High-major and low-major coaches, scouts, agents: Who’s at Peach Jam, who’s not ... and why

Photo of David Borges

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Baker Dunleavy sat shoulder to shoulder with some pretty heady company during a Nike Peach Jam game on Wednesday night.

To one side of Dunleavy sat Brad Underwood, head coach at perennial Big Ten powerhouse Illinois. To the other sat Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey and Marquette’s Shaka Smart.

Dunleavy, head coach at Quinnipiac, wasn’t scouting the same players as those coaches or others from Power Five programs. Yet his presence at Peach Jam, arguably the premier event on the AAU basketball circuit that hosts many of the top recruits in the nation, was just as important for his “low-major” program.

“The guys that are at our level and we’re evaluating (at Peach Jam) certainly won’t be the leading scorer on most of these teams,” Dunleavy noted. “Those guys are high-major players. But, there are guys playing roles on these teams, guys who will slip through the radar, that we need to be on. We need to evaluate, get a feel for, and if necessary, continue to watch them during their high school season.”

And so, there was Dunleavy on Wednesday at Court 5 inside the Riverview Athletics Center, watching a pair of players from Philadelphia-based Team Final that fit into Quinnipiac’s different recruiting niches.

Rahmir Barno is a three-star point guard who’s been offered by the likes of VCU of the Atlantic 10 — mid-majors considered a notch above Quinnipiac. Staying on a player like Barno could ultimately prove beneficial, if he ends up slipping through the cracks.

Barno’s teammate, Khali Horton, is a stretch-four role player for Team Final who is more of an under-the-rader prospect. He’s exactly the kind of kid the Quinnipiac’s of the world need to evaluate to see if they’re worthy of an offer.

The same rings true for a school like Sacred Heart. Head coach Anthony Latina discovered two of the best players in the program’s recent history, Bridgeport’s Quincy McKnight and East Hartford’s Cane Broome, at the Peach Jam about a decade ago.

But Latina hasn’t been back to the event since, including this year, due to a shift in the program’s recruiting philosophy that has mostly to do with recently relaxed NCAA transfer rules.

In years past, the Pioneers’ roster typically was comprised by about 80-percent high school recruits and 20-percent transfers. Latina envisions those numbers flipping in the very near future.

“Because that’s the case,” the coach said. “I think we’re going to spend less time and money in the summer.”

Why bring in a high school recruit who probably needs at last a year or two of seasoning, when you can bring in a third or fourth-year veteran ready to contribute immediately? Especially when the best of those high school recruits may end up somewhere else in a few years, anyway (McKnight and Broome, for instance, wound up at Seton Hall and Cincinnati, respectively).

Sacred Heart has brought in a batch of transfers this year, including Hartford’s Raheem Solomon (Niagara), Hamden’s Aidan Carpenter (Siena) and Brendan McGuire (Quinnipiac), who should pay immediate dividends that a high school recruit likely can’t provide.

BIG NAMES

Of course, for the most part, the Peach Jam is still where the big boys roam. National title-winning coaches like John Calipari, Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, Tony Bennett and Scott Drew, along with other big names like Chris Beard, Dana Altman, Hubert Davis, Mike Brey and both Bobby and Dan Hurley are fixtures on the sidelines of each of the building’s six gyms.

It’s been a busy week for UConn. The NCAA’s live evaluation period began on Wednesday at noon, and associate head coach Kimani Young and assistant Luke Murray were in town soon after. Murray watched 2023 UConn commits Solomon Ball and Jayden Ross play for Team Melo on Wednesday and Thursday, and saw impressive recruiting target Jaylin Stewart play for Seattle Rotary on both days, as well.

Young watched 2023 target Coen Carr play on Wednesday night, and both Murray and Young were among a crowded sideline Thursday afternoon to watch the PSA Cardinals, which features 2024 Husky targets Boogie Fland and Yves Missi, play Team Final. On Thursday evening, Young watched New Heights Lightning, which features Tahaad Pettiford and Youssouf Singare’, both prime Husky targets.

Hurley and assistant Tom Moore spent Wednesday in Chicago, watching top 2023 commit Stephon Castle play at an Under Armour event. Hurley was due to arrive at Peach Jam on Thursday night, while Moore was slated to fly out to Los Angeles for an Adidas event.

It’s just as important for coaches to show their faces at games involving committed players as it is at games featuring recruiting targets. With that in mind, make of it what you will that UConn had no representation at Brad Beal Elite’s game on Wednesday or Thursday evenings. Brad Beal Elite features Scotty Middleton, a 2023 wing who has narrowed his choices down to UConn, Seton Hall and Ohio State. However, conventional wisdom indicates the Huskies are out of the chase.

In fact, Murray actually left the gym shortly before tip-off.

But it’s not just college coaches who are at Peach Jam this week. Scouts from the NBA, as well as from fledgling leagues like Overtime Elite, whose director of player development is Kevin Ollie, and G-League Ignite are among the watchers. So are agents from all over the world, looking for potential clients not just in a few years but even now, with name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation benefiting high school and college athletes alike.

SCOUT’S HONOR

Every NBA team is represented at the Peach Jam, most with multiple scouts coming at different times, starting on Tuesday — a day before the college coaches can arrive. What’s their goal?

“You want to get ahead of the game, (find out) who are all the top high school guys,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “Some people think, since this is the NBA, you’re looking at only the top five or 10. Really, you’ve got to know the top 20 or 30. Because those guys eventually can end up in the top 10 or 20 in college, and by the time they’re done with Overtime Elite, G League Ignite or college, all of a sudden they are top-five or 10 ...”

“You’ve got to know who they are,” the scout continued. “You see them before they get to college. Now, if they get to college and blow up, you kind of have a feel of that before they got big.”

The scout, who had to remain anonymous because he talked about high school players, said he was impressed by 2023 UConn commit Solomon Ball. But, like nearly everyone else at Peach Jam, he’s truly been wowed by Cooper Flagg, the 6-foot-8, 15-year-old phenom from Maine.

“Every once in a while there’s some exceptional young players,” the scout said, adding that it’s always possible that the NBA could change its minimum age requirement from 19 to 18.

“He might be a pro in two years. He might not go to college, if they change it. He might be a lottery pick after his senior year of high school.”

NBA scouts don’t talk to the players, but can learn about them not only watching them play, but watching them interact with coaches and teammates, talking to people who know them (media, etc.).

It’s also imperative for NBA scouts to get to Peach Jam because not every showcase event is open to them.

“It’s a way to get ahead of the game,” the scout noted, “to already know the names beforehand.”

Of course, NBA scouts aren’t the only ones trying to accomplish that. Agents from all over the world descend on Peach Jam looking to scope out potential clients a few years down the road — or even sooner, thanks to NIL legislation.

The scout’s voice lowers to an eerie hush when talking about agents: “See, they’re trying to get involved. We’re trying to get names and information so we can evaluate and get a feel which guys are 2023 eligible, who we need to be aware of. The agents, they’re already coming and probably bumping people, ‘Who’s calling the shots for this kid? Who’s he listening to? Who’s making decisions for so-and-so?’

“Look how many NBA guys have (AAU) teams — Bradley Beal, Chris Paul, Carmelo (Anthony), Tyler Herro. A lot of times they’re here with the team. If the agent represents them, now the agents are probably really coming to see who’s on their team, and who they may be able to get for the future.”

One group that doesn’t seem to be as well-represented at this year’s event, according to those who’ve covered it in years past, is prep coaches looking to poach kids from other teams.

WORKING OVERTIME

When Overtime Elite (OTE) began a little over a year ago, it was the only option for high school-aged players to earn a salary (at least $100,000 guaranteed) while taking classes and playing high-level ball. NIL has changed that, with even high school athletes able to cash in.

Meanwhile, OTE players were considered professionals and ineligible to play in college. With that in mind, the program has shifted and is now offering scholarships to players, paying their room and board rather than paying them contracts, with the freedom to sign NIL deals and, ultimately, play in college if they’d like.

The first product of this new philosophy is Naasir Cunningham — who just so happens to be the No. 1 recruit in the country, per 247Sports.com.

A trio of OTE scouts made the 2 ½-hour trip up from Atlanta on Wednesday to watch Cunningham, a 2024 five-star forward, play for the New York Rens. Cunningham, 17, will relocate to Atlanta after Peach Jam, work out and play for the program under Ollie’s direction, and still be eligible to play at, say, Duke or Kentucky in 2024.

OTE has had its detractors since its inception, but it’s been pretty successful so far. Three players from its first season signed pro contracts, including Dominick Barlow, who signed a two-way deal with San Antonio. Seven of its players graduated with high school diplomas this spring.

Meanwhile, twins Ausar and Amen Thompson are currently slotted as lottery picks, perhaps even in the top five, of the 2023 NBA Draft.

The league features three teams, coached by Waterbury’s Ryan Gomes, ex-UConn assistant Dave Leitao and Tim Fanning, that play against each other in a sparkling Atlanta-based facility (all of the league’s playoff games were sold-out this spring), as well as against other prep teams and, later this summer, overseas.

Most of the recruiting is handled by a four-man scouting department, so Ollie, Gomes, Leitao & Co. won’t be at Peach Jam. But the scouts will, even if they’re not credentialed. Tournament organizers wouldn’t say which coaches and scouts were credentialed for Peach Jam, but it’s worth noting that the three scouts watching Cunningham on Wednesday paid their own way to get through the door.

Coaches, agents, scouts — all look to get into Peach Jam, any way they can.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com