Will Richardson is the sort of player who could help return Georgia Tech to national prominence. A four-star point guard from Liberty County, Richardson has a knack for making things happen with the ball and, even when he tries and fails, for digging it out and trying again.
So it was that, last Thursday, as Tech coach Josh Pastner made his rounds to 16 AAU games over the course of the day, Richardson’s game at Spring Valley High was appointment viewing. Near the midpoint of his day, Pastner made sure to be in the gym for Richardson’s 2 p.m. game with his Florida-based AAU team, Each 1 Teach 1, taking a seat close to the sideline.
Pastner wasn’t there to evaluate; Tech has offered Richardson a scholarship and is recruiting him vigorously. Rather, Pastner just wanted to show Richardson his interest. And, during a stoppage in play, Pastner received validating feedback. In the corner of the floor nearest Pastner, Richardson made eye contact with the Tech coach and gave a slight nod. In the sometimes bizarre world of college basketball recruiting, that was a small win.
“He comes to a lot of my games, so I keep that in mind,” Richardson said.
In hopes of assembling a foundational signing class in his second season at Tech, Pastner came to the desert for the same reasons hundreds of other college coaches did – to see and be seen at three major AAU tournaments going on simultaneously in Las Vegas. Pastner permitted the AJC to accompany him on one of his four days in Nevada, the first account of which was posted Tuesday.
“You’ve got to work hard at it,” Pastner said toward the end of his 13-hour day crisscrossing Las Vegas to five different gyms, some visited more than once. “It’s not easy, but you’re in shorts and a T-shirt and heading to a gym. There’s far worse things to be doing.”
Though only 39, Pastner has been doing it for a long time, well before he was paid for it. And the man who could best testify happened to be at Spring Valley. Hal Pastner, Josh's father, is the director of the Las Vegas Classic, which, with 1,254 teams playing on 64 courts, is by far the bigger of the three tournaments, the Las Vegas Fab 48 and the Adidas Summer Championships being the other two. He previously ran a similar event, called the Main Event, before selling the company and later founding Bigfoot Hoops, which runs the classic.
To engage his son’s passion for basketball, Hal Pastner started an AAU team, the Houston Hoops. When Josh was about 13, he took the Hoops to Las Vegas for a tournament run by a woman named Mae Fisher. Pastner's interest extended beyond the Hoops' games.
“I’d leave him off at 8 in the morning, and at 10 o’clock at night, I’d pick him up, because he would scout all the players and write his scouting reports, and Mae would look after him and got to know her well,” Hal Pastner said.
Those observations formed the Josh Pastner Scouting Report, which he mailed to college coaches, some of them impressed enough that they wanted to subscribe, likely unaware that the publisher was barely a teenager. In some ways, a quarter century later, Pastner had not changed his routine much.
After Spring Valley and Richardson, it was back to Bishop Gorman for two more games, his second of three visits there this day. Again, as he had done in the morning, he drove up to the gym entrance, despite a full lot, hoping to find an open spot, which he did.
“Look at that,” he said.
This sort of optimism defines Pastner. It helps explain why, before last season, he was asking his staff how the Yellow Jackets could win 20 games despite the fact that they were projected to be one of the weaker power-conference teams in the country. After his hire in April 2016, his hopefulness led him to pursue Georgia’s batch of blue-chip seniors, despite his late start. His efforts helped Tech close the gap.
“But we were o-fer,” he said. “Finishing second in recruiting doesn’t help.”
Pastner is not chasing prospects blindly. After returning from his recruiting trip, he shared how, earlier in the summer, associates of three top-15 prospects told him that Tech might have a shot at them.
But Pastner recognized that he and his staff had not been recruiting them to that point, saw the basketball royalty that he would be competing with and decided it would be a fool’s errand. If the players were interested, there are scholarships waiting, Pastner said he told the prospects’ representatives, but he wasn’t going to spend the summer chasing them.
“That’s an example of, yes, I’m a very optimistic person, but in that case, I was being realistic,” he said.
After two games – one of them was spent watching Orlando, Fla., point guard Mike Devoe, who said that Pastner is the head coach who has watched him the most – Pastner was back in the car to Spring Valley, this time for a 6 p.m. game in which both teams had Tech targets, point guard Xavier Johnson of Arlington, Va., and forward Jericole Hellems from St. Louis. The prospects were important enough that Tech assistant coach Tavaras Hardy joined him.
On the way back to Spring Valley, Pastner shared that, since the previous day, when he coached his team on campus in the morning and then flew out to Las Vegas, his diet had consisted of four bags of pretzels on the plane, followed by two beef jerky sticks, a small can of Pringles, a Clif bar and a bottled water for dinner at a Chevron gas station Wednesday night and then four Pringles chips that day.
“Yeah, I do this a lot, where I don’t eat the entire day,” he said. “I’ll come home at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, and then just binge eat. Literally daily. It’s just not good.”
The gym was full of coaches to watch two teams packed with prospects – Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Villanova’s Jay Wright, Michigan’s John Beilein, South Carolina’s Frank Martin and Pastner’s predecessor at Tech, Brian Gregory, now at South Florida. Johnson looked like an adept penetrator, but had trouble finishing. Hellems did not appear at his best, but showed potent athletic ability.
Leaving the gym around 7 p.m., Pastner stopped by the concession stand on the way out. He broke his fast with … two bags of fruit snacks.
With the sun beginning to set, he pointed his rental car for a third time to Bishop Gorman, this time for a pair of games on adjoining courts. He stood at the baseline at a point between the two courts, the better for recruiting targets in both games – one of them was Richardson, whose E1T1 team was playing in both the Las Vegas Classic at Spring Valley and the Fab 48 at Bishop Gorman – to see him. His attention shifted from one court, then the other and then to his phone.
His 16th game of the day was in the auxiliary gym. Pastner watched about a half before heading out. The sun had set, at last, on a blistering Las Vegas day. He was contemplating going to one more game before deciding against it. Instead, he would sit down with his father and a guest for a late dinner at P.F. Chang’s and his first substantial meal in two days. The routine would start again with an 8 a.m. game Friday.
“Actually, before 8,” he said, “so the kid sees me.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC