill, who has earned more than $ 100 million in salary over the course of his career, according to Basketball Reference, said it cost him about $ 150,000 a year to fund his team.

“I don’t ask my players for anything. You could say, ‘Oh, it’s a financial burden,’ but what we get out of it is ten times greater, “said Hill, who invited players to join him at his ranch outside San Antonio next week.

Saunders, who said eight players on the team have scholarship offers, believes what separates his program – and other independent ones – from the shoe company teams is that he’s not driven by victory and defeat. For example, teams must qualify to reach Nike’s Peach Jam, a tournament that will take place later this month in North Augusta, SC. If the coaches don’t win, they risk not getting their contract renewed by Nike. The same market forces also exist in Adidas and Under Armor.

Saunders said his principles were developing and highlighting talent.

“When you get labeled as a travel coach or AAU, they see us as used car salesmen because we all have the same field – you have to ring here to be seen,” Saunders said. “But good people know good people. It’s more than just opening your car trunk and displaying baby equipment. If you can look a good player’s parent in the eye and tell him it’s about development and growth and we don’t care about winning, it’s not that hard. “

Saunders also calculates that if a player tells him he is making 1,000 shots per day or that he has spent hours working on his dribbles, the game will show him.

So when Booker told him he could handle the ball and shoot from 3 points, Saunders encouraged him to bring the ball onto the pitch when he grabbed a rebound. And when Booker received the ball over the arc, he was encouraged to fly it. He plays through mistakes, Booker was told. The game would tell the truth.

“He just put me at ease, let me be myself, let me play my game,” Booker said, describing his newfound confidence and also revealing a recruiting parable: the right landing point is where you feel at. home.