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Talking Basketball Recruits - How Early is Too Early?

Having recently bumped a note to the front about a 2014 basketball recruit visiting MSU on an unofficial visit, I felt it was time to express my thoughts on a topic I contemplate a lot as I write about college basketball recruiting - how early is too early for people to spread information, scout, and discuss players in the blogosphere?  It's easy to forget sometimes that the young men we're discussing are 14 and 15 years-old.  We're talking underclassmen in high school, and it's not unheard of for observers to buzz over promising eighth-graders.  The location of a floor age for basketball talk is disturbingly hard to find.  That said, coaches, our own Tom Izzo included, go out of the their way to meet and court players who haven't played high school basketball yet.  The lists of visitors for Midnight Madness 2010 at the Breslin included 8th and 9th graders.  It is the reality of the recruiting world.  So how do we deal with it as fans and writers? 

My thoughts after the jump...

The pitfalls of looking at very young players (7th-9th grade, I'll say) are two-fold.  From a basketball perspective, thinking one knows how a player will measure up when he hasn't played his freshman year strikes me as a risky venture.  Coach Tom Crean is surely excited to have commitments from two of the top 2014 players in the country to boost his program and job security, but as a fan I'm not sure I'd know how to feel in that position.  For every player who becomes exactly the performer you expect him to be, there are some that fall flat and underwhelm.  Should I be excited that these players are enlisted to join the program or nervous about the prospect of their needed development?  On top of that, part of the anticipation and excitement about recruiting is looking towards the future - how effective will Branden Dawson be when he first suits up in Green & White?  Will Kenny Kaminski be the next Raymar Morgan but with a 3pt shot?  Is Matt Costello really the best in-state big since Al Horford?  I can remain excited asking those questions for a year or two, but can I maintain that level of enthusiasm during four years of a high school career?  Not so sure. 

The real issue is personal, though.  The elements of recruiting coverage that make many people uneasy - grown individuals spending their time and energy obsessing over the whims and life choices of children - only flare more brightly as the players get younger.  It's one thing to talk about a 17 year-old senior who has already publicly pledged to play for a university after the long counsel and input of his family.  It's another to attempt to peer into the private life decisions of families with a 14 year-old with exceptional abilities.  When does human interest simply feel invasive?  No one wants to believe he's only a short-step away from agents acting illegally, amateur coaches looking for a handout, or college coaches wooing and manipulating kids.  With the rise of social media, recruiting is just like anything else - the opportunities to take advantage of, exploit, and scrutinize young people have only gotten greater.  If we start solely blaming the players themselves or over-eager family members, we merely abdicate our own complicity.

To provide my own counterpoint, it's a fact that Tom Izzo and Michigan State are turning their attention to the 2013 and 2014 class.  Recruiting in earnest two to three years ahead of the early signing date is the norm.  We remember how fast and furious the 2012 class added three players a full year and a half before they could sign in November of 2011.  Once the 2010 high school season begins, MSU will begin seriously scouting the sophomores to decide who is a priority to receive limited scholarships and who still has something left to prove.  Come summer, it's AAU, more offers, and seek commitments time.  As we've covered here before, one player, Chicago's Jabari Parker, apparently already has such an offer.  Players as talented as he and freshman Jahlil Okafor are already immersed in the recruiting process and their name is "out there."   Frankly, it's newsworthy and, handled with respect, it doesn't make much sense to pretend otherwise.

My bottom line is that as long as MSU is showing interest and in contact with a recruit, I consider them fair game for discussion.  What better barometer of who is worth talking about than our own coaching staff?  As long as I feel confident based on public record or a reliable source that MSU is taking a sincere interest in a young player, I'll discuss and cover it.  I don't like the idea some sites employ of cutting off discussion at certain hard age limits.  It's too arbitrary and prevents any sensitivity to the particulars of a situation.   If MSU receives an uncommonly early verbal and fans finds ourselves in the Indiana/Crean boat, we'll cross that bridge.  In the same beat, I firmly believe in the bird-on-the-shoulder that must be heeded when you're writing about the private lives of high schoolers and their families.  I'm not going to comment on them with the abandon I might another sort of public figure like a politician or even a coach.  It requires a different level of sensitivity.  The Only Colors doesn't have official positions but when I write about basketball recruiting, this is mine: coverage but caution, always. 

rant/Sidenote/Soapbox: One of my pet peeves is when people speculate on the character or "maturity" of a player they don't know anything about, especially because he hasn't picked their university (yet).  It's completely baseless and often stilted on logic such as "I don't want a player who's going to play the ego game and draw out his recruitment.  If he doesn't really want to be a Spartan/Hoosier/Wolverine/Wildcat/Whatever, then I don't want him."   Are you telling me that a 17 year-old needs to hurry up and joylessly make a decision to appease some section of a fanbase or prove his sincerity?  This isn't "mature" enough for you?  Honestly, when I was 16, I would have tweeted conflicting information daily just to aggravate this stripe of people and I don't think it would have had anything to do with my maturity.  Secondly, unless I've read it on a public source or know the person personally, I never have anything negative to say about a recruit's character.  Lots of us hear things but I'm not passing it along.  Can't go there.