Sports

Recruiting Trail Puts Basketball’s Changes on Display

BLAIRSTOWN, N.J. — Three days after traveling from his family’s vacation home in Porto Heli, Greece, Symeon Efstathiou found himself in a basketball gym at a remote boarding school tucked away in the northwest corner of New Jersey.

Along with his 6-foot-8, 200-pound frame, he brought with him a trick bag of tools: a silky shooting stroke, crafty moves in the low post, the ability to finish with either hand and a proclivity for dishing out decisive passes and high-fives to his new teammates.

Efstathiou, who will play for Greece in the European U-18 championships later this summer, spent last weekend playing at the Mid-Atlantic Independent School Team Camp, one of dozens of men’s basketball recruiting events around the country that college coaches were permitted to attend.

The showcases ranged from the Section 7 camp, a spectacle where hundreds of high school teams from California and other western states traveled to play on a dozen courts crammed into the Arizona Cardinals’ football stadium, to events like the one at Blair Academy, which hosted prep schools from New York to Philadelphia.

These events are part of the N.C.A.A.’s efforts in the wake of a federal corruption scandal to rein in the influence of the summer travel ball circuit, which is fueled by shoe company money and draws many of the best players in the country to events that coaches can attend in July.

The idea, Pollyannaish as it might have been, was to divert some recruiting juice back to high school coaches, who at least in theory are tethered to an academic institution. Many college coaches, especially ones near the top of the food chain, prefer events like Nike’s Peach Jam, which will take place next month in North Augusta, S.C., allowing them to see top-flight talent being tested against one another, all under one roof.

Still, there is some utility to events like the one at Blair Academy.

A player in an ancillary role on his travel team might be granted a more thorough assessment of his abilities while playing a leading role for his high school squad. Ochai Agbaji, who just led the University of Kansas to the national championship, is a good example — an under-the-radar talent who struggled to find minutes on an elite travel team but blossomed over his four years in college.

Efstathiou’s jersey for the Greek under-18 national team.Credit…Rachel Wisniewski for The New York Times

These camps, which will be open to college recruiters again this weekend, mean that in a particular gym, coaches like Mike Anderson of St. John’s and Shaheen Holloway of Seton Hall would share bleacher seats with assistants from Division III schools like Swarthmore and New York University.

So it was that one coach at a Division III school with elite academics was there last Friday to observe Efstathiou after getting a tip that morning about this new kid from Athens who was an Ivy League-caliber student.

After several trips down the court, the coach sighed.

“He’s too good for us,” said the coach, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is prohibited by N.C.A.A. rules from speaking publicly about players who are being recruited. “That’s a Division I player.”

When this was relayed to Efstathiou, he smiled.

Efstathiou, who turned 18 in April, has largely driven his own recruitment. His parents, who run a shipping company, are more interested in academics than basketball. (His older brother, Angelo, is enrolled at Tufts.) But he has basketball ambitions, too, something he felt might be better fed in the United States than in Greece, where if he continued to play for his club, Panathinaikos, he might not see regular playing time with the senior team for another five years.

Efstathiou’s plans to come to the United States last summer were waylaid because he was unable to get a visa until October because of coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions. He instead emailed video clips to about 50 college coaches — from Duke and U.C.L.A. down to Rochester, a Division III school. Many schools did not reply, even after several follow-up emails. Yale sent an automated reply, which an assistant coach later apologized for when he called to let Efstathiou know that they were not interested.

The coaches at Princeton University liked Efstathiou enough to connect him with the Hun School, a boarding school near their campus. Efstathiou will spend a year there after high school, giving him a chance to become stronger and more athletic.

Credit…Rachel Wisniewski for The New York Times

That will allow Princeton to keep a close eye on him, of course, but it will also allow Efstathiou more time to catch the eye of other coaches whose schools have strong mechanical engineering or business curriculums, his preferred academic interests.

“It’s not easy,” said Efstathiou’s mother, Semiramis. “There are always people around willing to help, but you never know how genuine they are. So to be honest, I don’t think we ever found the right channels to get in contact with universities that he wanted to be seen by.”

This is a moment of great flux in college sports. Athletes are empowered as never before — able to cash in on their fame, change schools with few restrictions and take advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the N.C.A.A. during the pandemic. Those freedoms, though, are not enjoyed across the board.

Coaches were so occupied this spring with hosting transfer candidates that many schools — roughly one-third of Division I teams, according to one coach — did not send coaches to evaluate high school prospects during two weekends in April when they were allowed to evaluate prospects in person. The transfer portal is so flush — more than 1,400 men’s basketball players entered this year — that it has also minimized the cost of recruiting mistakes because rosters can be easily retooled each year.

The upshot is that not only are coaches spending less time recruiting high school players, but they are also spending less time even evaluating them.

Still, on Saturday, about 60 miles from Blair Academy, at Montgomery High School in Skillman, N.J., the value of being there was reinforced. Elijah Gertrude, a wiry, 6-3 guard with a reputation as a flypaper defender, was suddenly knocking down one 3-pointer after another. Coaches from Virginia, Iona, St. John’s and Seton Hall seemed to cringe with each shot Gertrude sank — he made all six he attempted in this particular game — knowing they might soon have company recruiting him.

“That was many people’s question: Could I shoot the ball?” said Gertrude, who grew up in the Marion Gardens housing project in Jersey City.

Earlier this month, Jimmy Oladokun had to answer a more fundamental question: Do I belong here?

Efstathiou says playing in the United States is much different than in Europe. “They do a lot of stuff you don’t see in Europe,” he said. “I mean, you see people in the gym here practicing between-the-legs dunks.”Credit…Rachel Wisniewski for The New York Times

Oladokun, a 16-year-old from Upland, Calif., was invited to the Pangos All-America Camp in Las Vegas, which included many of the top 100 prospects in the country. The camp was not held during an in-person evaluation period so it drew only N.B.A. evaluators — including the Oklahoma City Thunder’s general manager, Sam Presti, and the Denver Nuggets’ president of basketball operations, Calvin Booth — and recruiting analysts.

At 6-9, 210 pounds, Oladokun plays like an overgrown puppy — more enthusiasm than grace — but he made his mark by relentlessly banging for rebounds with some of the best prospects in the country.

“I was so nervous,” said Oladokun, who has a 4.5 grade point average and has, since the camp, received scholarship offers from the University of California, San Diego, and U.C. Davis, as well as an offer for a roster spot from Yale, which does not award athletic scholarships but can provide other financial aid.

“A huge part of basketball is confidence; it doesn’t matter if you have the skill,” he continued. “The camp helped me display what I could do even though I didn’t play to my ceiling. I realize they’re great players, but they’re just like me in a lot of ways.”

These revelations have been occurring from coast to coast.

In a mostly empty gym last Friday night, Efstathiou found himself matched up against Alassane Amadou, a spindly, athletic 6-9 wing from Quakertown, Pa., who was being watched intently from the baseline by Marquette Coach Shaka Smart and an assistant coach, Cody Hatt. (They took turns applauding when Amadou made a play in front of them.)

Efstathiou’s team, which lost two starters to injury in its opening game, was quickly down by 22 points when Amadou came flying down the lane for a dunk that Efstathiou was helpless to prevent.

“I’m not scared to get dunked on,” said Efstathiou, who got his team within 9 points in the second half, occasionally going right back at Amadou, with whom he battled for rebounds on free throws as if a scholarship were being dangled for the winner. “The athleticism here is different — they do a lot of stuff you don’t see in Europe. I mean, you see people in the gym here practicing between-the-legs dunks.”

Credit…Rachel Wisniewski for The New York Times

He added: “It will take some time to get used to. I prefer a little more structure.”

The next day, Efstathiou said, his phone began to buzz with calls and texts.

Davidson Coach Matt McKillop wants to watch him play this weekend, as do coaches from St. Joseph’s, Brown and Cornell, before Efstathiou returns to Greece next week. Princeton Coach Mitch Henderson wants him to tour the campus. Maine, which wants him to enroll this fall, plans to send a coach to the European Championships in Turkey.

Iona also called to express interest.

The Gaels are interesting suitors. Coach Rick Pitino remembers Efstathiou from when he coached at Panathinaikos three years ago, but the report Pitino received from an assistant coach while he was in Greece last weekend indicated a prospect who had gotten stronger and improved his shot.

“There was more of it and it was much more serious,” Efstathiou said of the attention from college coaches. “I’ve won Greek national titles, I’ve played for the Greek national team, played in European tournaments, which would probably get respect from some but it didn’t yield much fruit.”

“I think it was necessary that I made this trip,” he added. “You have to get yourself in front of coaches or else it won’t work.”

Adam Zagoria contributed reporting.

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