Originally posted on SLTrib.com by Tony Jones
Stephan Holm spent three years at Riverton as one of the better shooting guards in the Salt Lake Valley. His high school basketball résumé shows an All-State selection. He led his team deep into the Class 5A state tournament as a junior. He was one of the more difficult players in Utah for anyone to guard.
And yet, as a high school player, he went largely unnoticed by the most important group of all — men’s college basketball coaches who hand out the scholarships.
The 6-foot-3 shooting guard’s story reads much differently at the AAU level. As a member of Utah’s Pump N’ Run team, Holm was a solid member of Todd Phillips’ rotation, not a star. However, as a guy who could score and get his own shot off the dribble, he played well in a number of national tournaments. Schools took notice. The recruiting began in earnest with a number of coaches tossing scholarship offers his way. Holm will leave for his freshman season at Montana State in a few weeks.
Thinking about the whirlwind of the past three years, Holm came to a startling realization.
"I know I wouldn’t be playing college basketball if I didn’t play AAU," he said.
The world of Amateur Athletic Union basketball — grassroots hoops — has been big business for more than two decades. Players scour the magazines and websites hoping to see their names among the various national rankings. Big-name college basketball coaches flock to the premier events, angling to reel in the requisite talent that will make their program competitive on a yearly basis. The names Sonny Vaccaro, Howard Garfinkel and Bob Gibbons are synonymous with the summer hoops scene.
The rise of AAU basketball coincided with the Fab Five basketball recruiting class that led Michigan to consecutive Final Fours in the early 1990s.
Through it all, high school basketball always seemed to have its place in the recruiting business. Until recently, if there was a big-time prep recruit locally or nationally, coaches could still be seen walking the halls of a school, sitting in the stands of a game, dutifully taking notes.
That’s not the case now.
"If you are a player and you plan on playing basketball in college, you almost have to play AAU basketball," Utah Prospects coach Lynn Lloyd said. "In today’s world, scholarships are earned in the summer, not during the high school season. AAU and high school basketball coexist, and its nice to have them together. But the way coaches evaluate talent, it’s all AAU."
Utah has four major AAU programs. Dave Hammer and his Salt Lake Metro team have been around the longest. Phillips and Utah Pump N’ Run made news two summers ago when a 17-and-under team led by Jordan Loveridge and Marcel Davis advanced to the semifinals of the Adidas 64 Tournament, one of the best in the country.
Lloyd and the Utah Prospects are new to the AAU world. Yet, they have by far the most talented 17-and-under roster this summer, led by national top-40 recruit Brekkott Chapman, Utah State commit Sam Merrill and BYU commit Dalton Nixon. Evric Gray and his Salt Lake Rebels have been around for five years. In that short time, the program has produced seven Division I players.
They are All-Star teams, combining the best of Utah’s basketball talent and barnstorming the country during the spring and summer months. With AAU programs in the other 49 states doing exactly the same thing, it’s easy to see how tournaments become attractive to recruiters. It’s one-stop shopping, so to speak. Coaches can hit a tournament for one weekend and see dozens of prospects. They simply can’t do that during the high school season. There’s not enough time, and in most cases not enough money in the recruiting budget.
"Recruiting is important, and information is a big key," Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "The AAU is a different environment. You get to see how guys respond in different situations. They play a lot of games in a day at a typical AAU tournament. I like to see how the guy playing his fourth game in a day responds when he’s tired."
While Krystkowiak and college coaches in the six Division I schools around the state do the majority of their scouting during the summer, many are quick to point out that high school basketball hasn’t lost its value.
That was apparent this year when Lone Peak — with three BYU recruits all ranked among the top-100 players nationally — won the MaxPreps.com boys’ national basketball championship.
When coaches latch on to a player, they also want to see how he responds to working within a structured system. Krystkowiak says that’s something AAU basketball doesn’t offer.
"Those games tend to be a little more up and down," Krystkowiak said. "Most of college basketball is played within the halfcourt. So I think both high school basketball and AAU have their advantages."
Davis High coach Jay Welk has two players — Abel Porter and Jesse Wade — who are Division I prospects and prominent on the AAU level. Both play for Utah Prospects.
A few years ago, Welk and almost every other high school coach in the state were rankled when A-Train coach Alex Austin made public comments diminishing the importance of high school basketball. Now, Welk says that he sees the importance and the value of both sides.
"I saw AAU basketball as somewhat intrusive at first," Welk said. "Now, I think it has good value. You can’t replicate the exposure and the evaluation a player gets at the AAU level. Our players play for a solid program, and that’s a good thing. At the same time, I don’t think the value of high school basketball has diminished. Guys come back and they get to play in a system and they get to lead a team when they aren’t playing with eight other All-State guys. It helps with their development."
To be sure, it’s not always easy playing or committing to AAU basketball. There’s a hefty financial commitment involved on the part of parents that often gets overlooked.
Loveridge will enter his sophomore season at Utah as one of the best young power forwards in the Pac-12. In seventh grade, his father, Bill, saw that his son would have the chance to play college basketball.
The family went all in. Bill and his wife, LaTrill, over the next five years spent $10,000 paying for hotels, planes, tournament fees and equipment. With Pump N’ Run sponsored by Adidas, the Loveridges estimate that the cost could’ve been $25,000 if not for that sponsorship.
"We decided that it was a small investment if Jordan was able to earn a scholarship," Bill Loveridge said. "But we went into this with our eyes wide open. We knew that we were getting into big business. And that’s what AAU basketball is: big business. We also knew that if Jordan was going to play college basketball, he needed to play AAU. We were lucky because he played for an AAU program that understood the value of high school basketball and vice versa."
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