Derrick Caracter, the subject of my Monday column, is recognized as the first eighth-grader to attend the Nike Camp.
That's true, of course.
But there was another eighth-grader at that 2002 event with him.
Do you remember the player's name?
(I'll give you 10 seconds)
Answer: Demond Carter.
These days, Demond Carter goes by the name of Tweety Carter and he was the fifth-leading scorer for Baylor last season. That doesn't quite classify him as a college star, so it's fair to point out that neither of the two heralded eighth-graders from back in 2002 -- Caracter and Carter -- have developed the way some probably expected at the time. Sure, they were still good enough to earn scholarships at high-major institutions, and we should all be so lucky. But relative to what they were once considered, the falloff was drastic, which might be the best reason for coaches to be cautious when recruiting middle schoolers.
To be clear, I don't care.
I'm on record as stating that those who recruit eighth-graders and freshmen are OK in my book because I recognize the need to get a head start. If you're a high-major coach and you don't know the names of the best five ninth-graders in your area, you're not doing your job properly. For better or worse, that's the world in which we live. But the truth is that it's still difficult to project eighth-graders because you never know who is going to grow and who isn't, never know who is getting by because they are bigger and stronger than their peers and who is getting by because they genuinely possess elite-level talent.
On this note, I'll tell you a story.
When I worked at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis I once did an article about a kid who was named by at least one publication as the best eighth-grade player in the country. I saw him play many times. He was awesome. His name was Andre Allen, and I don't think he grew more than an inch from his freshman year of high school to his freshman year of college. Consequently, he wasn't even a Top 100 prospect by the time he graduated high school. Also, he was a non-qualifier. So Allen sat out a year, then walked on at Memphis and averaged 4.2 points per game in three seasons before being suspended by the NCAA for a failed drug test that essentially ended his college career before this past season's Final Four.
That's a Caracter-like fall, for sure.
So the lesson is that eighth grade might be too early to properly project prospects, O.J. Mayo not withstanding. That's why my belief is that most of the elite talents don't clearly separate themselves until the summer before their sophomore years of high school, at which time a good coach (or recruiting analyst) can pretty much peg the next LeBron James or Michael Beasley and feel safe they are getting a proper read on what they're seeing and what's to come.