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Why are top high school basketball recruits delaying their college commitments?

Andy Wittry Sporting News

Mohamed Bamba is self-aware.

As the No. 2-ranked college basketball prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, the five-star, 7-foot Bamba understood the optics of a top recruit waiting until mid-May to announce his college decision. In the Twitter era, college fanbases have developed insatiable appetites for any amount of recruiting news, big or small — anything from a top-five list of schools posted on a player’s social media account to a recruit deciding upon a decision date. The attention paid to a player’s recruitment has the potential to be intoxicating.

So before Bamba finally announced his commitment to Texas more than 600 words into an article he wrote for The Players’ Tribune on May 18, he first addressed those fans, and that speculation.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Bamba wrote in the first paragraph. “What’s the hold up? Man, he’s really milkin’ this. He sure seems to love the attention. Why’s he so indecisive?”

The future Longhorn and likely lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft argued against the first three notions, but surrendered the fourth.

“I’m one of the last high school recruits in the class of 2017 who still hasn’t declared my college choice,” he wrote.

But Bamba wasn’t alone: This year, an unprecedented wave of top high school seniors waited until at least May to commit.

When the calendar flipped from April to May, five of the top 25 college basketball recruits remained uncommitted, according to 247Sports Composite rankings. That was equal to the number of uncommitted top-25 recruits in May of the last three recruiting cycles combined. In the previous 10 recruiting classes, there was a total of 14 top-25 recruits who waited until May to commit and no single year saw more than three such players uncommitted on May 1.

The longest holdout among this year’s group, five-star forward Brian Bowen, announced his commitment to Louisville on June 3.

Ten years ago — the 2007 recruiting class — Patrick Patterson was the only 247Sports Composite top-25 recruit to verbally commit after Nov. 15, 2006. Sixteen of the top 25 players in that class had committed by August 2006.

Why did some of the top-ranked players in this fall’s freshman class wait this long to make their decisions? How do the NBA’s new rules on early entry and withdrawal create a domino effect that affects the decisions of high schoolers? Are the spring commitments of the 2017 recruiting class the beginning of a trend, or an anomaly?

To answer that, it’s important first to quantify and understand the level of recruits who were uncommitted as of May 1. If you made a team of the final five top-25 recruits to announce their college decisions, you’d have a potentially lethal starting lineup:

— Point Guard: 6-3 Trevon Duval (5-star/Duke)
— Shooting Guard: 6-5 M.J. Walker* (4-star/Florida State)
— Forward: 6-7 Brian Bowen (5-star/Louisville)
— Forward: 6-9 Kevin Knox (5-star/Kentucky)
— Power Forward/Center: 7-0 Mohamed Bamba (5-star/Texas)

*The recruiting parameters used in this story were top-25 recruits, according to 247Sports Composite rankings. Walker recently dropped one spot to No. 26 when Arizona commit Emmanuel Akot reclassified to the 2017 recruiting class.

Each player represents potentially trajectory-changing talent for a program, even if he’s only there for one season.

Knox, Duval and Bamba made their pledges in the weeks leading up to the NBA draft withdrawal deadline, while Walker committed on the day of the deadline. In waiting until the spring to pick a school, it behooved them to wait for college rosters began to crystallize for next season.

College underclassmen who declared for the draft but wished to return to school next season had to do so by May 24. This rule, in its second year of application, is as good of a starting point as any when examining why top high school talent remained uncommitted so deep into the recruiting process.

A proposal sponsored by the NCAA men’s basketball oversight committee in June 2015 allows underclassmen to decide to return to school up to 10 days after the NBA Draft Combine, as long as they don’t sign with an agent.

After this year’s NBA draft declaration deadline of April 23, the NBA announced that 182 players — 137 collegiate players and 45 international players — submitted letters to the league confirming their early entry status. Gradually, that number whittled down as players withdrew from the draft.

For national championship-winning point guard Joel Berry II of North Carolina, it only took one day after his declaration for the NBA draft before he announced his return to school. For players who were invited to the NBA Draft Combine or individual team workouts, it took longer.

A person close to a top-25 2017 recruit, who requested not to be named, said final roster composition is important for elite prospects who hope to be one-and-done players. He characterized the new NBA draft early entry and withdrawal rules as great for current NCAA student-athletes, though they do delay what college rosters ultimately look like.

Top uncommitted recruits, he said, watch to see how their relationships with prospective college coaches develop beyond the traditional sales pitch, and how college teams evolve over the course of the season. Then recruits wait to see which players reaffirm their decisions to enter the NBA draft, and which players return to college.

“I do think that has a lot to do with it,” said Dan Maehlman, who coached McDonald’s All-American shooting guard M.J. Walker at Jonesboro (Ga.) High School, “and some of those kids that are holding out might be waiting to see which kids are going to declare for the draft and which kids come back as far as where can they go and be the biggest impact (player) and score the most points right away.”

For many of the late-committing top recruits, there’s a visible positional lineage as college players leave for the NBA, creating available minutes and shots for incoming freshmen who will likely play similar positions or roles on their respective teams. The NBA-bound players also provide the incoming freshmen with a potential blueprint for how to make the jump from a given school to the professional ranks.

Texas bid farewell to one-and-done power forward Jarrett Allen, while welcoming Bamba. Duke said goodbye to guard Frank Jackson after one season, clearing a path for Duval — who committed shortly after Jackson decided to remain in the draft.

Bowen, the last five-star 2017 recruit to commit, had a winding recruitment with many twists and turns. He reportedly considered a list of schools that included Arizona, Creighton, DePaul, Michigan State, North Carolina State, Oregon, Texas and UCLA. He ultimately chose Louisville.

Most of the teams he considered had rosters that were in flux this spring as their players made stay-or-go decisions throughout the NBA pre-draft process.

Walker, the future Seminole, chose from four other schools beside Florida State: Georgia Tech, Ohio State, UCLA and Virginia Tech. Three of the five schools had multiple players declare as early entries for the draft.

For Walker, the recruiting process was about finding the school that best fit him, not simply choosing a highly ranked team, Maehlman said. Walker has a small network centered around his tight-knit family that’s entrenched in the sport — both of his parents and his sister have played college basketball.

“I think that’s why in his case they’re taking their time because they want to make sure it’s not just the best school, like the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country or a top-five team,” Maehlman said before Walker’s commitment. “That’s not important to them. It’s about what program fits M.J. the best and which program family-wise is going to fit M.J. as well.”

Recruiting is a fickle beast. The top prospect in the Class of 2017, Michael Porter Jr., will attend Missouri, which had a 27-68 record over the last three seasons. Western Kentucky has an incoming recruit (Mitchell Robinson) ranked higher than any freshman who will enroll to play for Kentucky. Nothing is guaranteed.

But the delayed college commitments for some top recruits will most likely continue, in some shape or form, in the future.

It’s too early to know how many rising high school seniors, and which ones, will extend their recruitment until May 2018 or beyond. Each prospect and every recruiting class is different. But there’s reason to believe this could be a trend in the sport, as long as the rules continue to give college players more control in deciding to enter the NBA or return to school.

“I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with people taking their time,” Maehlman said, “and making sure it’s the right place for their young man to go play.”

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