How Young Is Too Young?

Kiana is right to be unnerved by Michael Sokolove’s story on Allonzo Trier, a 13-year-old hoops prodigy who is currently the No. 1-ranked seventh grader in the country. He and his mother have made it their mission to make him a pro, and they spend much of their time trying to refine his game, being flown around the country for AAU tournaments, and being wooed by college coaches who already have him on their wish lists for 2013. This is obviously sort of creepy and, perhaps not surprisingly, fueled in part by the N.C.A.A.’s cartel-like control over young football and basketball players.

In January, the N.C.A.A. lowered the school year a basketball player was considered a prospect from ninth grade to seventh grade.

Though the change seemed curious, it closed a loophole that had allowed college coaches to gain a recruiting edge by inviting middle school players to private camps. Those middle school prospects are now protected by the N.C.A.A. the same way as high school recruits.

For now, elementary school students are not included in this new rule. An associate commissioner of the Big East, Joseph D’Antonio, the chairman of the N.C.A.A.’s legislative council, hopes there is no need to change that.

If we’ve gotten to the point where we’re considering ranking nine-year-olds, it’s safe to say we’ve crossed the Rubicon.

Ethical dubiousness aside, it’s so speculative that it doesn’t make a lot of basketball sense, either. Being tremendously skilled isn’t the sole or most important factor in becoming a pro, and much of these rankings are based on players’ very literal future growth. (One player mentioned in the article was being courted largely because his father was 6’11.) Trier is 5’5 now, and while it’s pretty likely he’ll get taller  (his dad is 6’3) it’s just as likely it won’t be by much (his mother is 5’4 or so).  Even if he was tall as his father, 6’3 isn’t very impressive height for an NBA-caliber player — the average NBA player is four inches taller. What happens if he ends up not growing, like Jon Allen?

Four years ago, Hoop Scoop rated Jon Allen of College Station, Tex., the second-best sixth grader in the country.

He was a 6-2 centerwho wore size 12 ½ sneakers and was unstoppable in the post. During several A.A.U. tournaments, parents of opponents asked to see his birth certificate.

Allen said he received a recruiting letter from U.C.L.A. when he was in seventh grade. But then his growth spurt sputtered.

“At some point we realized he wasn’t going to become a 7-footer,” Allen’s father, Jud, said. “His friends still call him Big Jon, but now he’s pretty much a normal-size kid out there.”

Allen is now 16 years old, still 6-2, and his awkward transition from center to shooting guard has gone mostly unnoticed by college basketball coaches and recruiting services. There have been no more letters from U.C.L.A.

“The thing can turn into a tragedy because these rankings give kids false hopes,” said Tony Squire, an A.A.U. coach in Virginia who coachedKevin Garnettand Amar’e Stoudemire. “A few of the kids pan out, but most of them you don’t hear anything about.”

Judging from the highlights above, Trier will probably be able to play ball in college somewhere. But the recruiting analyst Clark Francis says he’ll be as good as Brandon Jennings, which seems absurdly ambitious.

3 thoughts on “How Young Is Too Young?

  1. Grump March 23, 2009 at 4:33 pm Reply

    The recruiting process is a machine. Even these “scouts” are in it for subscriptions to their services and will tout anybody so more of the curious will subscribe to their service for information.

  2. rob March 24, 2009 at 12:11 pm Reply

    It’s kind of crazy that this kid is going to give up his childhood for a professional work schedule but, like the article said, its no different than what the top tennis or soccer players do. You get targeted at a young age, get separated from your peer group and get placed in intensive private instruction. Some burn out, but for anyone concerned with mastering they’re craft in this age of early specialization, its already understood by all parties.

    I don’t know if the Jon Allen comparison holds up. He’s obviously going to end being a guard, and while he may not grow much more, if he gets to at least to the 5’8 to 5’10 range (a conservative estimate), he’s TJ Ford. He’s got all the visibly tangible skills to be successful at the D1 level. Different with a post where, even if a kid has the a great post game, he needs to have a certain set of god given physical tools to be considered a legit prospect.

    There was a book (by Darcy Frey, I think) that covered a couple guys playing at Lincoln High school in Coney Island. They kept on talking about this sixth grader that everyone knew would be the next great brooklyn ballplayer. That kid was Stephon Marbury.

    • shani-o March 24, 2009 at 12:57 pm Reply

      Well, with regards to tennis players (I don’t know about soccer players), I think there’s a class issue that’s not being mentioned. Yes, there are young figure skaters, and tennis players, and golfers and gymnasts who get scheduled like working adults, but they also typically come from a different class background than kids who play basketball. (And let’s not forget the kids from Cuba and DR who grow up thinking baseball is their only ticket out of poverty.)

      These hyper-scheduled tennis players, the golf players, even the kids who are tracked into classical music come from backgrounds where this is an option, not the only way, and education is still a huge part of their curriculum. I’m afraid for young basketball (and baseball) players, because their entire future seems to depend on their bodies, and cultivating their minds falls by the wayside.

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