December 5, 2023

LAS VEGAS – Few would have expected Xavier Booker, a sophomore barely off his high school team bench, in his current position: vetted by NBA scouts and recruited by Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan , Indiana and a cadre of others.

Then again, who wouldn’t imagine a 6-foot-11 left-footed player who could grab a rebound, create his own quick break, and either pull off a 3D pointer, provide an accurate pass or lead a sinking?

But with hiring season peaking, poker has become a unicorn in another sense.

He’s not playing in any of July’s high-profile recruiting events run by Nike, Adidas and Under Armor, shoe companies that are investing millions in high-profile travel basketball programs in hopes of fostering a relationship with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry. .

Instead, the 17-year-old Booker is one of the rare elite to perform on the off-Broadway basketball arena, playing in tournaments run by independent organizers with little or no sponsorship from the shoe company — and without a pool of verified college coaches. who are sitting on the field.

Outside of Indianapolis, Booker turned down offers to play for several Nike-sponsored teams and at least one outfit from Adidas to maintain his loyalty to coach, Mike Saunders, who helped him thrive for George Hill All Indy, an Indianapolis team funded by Hill, a veteran goalkeeper. in the NBA.

“Mike has done so much for me,” Booker said. “It was a big part of where I am now.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact shoe companies have on youth basketball. They invest in travel ball coaches who recruit the best players – they pay six-figure annual salaries, supply teams with equipment and cover travel costs for tournaments across the country.

In return, coaches are expected to direct elite players toward colleges with which shoe companies have clothing agreements. Adidas, for example, pays $14 million in Kansas per year. There are Duke and Kentucky on the Nike payroll, and Auburn is an Under Armor major.

Sometimes, as a federal corruption case revealed in 2017, representatives of shoe companies acted like bag men — facilitating payments to recruits’ families as incentives to attend one of their schools. Now, with athletes able to cash in on their fame, shoe companies can pay athletes to the table, and Adidas has announced it will do a network that allows athletes at any of the 109 schools it sponsors to become brand ambassadors for the company.

However, it’s the shoe companies’ money that motivates even the younger players to jump nationwide to play in different high schools each year and seemingly new travel ball teams in every tournament. (One Midwestern middle school coach attended a demonstration event in Las Vegas just last month to prevent one of his players from being poached by another middle school.)

Despite this, Booker stayed put as he entered his senior year.

He still plays at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, which March helped in its first state championship since 1998. He also stayed with the George Hill All Indy team, where he started turning heads a year earlier.

“We don’t want to be one of those families or kids that’s going around Al Ain university 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 things don’t go well, you have to hold on to it. You can’t run or jump every time you think there’s a better chance.”

He added, “If you get the attention now with a team that is not in the ring, what will you gain?”

More than a decade ago, many college coaches had to go back to Otto Porter Jr., whose father had forbidden him to play travel basketball, to call up a player as highly regarded as Booker who had bypassed the shoe company’s circuit. Chas Wolfe, who runs the National Scouting Service, has noticed two others in recent years — owner Williams, a three-year captain in Louisville, and Pete Nance, who moved last month from Northwestern to North Carolina — but said the Booker case is extremely rare.

If Poker is an overnight sensation, it is only for newcomers.

His first game as a toddler was a 3-foot basket with a foam ball, and by the time he was in elementary school, his hands were seldom without a basketball. His two older brothers, both in the Air Force, played on the All-Services Team of the Armed Forces. And when Booker isn’t down the aisle shooting baskets at his family home in suburban Indianapolis, he often watches classic NBA games and aspires to transform his gym body like Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Although Booker has always been tall for his age, his father trained him in dribbling and footwork, which was once the domain of guards, so he would have the skills to play away from the basket.

Those gadgets weren’t readily apparent to traveling soccer coach Saunders, when he sat in the stands a year ago at a cathedral game. Booker scored the match, counted a few rebounds, blocked a shot and scored a basket – and a few minutes later he returned to the bench. Saunders was there to watch his nephew, who kept teasing him about how Booker, who averaged under nine minutes per game, could do so much more.

Then, Saunders introduced himself to Fred Booker, who offered to send Saunders videos that revealed his son’s range of skills.

“I watched them, and I think that couldn’t be the same kid sitting on the bench for his high school team,” Saunders said. “I called him again and said, ‘Fred, if he can show us what he’s got in a game, his whole world will change in three weeks. “

not far away.

Dinos Trigonis, an independent tournament operator, caught a glimpse of Poker at a tournament in Indianapolis and invited him to Las Vegas last June for an all-American Pangos camp, which includes many of the country’s top 100 potential players. The camp, which two years ago attracted Paulo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabbari Smith – the top three picks in this year’s NBA draft – is able to attract a lot of top players because it takes place when college staff are not allowed to attend, and so they do. Do not conflict with the events of the shoe company.

By the time Cathedral season began in November, Michigan State coach Tom Izu was sitting behind the bench.

And when Booker returned to Camp Bangus last month, playing for the NBA’s scouts, he was named Most Valuable Player.

Things didn’t go so well last week at the National Basketball Association camp near Orlando, Florida, where Booker played, perhaps for the only time this summer, against other top recruits in the presence of college coaches. Annoyed by a sprained ankle and with a bigger target on his back, Booker wasn’t at his best.

For the two remaining windows where college coaches can assess in person — Wednesday through Sunday and July 20-24 — Booker will be with Team Hill at tournaments in Atlanta and Milwaukee at NY2LA Independent Circuit.

Jesse Evans, the former college coach who ran the Poker team for three days in Las Vegas, noted his long wingspan, quick feet and ability to shoot, but was very impressed with his interest in coaching. “He’s a good player, but he doesn’t know everything,” Evans said. “Some of these guys are 15 years old and think they have all the answers. This is a testament to his home, but he also wasn’t on the radar and there were people telling him how good he was.”

More than a few NBA players sponsor travel teams. LeBron James’s Strive For Greatness, Russell Westbrook’s Team Why Not, and Carmelo Anthony’s Team Melo are constant elements on the Nike circuit. For many of them, it reflects their upcoming experiences.

Hill, 36, is no different.

When Hill, who grew up in a troubled Indianapolis neighborhood, was in middle school, Saunders repeatedly invited him to play organized basketball. Finally, he agreed, and opened the door that Hill felt obligated to keep open for others. Of the eight players on the boyhood first team, Hill said, three are in prison and two have died. It was a shooting death in 2008 that prompted Hill to start the program and recruit Saunders to run it, shortly after Hill was placed 26th by the San Antonio Spurs.

“I could have been one of those kids — dead or in prison for selling drugs or hitting gangs,” Hill said. “I came from that background. I could have fallen into that trap easily. Mike gave me that opportunity. That’s why I go really hard, so they don’t fall into the trap of some of my ex-teammates.”

For a while, Nike sponsored Team Hill. He then entered into a five-year partnership with the Chinese sportswear company Peak. When that arrangement ended, Hill said Nike refused to take it back. He also made a short deal with Under Armor. Several years ago, he decided to go it alone.

Hill, who has earned more than $100 million in salary over the course of his career, according to basketball referenceHe said it cost him about $150,000 a year to fund his team.

“I don’t ask anything of my players. You can say, ‘Oh, it’s a financial burden,'” said Hill, who invited his players to his ranch outside San Antonio next week, but what we get from him is ten times as much.

Saunders, who said eight players on the team have scholarship offers, believes what separates his program — and other freelancers — from the shoe company’s teams is that it’s not driven by win and loss. For example, teams have to qualify for access to Nike’s Peach Jam, a tournament that will take place later this month in North Augusta, SC. ​​If the coaches don’t win, they risk having their contracts not renewed by Nike. The same market forces are in Adidas and Under Armor as well.

Saunders said his principles were to develop and showcase talent.

“When you are labeled as a travel coach or the AAU, they view us as a used car salesman because we all have the same playing field — you have to play here to be seen,” Saunders said. “But good people know good people. It’s more than just opening the trunk and showing the kids the gear. If you can look in the eye of the father of a good player 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 he takes 1,000 shots a day or spends hours working on dribbling, the game will show him.

So when Booker told him he could handle the ball and shoot three-pointers, Saunders encouraged him to bring the ball onto the court when he grabbed a rebound. And when Booker received the ball outside the arc, he was encouraged to let it fly. Poker was told to play through mistakes. The game tells the truth.

“He made me feel good, let me be myself, let me play my game,” Booker said, describing his newfound confidence and also revealing a recruiting tale—the place where you feel at home.

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