July 26, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM Wake Forest's strategy in basketball recruiting always has been an interesting topic. It's one that's spiked by the fact that Wake competes just in its own state on the court and off with two off college basketball's top programs, North Carolina and Duke, and a third strong one in N.C. State. In the discussions about the wave of NBA early entry candidates this year, Wake coach Skip Prosser delivered a quote that got right to the heart of the issue.
"Generally speaking, the team that has the most NBA players is the team that wins the ACC," Prosser said. "You have to recruit players who you think and they think are capable of playing in the NBA. I think you have to be judicious, and you really need to know the kid. Recruiting has always been an inexact science. The (NBA draft complication) has only added to the nebulous nature of recruiting."
This becomes extra interesting when you think about the fact that Prosser is about to have his team ranked among the nation's best, and he has only one sure NBA pick and a couple other guys with outside shots. He's getting there with a team that's deep and experienced but doesn't boast many talents who project as sure-fire pros, at least not at the highest level.
At the same time, North Carolina coach Roy Williams and others have been publicly wondering whether they shouldn't rely so heavily on players who could ditch them for the NBA before even setting foot on campus.
So which is the right way to go?
Well, first, let's start by evaluating Prosser's key statement: "Generally speaking, the team that has the most NBA players is the team that wins the ACC."
The Sports Journal looked at the ACC from 1982-2001 yes, overtime pay was merited and the team with the most future NBA players (excluding cup-of-coffee guys) won the ACC Tournament eight of 20 times and the regular-season title 10 of 20 times. The rate definitely has picked up, though, as 11 of those 18 winning campaigns came in the last 10 years.
So having the most NBA talent is no guarantee. (Just ask the 1984 Tar Heels.) But it sure helps. You have to go back to Virginia's 1976 shocker to find a team that won the ACC Tournament without at least two future NBAers contributing.
Of course, that's been part of Wake Forest's problem over the years. It hasn't been able to boast those "couple" future NBA players on a single team very often.
Since Dave Odom arrived in 1990, the Deacons have recruited eight NBA players (prematurely counting Chris Paul), although two of them (Chris King, Randolph Childress) saw little action in the league. During that same period, UNC and Duke recruited more than 30 NBA players combined.
Of the eight Demon Deacons, only two (Rodney Rogers, Loren Woods) were thought of as future NBA players when Wake recruited them. The others Paul, King, Childress, Rusty LaRue, Josh Howard and Tim Duncan weren't thought of as NBA talents when Wake got involved, although Paul may have been there by the end of the process.
The point is that Wake Forest hasn't been landing these top-level players very often, while some of the teams it's competing against are bringing in a couple each year. Indeed, Odom's eventual downfall in Winston-Salem probably was sealed when Woods was the only elite recruit he landed during Wake's time in the spotlight during the Duncan era.
The more conservative recruiting approach definitely has its benefits: You're more likely to keep a team together, for example, and you don't face the unknown all the time, as Williams and others are experiencing. But the fact is, the farther down the recruiting rankings you recruit, the bigger the chance of landing a dud. That's a fact Odom proved too often.
So, do Prosser's actions on the recruiting trail support his statement?
Well, not by past actions, but it's getting easy to see a change in that regard. So far, Prosser hasn't really shot for the big guys. While he's brought in talented players, he's stayed away from those who might go pro at any time.
The coach mainly has concentrated on the state's top talent and, if anything, he's actually picked up a few projects, Odom-style. While a Kyle Visser may work out, a Todd Hendley leaves the program. Prosser also likes to recruit early, locking up prospects as much as a couple of years ahead of time. That can be a great strategy if you're convinced you have a diamond in the rough, but it's also much more difficult to evaluate talent at a young age. You could end up with a player who doesn't pan out or gets lazy.
So is Prosser going to pick up the pace? While his current approach has helped get him among the elite this season, Prosser's strategy is slowly changing. Wake talked with some top-level recruits in the Class of 2005, but it's really getting involved with the Class of 2006.
The Deacons are in the mix with a number of top prospects in the rising junior class, and it's telling that at least six of them are top 25-type players. Prosser obviously figures to get a big bump off the program's upcoming season, and that could translate into an elite recruiting group in 2006.
If Prosser can make that move consistently, the Wake program figures to slide up a notch or two in national reputation. If so, he'll have to start dealing with all those headaches Williams has been talking about. Wake fans probably won't mind.
Summer Instruction Aiding Stars
The Deacons aren't going to get anywhere this season if they don't get tougher on the defensive end.
This summer, Prosser actually is getting a hand from some of his fellow coaches in that area. Paul, Justin Gray and Eric Williams all tried out for the 20-and-under Team USA this summer, and they had a chance to go through some tough practices. Paul and Gray ultimately made the 12-man American roster, while Williams was the team's last cut, after missing numerous practices because of flu-like symptoms.
Kelvin Sampson of Oklahoma, along with assistants Tom Crean (Marquette) and Dan Monson (Minnesota), ran the Wake players through some challenging two-a-days. Sampson in particular concentrates on being physical, playing tough defense and rebounding exactly the areas where the Deacons could use some pointers.
Williams might become the real story of the fall. If he takes home some lessons from Sampson, and his skills improve at Pete Newell's famous big man camp, the ACC will need to look out.
In another important basketball news item, assistant coach Chris Mack left Prosser for Xavier, his alma mater, under new coach Sean Miller. Mack was still growing as a coach, and he was the "friend" for the players on the staff. His youthful influence will be missed in the locker room and in the marketing of the program.
So far, Prosser has been tight-lipped about who will fill Mack's position, but sources said fourth-year director of basketball operations Pat Kelsey will get serious consideration for the job. Kelsey, a former Xavier player who graduated in 1998, was an assistant coach at the high school level for three years before joining Prosser's original staff in Winston-Salem.
Wellman Hires From Ohio Again
Athletic director Ron Wellman sure is consistent. He's now gone to Ohio for his last three major hires in men's sports: Jim Grobe (Ohio U.), Prosser (Xavier) and now Rick Rembielak of Kent State for the baseball program.
Wellman typically focuses on finding coaches who are used to working with less, fighting the underdog's fight, and emphasizing the importance of character and work ethic. His new coaches have the ability to find talent, but more importantly, to develop it as well.
"He said the same things as Skip and Jim about character," Wellman said. "He talked about the importance of character, how you might not be the most talented, but, by gosh, you can be the best player by working hard, having the right attitude, having the commitment, being a team player all of those things."