Big-Time Basketball Recruits Shoot for Ivy League - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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The best ballplayers and computer science geeks might finally study under the same roof.

As the interim Dean of Harvard’s Engineering School in 2015, Harry Lewis had spoken to hundreds of prospective students about his department, and had taught some of the school’s best-known students, from Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates. But he was nervous as he walked to Harvard’s basketball arena, Lavietes Pavilion, to meet Chris Lewis, a high school junior with a plan to study computer science.

Chris Lewis was a highly recruited basketball player in the class of 2016 — a four-star prospect according to 247Sports composite rankings — and head men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker wanted him badly. “My only anxiety was that if he didn’t come for whatever reason that Coach Amaker was going to blame me,” Harry Lewis says. “I’ve got enormous respect for Coach Amaker, and I want him to be successful.”

Four-star recruits such as Lewis are fast becoming more common than ever at Ivy League schools, especially Harvard. For the moment, the NBA is preoccupied with figuring out how — and when — it can start its 2020 season. Teams are meant to restart training next weekend. Amid this upheaval, the nature of the pipeline funneling talent to the NBA appears poised for lasting change.

Since 2011, seven four-star recruits and 10 top-150 recruits have enrolled at Ivy League teams. Prior to that, the highest-ranked Ivy League recruits remained outside of the top 180 players, per 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings, which date back to 1999. Even Jeremy Lin, who had a successful NBA career and set multiple conference records at Harvard, was only ranked 426th in the high school class of 2006.

This shift coincides with a change in approach as Ivy League schools try to be more inclusive to low-income families. While the rest of the Division I college basketball world can offer full rides and a stipend, Ivy League basketball programs can’t provide athletic scholarships. But since 2007, Harvard has used its own money for need-based financial aid packages to level the playing field. Families that make less than $180,000 per year have seen a dramatic drop in the tuition they need to pay. Families making less than $65,000 pay almost nothing. The rest of the Ivy League has since followed Harvard’s model.

Some Ivy League schools have also upped their game when it comes to identifying academically inclined students early in the recruiting process, allowing coaches to sell the players on an invaluable education while establishing strong relationships.

I was like, ‘dang, I don’t really know if I want to go somewhere where like the competition isn’t up to the level I want it to be.

Wesley Saunders, Harvard’s first-ever four-star recruit

And Lin’s success has helped convince others about Harvard’s ability to produce NBA-level talent, after averaging 16.4 points per game during his 2009-2010 senior year. Wesley Saunders, Harvard’s first-ever four-star recruit in 2011, realized that Harvard could develop him both academically and on the basketball court, something he didn’t feel he could get everywhere.

Harvard Crimson v Yale Bulldogs

Wesley Saunders (23) of the Harvard Crimson during a game against Yale.

Source Hunter Martin/Getty

“Whenever we went on our visits, we would scrimmage with the teams,” he recalls. “I remember going [to other schools] and feeling like I was the best player on the court and I was like, ‘dang, I don’t really know if I want to go somewhere where like the competition isn’t up to the level I want it to be.’”

Saunders picked Harvard over schools like Colorado, USC and San Diego State, and he immediately had an impact. After missing out on the NCAA Tournament for 66 years, Harvard went to four straight and won two opening-round games. Saunders was the Ivy League Player of the Year for 2013-2014 and a three-time all-conference selection.

Harvard nabbed its second-four star recruit in power forward Zena Edosomwan from the class of 2013, but their best recruiting class came in 2016 when they secured two four-star players (including Chris Lewis) and four in the top 132. They had the 25th best class in the country.

Meanwhile, Princeton nabbed its first four-star recruit in 2018 with point guard Jaelin Llewellyn — a top-100 player with offers from at least 14 Division I schools, including Harvard. It helped that the Tigers identified him early on in the recruiting process as a student who could excel on the basketball court and handle the rigorous academics at a top Ivy League institution.

“There’s so many factors,” says Brett MacConnell, associate head coach and recruiting coordinator at Princeton. “There are kids that have a strong GPA but don’t test as well.” Princeton is trying to map GPAs at different schools against how they do on the SATs, he says. That many students they recruit don’t take the SAT until the end of their junior year and scores come back only in the summer before their senior year adds another layer of complexity.

Other schools such as Yale have also attracted prospects just outside the top-150, such as three-star small forward Jordan Bruner in 2016. A catalyst for the change in Ivy League recruiting strategy was Amaker taking the Harvard job in 2007. After playing and coaching at Duke, he understands what it takes to blend prestigious academics and high-level college basketball, say analysts. “Harvard has been one of the primary reasons for this,” says Corey Evans, national basketball analyst at Rivals.com. “It’s bred greater competition. It’s forced other programs, whether it be Princeton, whether it be Penn … to really invest more on the recruiting front.”

One challenge for coaches and players on campus is that compromising on academics isn’t an option. Several basketball players were among those suspended in 2012 — before the emergence of this new channel of star recruits — after a cheating scandal at Harvard that also involved dozens of other students. The league has adjusted to that focus on studies by playing a majority of conference games on the weekend and during breaks in the academic calendar. After all, any aid their players are receiving isn’t tied to basketball whatsoever.

The financial thresholds for need-based aid don’t help everyone that Ivy League schools recruit. But these aid packages have had a direct impact on at least some of the four-star recruits Harvard has secured. 

Saunders says the aid he got at Harvard allowed his family to offset the costs of attending an expensive university — though everything wasn’t covered as it would have been at other schools. “We looked at it as an investment for the future,” he says. “We thought that it would be worth it.” An increasing number of four-star recruits seem to agree.

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