LAS VEGAS. Few could have foreseen Xavier Booker, who barely rose from the bench in his sophomore year, in his current position: he is under the scouts of the NBA and recruited by Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana. and frames of others.
On the other hand, who wouldn’t love a 6-foot-11 southpaw who can catch the rebound, create his own fast break and either pull up for a 3-pointer, make an accurate pass or dunk?
But as recruiting season reaches its climax, Booker becomes a unicorn in a different way.
He’s not participating in any of the July recruiting events hosted by Nike, Adidas and Under Armor, shoe companies that invest millions in high-end basketball programs in hopes of building relationships with the next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry. .
On the contrary, the 17-year-old Booker is the rare elite prospect who will compete in off-Broadway basketball, playing in tournaments run by independent organizers with little or no shoe company sponsorship—and without a lot of vetted college coaches sitting on the courts.
Booker, from suburban Indianapolis, turned down offers to play for several Nike-sponsored teams and at least one Adidas team in order to maintain his allegiance to coach Mike Saunders, who helped him flourish in the George Hill All Indy, an Indianapolis-funded team. Hill, NBA veteran.
“Mike has done a lot for me,” Booker said. “He was a big part of where I am now.”
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of shoe companies on youth basketball. They invest in ball coaches who recruit the best players, paying six-figure annual stipends, supplying teams with equipment and covering travel expenses to tournaments around the country.
In turn, coaches are expected to send elite players to colleges with which shoe companies have tailoring agreements. Adidas, for example, pays Kansas $14 million a year. Duke and Kentucky are paid by Nike, and Auburn is Under Armor’s flagship school.
Sometimes like 2017 federal corruption case As it turned out, the shoe companies acted as salespeople, facilitating the payment of recruits’ families as an incentive for attending one of their schools. Now that athletes can profit from their fame, shoe companies can pay athletes to the table, as Adidas has announced it will do so with a network that allows athletes from any of the 109 schools it sponsors to become brand ambassadors for the company.
However, it’s shoe company money that encourages even younger players to play hopscotch around the country every year, playing for different high schools, and there seems to be new traveling teams at every tournament. (One Midwestern prep school coach attended a Las Vegas show last month solely to keep one of his players from being poached by another prep school.)
Booker, however, remained in place starting his final year.
He still plays at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, where he helped win the first state championship since 1998 in March. He also stayed with the George Hill All Indy team, where he began to attract attention a year ago.
“We don’t want to be one of those families or kids who jump between different AAU teams or high schools every five minutes,” said Booker’s father, Fred, who spent 27 years in the Marines and now works for the Department of Defense. “I tell him: “Son, if something goes wrong, you must stand. You can’t run or jump every time you think there’s a better opportunity.”
He added: “If you’re getting attention right now with a team that isn’t on the track, what are you going to get?”
Some college coaches have had to trace back more than a decade to Otto Porter Jr., whose father forbade him from playing traveling basketball, to remember a respected player like Booker who bypassed the shoe company circuit. Chas Wolfe, head of national scouting, noted that there have been two more in recent years — Malik Williams, a three-year captain in Louisville, and Pete Nance, who moved from the Northwest to North Carolina last month — but said the Booker case extremely rare.
If Booker became an overnight sensation, it was only for beginners.
His first toy as a child was a 3-foot sponge ball basket, and by the time he entered elementary school, his hands were rarely without a basketball. His two older brothers, both in the Air Force, played in the combined arms team of the armed forces. And when Booker isn’t playing basket in his family’s driveway in suburban Indianapolis, he often watches NBA classics and aims to transform his body in the gym, like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Although Booker has always been tall for his age, he was taught by his father the dribbling and footwork that was once reserved for defenders so that he would have the skills to play outside the basket.
These tools were not immediately obvious to Saunders, the ball travel coach, when he sat in the stands at the Cathedral game a year ago. Booker came into the game, grabbed a few rebounds, blocked a shot and made a goal – and was back on the bench a few minutes later. Saunders was there to watch his nephew, who kept pestering him about how Booker, who averaged less than nine minutes per game, could do so much more.
Saunders then introduced himself to Fred Booker, who offered to send Saunders video clips revealing the extent of his son’s abilities.
“I’ve been watching them and I think it can’t be the same kid sitting on the bench for their high school team,” Saunders said. “I called him back and said, ‘Fred, if he can show us what he has in the game, his whole world will change in three weeks.’
It was close.
Dinos Trigonis, an independent tournament operator, caught a glimpse of Booker at the Indianapolis tournament and invited him to Las Vegas last June for his Pangos All-American camp, which features many of the country’s top 100 prospects. The camp that brought together Paolo Bankero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith two years ago—the top three players in this year’s NBA draft—is able to attract so many of the best players because it happens when college recruiters aren’t allowed to be drafted. does not conflict with the activities of the shoe company.
By the time Cathedral season began in November, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was on the bench.
And when Booker returned to the Pangos camp last month, playing for NBA scouts, he was named MVP.
Things didn’t go so well last week at an NBA camp near Orlando, Fla., where Booker, for perhaps the only time this summer, played against other top recruits in the presence of college coaches. Worried about a sprained ankle and a large target on his back, Booker was not at his best.
For the remaining two windows that college coaches can conduct in-person evaluations—Wednesday through Sunday and July 20-24—Booker will be with Hill’s team at the Atlanta and Milwaukee tournaments at the NY2LA independent circuit.
Jesse Evans, a former college coach who managed the Booker team in Las Vegas for three days, mentioned his wingspan, quick feet, and marksmanship, but most of all he admired his interest in training. “He’s a good player, but he doesn’t know everything,” Evans said. “Some of these guys are 15 years old and they think they have all the answers. That’s evidence at home, but he wasn’t on the radar either and people were telling him how good he was.”
Many NBA players sponsor touring teams. LeBron James’ Pursuit of Greatness, Russell Westbrook’s Why Not Team, and Carmelo Anthony’s Melo Team are Nike staples. For many of them, this reflects their upcoming experience.
Hill, 36, is no different.
When Hill, who grew up in a troubled Indianapolis neighborhood, was in high school, Saunders repeatedly invited him to play organized basketball. He eventually agreed, opening a door that Hill felt compelled to keep ajar for others. Of the eight kids’ first team players, three are in jail and two are dead, Hill said. The death of one of them in 2008 spurred Hill to launch the program and recruit Saunders to host it shortly after Hill was selected 26th overall by the San Antonio Spurs.
“I could be one of those kids – dead or in jail for drug dealing or gang warfare,” Hill said. “I come from this background. I could easily fall into this trap. Mike gave me that opportunity. That’s why I work so hard to make sure they don’t fall into that trap of some of my former teammates.”
For a while, Nike sponsored Hill’s team. He then worked for five years with Peak, a Chinese sportswear company. When that arrangement ended, Hill said that Nike refused to take him back. He also had a short deal with Under Armor. A few years ago, he decided to go it alone.
Hill, who earned over $100 million in his career. Basketball Handbooksaid funding his team was costing him about $150,000 a year.
“I don’t demand anything from my players. You could say, ‘Oh, it’s a financial burden,’ but what we get out of it is ten times more,” said Hill, who invited his players to his ranch near San Antonio next week.
Saunders, who said eight players on the team have scholarship offers, says his program – and other independents – differ from shoe company teams in that he’s not driven by wins and losses. For example, teams must qualify for the Nike’s Peach Jam event later this month in North Augusta, South Carolina. If the coaches don’t win, Nike risks not renewing their contracts. The same market forces are at work at Adidas and Under Armor.
Saunders said his principles are about developing and identifying talent.
“When you’re called a travel coach or AAU, they treat us like used car dealers because we all have the same pitch – you have to play here to get noticed,” Saunders said. “But good people know good people. It’s more than just opening the trunk of a car and showing off baby gear. If you can look a parent of a good player in the eye and tell them it’s about development and growth and that we don’t care about winning, it’s not that hard.”
Saunders also believes that if a player tells him that he makes 1,000 shots a day or works hours and hours on his dribbling, then the game will show it.
So when Booker told him he could handle the ball and shoot 3-pointers, Saunders encouraged him to get the ball on the floor when he caught the rebound. And when Booker got the ball behind the arc, he was encouraged to let go. Play on mistakes, Booker was told. The game would tell the truth.
“He just made me feel comfortable, allowed me to be myself, allowed me to express my game,” Booker said, describing his newfound confidence as well as revealing a recruiting parable: The right landing spot is where you feel like at home.