Back in the winter, before most of us properly understood how a global pandemic would change all of our lives, Alden Applewhite was just a junior in high school looking forward to the spring and summer. More specifically, he was looking forward to playing on the Nike EYBL circuit for Team Thad, a Memphis-based team run by Norton Hurd that has developed into the most prominent grassroots program in the area.
Applewhite already had a national ranking.
He already had high-major offers.
But the spring and summer, especially this month of July that culminates with the Peach Jam tournament, was supposed to provide a stage for the 6-foot-7 wing to rise up the rankings and generate additional offers. Instead, it's been four months of no organized basketball, of no playing in front of college coaches, all of which is the result of COVID-19 ravaging the United States from one coast to the other.
"It's been tough to miss out on the opportunities," Applewhite acknowledged.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Alden Applewhites in this country. So this isn't a column about him as much as it's a column about him and all of the prospects like him who have missed out on their last best chance to be seen and evaluated by college coaches. To be clear, with more than 143,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, and tens of millions out of work, missing out on basketball opportunities is not the biggest deal in the world. Nobody is pretending otherwise. But that doesn't make it any less disappointing and unfortunate for the prospects who have lost these opportunities because, for all of its flaws, the truth is that there is no better way for prospects to enhance their national ranking, and secure additional scholarship offers, than to play grassroots basketball in the spring and summer.
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The awesome stories are countless.
I can't tell you how many times I've been in a gym at an event and sat next to a college coach who was there to evaluate one player but then became interested in another after watching just a few possessions. It happens all the time. And one of my favorite tales is the story of Mike Daum, who once entered an auxiliary gym in Las Vegas with zero Division I offers. His team was matched up against a team featuring Tacko Fall. So there were Division I coaches in attendance. And what they witnessed was an incredible performance.
"I had 12 3-pointers in that game," Daum told me back in 2016. "And it really did change my life."
One of the staffs that saw Daum play that day worked at South Dakota State. They offered a scholarship shortly thereafter, Daum eventually signed, enrolled and ended up scoring 3,067 points for the Jackrabbits while winning three Summit League Player of the Year awards. Only six players have ever scored more points at the Division I level than Mike Daum. But if not for that grassroots game in the summer before his senior year of high school, it's reasonable to assume Daum would've graduated without a single Division I offer. So, yeah, that performance, in front of those coaches, really did change his life.
That's the best part of grassroots basketball -- the exposure it provides. But prospects in the Class of 2021, like Alden Applewhite, have been denied that exposure for the entire spring and summer heading into their senior years of high school, which is arguably the most important spring and summer of basketball prospects ever play. As a result, Applewhite hasn't had an opportunity to improve his status as a three-star recruit, according to 247Sports. And, like most Americans, he acknowledges he didn't envision everything being canceled this deep into the calendar even after the NBA shutdown on March 11.
"There were rumors that we might start late," Applewhite said. "And then there were rumors that [the EYBL season] might get pushed back even farther. And once I kept hearing rumors and stuff, I just kinda figured that maybe it's worse than people actually think. And that's when it kinda hit me that we probably wouldn't play EYBL. But it still was shocking. I didn't know [the pandemic and shutdown] would last this long."
Alas, it has.
The good news is that Applewhite already holds scholarship offers from schools like Xavier, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, TCU, St. John's, Iowa State and Washington State. So if he wants to play in the Big East, Big 12, SEC or Pac-12, those opportunities are available to him. He's going to land in a good spot, regardless. But this month was supposed to be the month he concluded a successful final run through the EYBL circuit, secured even more scholarship offers and established himself as a consensus top-100 prospect in the Class of 2021. Instead, he's been limited to Zoom calls with various staffs and individual workouts. And now he's just hoping his senior year of high school basketball isn't also erased.
"It has me worried a little bit," Applewhite said. "But I'm just trying to stay positive. That's all I can do."