Rise in transfers suppressing high-school recruiting

Berkmar and Sequoyah play in the Georgia Basketball Coaches Association team camp at LakePoint Sports complex in Emerson on June 18, 2021. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)
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Berkmar and Sequoyah play in the Georgia Basketball Coaches Association team camp at LakePoint Sports complex in Emerson on June 18, 2021. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

T.J. Clark’s hard work has borne fruit. The rising-senior guard from Newton High has four scholarship offers in hand – Coastal Carolina, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville State and North Carolina A&T. Still, for a player of his caliber, his coach senses it to be low.

“Ordinarily, he’d be closer to eight or 10 in a normal season,” Newton coach Charlemagne Gibbons said after his team completed the first day of competition Friday at the Georgia Basketball Coaches Association’s team camp at the LakePoint Sports complex in Bartow County.

The primary factor suppressing his recruitment is something Clark has no control over – the transfer portal. As it supplies a steady stream of college basketball players looking for a new home, college coaches are increasingly preferring to recruit players out of the portal than high school. There is no shortage of athletes. As of Tuesday evening, almost 1,700 Division I players had entered the portal in this recruiting cycle.

“Coaches would definitely rather have somebody with more mileage on them, somebody that’s been there, with more experience,” Clark said. “It’s making recruiting harder. That’s why you’ve got to play the right way and play your hardest, so (coaches) know you can develop and get there.”

Launched in 2018, the transfer portal has streamlined the process for athletes to leave one school for another. The NCAA’s legislation to grant all athletes one transfer without having to sit out a season also has given them more motivation to transfer, often for playing-time reasons. The changes have had the intended effect of empowering college athletes, but they, along with more athletes’ eagerness to take advantage of them, also have had an undeniable, unwanted effect on their younger colleagues. Recruiting has been changed to its core.

“I think schools have got to make a decision about taking high-school kids because, if you take a high-school kid and he doesn’t play, he’s transferring,” said Tulane coach Ron Hunter, a former Georgia State coach. “And, at a certain level, if you take a high-school kid and he’s really good, he’s probably going to leave anyway (to a school in a power conference). So you’ve got that double-edged sword. So you’ve kind of got to be really careful in taking high-school kids.”

As he recruits high-school prospects, Hunter has become especially wary of players who have switched schools and AAU teams multiple times.

“Man, I’m staying away from that kid because he’s going to do the exact same thing in college,” Hunter said.

Hunter doesn’t like the impact that it’s had on high-school recruits and their families, and he speaks from the perspective of a father of a one-time high-school prospect. Hunter’s son, R.J., played high-school basketball in Indianapolis (and then for his dad at Georgia State). But the appeal of bringing in players from the portal is hard to pass up. One benefit that hasn’t received much attention is that players who arrive through the portal can’t transfer again without sitting out a season. The likelihood a transfer would leave again would figure to be lower. Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said that there may be college coaches who abandon high-school recruiting altogether.

“If I’ve got two scholarships, for me to sign a high-school kid, he’s got to be out of this world,” Hunter said. “Because I can get a transfer in April if I want to. Why use up that scholarship? Because you don’t know who’s going to leave (from other schools).”

Also working against high schoolers, particularly juniors and seniors: The NCAA’s decision to grant athletes with an extra season of eligibility because of COVID-19 has logjammed rosters. If players after the 2021-22 season decide to use that extra season, it will count against scholarship limits, further reducing opportunities for high-school prospects.

One more fallout of the reliance on the portal is that winter-sports athletes have until May 1 to declare their intent to transfer if they want to compete immediately (it was extended to July 1 this year), and the process of finding a landing spot may not end until the beginning of the fall semester.

“And so now I can’t even figure out what I need the following year if I don’t have this year’s roster set,” said Gibbons, the Newton coach, speaking from the perspective of a college coach. “So I think you’re seeing a lot of that.”

Hunter estimated that the number of high-school signees in the November signing period will be down 30 percent, a considerable pinch that could trickle down throughout college basketball.

“It’s really tough, but I will tell you this,” Hunter said. “If I’m a parent, and I get an offer, and I like that school, I’m jumping on it right away. If you’re waiting to get something bigger, you’re going to be left out.”

Norcross High coach Jesse McMillan believes the decline in high-school recruiting will resolve itself eventually. It would seem that most transfers will do so only once, given that they would have to sit out a season if they transferred again, and that perhaps the collegians most likely to transfer have done so this year. Fewer athletes will probably use their extra season of eligibility.

And eventually, all the players coming through the portal that college coaches are preferring over high-school signees will run out of eligibility, creating a need for new talent.

“Two to three years and you’ll kind of see it get back to normal, I think,” McMillan said.

Clark, the Newton guard, has admirable understanding for the throngs of transfers negatively impacting his recruitment. His brother Tre went into the portal himself, leaving Virginia Commonwealth for Northwest Florida State College.

“So I know where they’re coming from,” Clark said. “Some people, it’s not even up to them. I just keep working. My time will come.”

Newton High basketball player C.J. Clark at the Georgia Basketball Coaches Association team camp at the LakePoint Sports Complex in Emerson on June 18, 2021. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)
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Newton High basketball player C.J. Clark at the Georgia Basketball Coaches Association team camp at the LakePoint Sports Complex in Emerson on June 18, 2021. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)