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Featherston On Recruiting & Perspective

DURHAM _ Long, long ago, when I was on sabbatical in the midst of my
six-year campaign to earn a degree from Duke, I worked for a guy named Elton
Casey at the Durham Morning Herald.

In the winter of 1971-72, Chuck Lewis (another young writer at the Herald)
and I became enamored of a slender, left-handed guard playing that season
for Hillside High School. He was so popular that most of the Hillside games
were moved from the school's bandbox facility to North Carolina Central's
more spacious McDougald Gym. It was there that Lewis and I used to watch
John Lucas play for the Hornets _ often sneaking out of the Herald office
during our evening meal hour to watch a half or so.

Chuck and I tried to convince Casey to join us at a Hillside game and write
about Lucas. We told him that the young guard was being recruited by all the
big schools. We had seen Dean Smith, Norm Sloan and Lefty Driesell in the
audience on several occasions. John Wooden, then the king of the college
game, was said to be interested in Lucas, but he wasn't going to waste a lot
of effort on a kid who was obviously going to stay on Tobacco Road.

Casey was skeptical. Before committing to venture onto the NCCU campus _
unfamiliar territory for the Herald's columnist and sports editor _ he
checked Lucas out with his friend, Dean Smith. What he related to us stunned
me: According to Casey, Smith told him that he was only recruiting Lucas
because he was a prominent local player. But Casey said the Tar Heel coach
didn't really want to sign the Hillside star.

"Smith says he ought to go to Elon or High Point, somewhere where he can be
a star," Casey told us. "He said Lucas is a good player, but not as good
he thinks he is. He won't be content to be a role player. And if he goes
somewhere and he's not a star, he'll be a problem."

Please keep in mind that's a second-hand conversation and may not be a fair
representation of Smith's opinion. Still, in view of Lucas' later success at
Maryland _ he was a three-time All-American and the first player taken in
the 1976 NBA draft _ it raises an interesting question: Did Smith misjudge
the Hillside star?

Before I condemn Smith, I should admit that almost 30 years later, I got to
see another slim guard named John Lucas play AAU ball during the Bob Gibbons
Tournament in Chapel Hill. I saw the younger Lucas play twice and smugly
decided that he was not an ACC caliber player. Thankfully, I never told
anybody that he ought to go to Elon or High Point, but that's about the
level I mentally pigeonholed him.

Of course, the next time I saw John Lucas Jr. was at the 2004 Final Four in
San Antonio. All he did was lead Oklahoma State to the NCAA semifinals. He's
not quite as good as his father was, but the next-generation Lucas is still
one of the elite players in college basketball.

And I didn't see it ... just as Dean Smith apparently missed seeing his
father's talent three decades earlier.


I tell that story to illustrate how hard it is to project prep talent.

Give Dean Smith credit. He never claimed to have a crystal ball when it
came to judging high school prospects. In fact, that was the reason he was
always so skeptical of the recruiting gurus and the prep All-America teams.

"I read where some guy is the nation's 24th best prospect, just ahead of
this guy, who's the 25th best prospect and we're sitting in staff meetings
debating, 'Can this kid play for us?'" Smith once said. "You can't put
a number on it."

Maybe you can't, but plenty of prep writers do.

The 2005 McDonald's All-America team was announced this week and we learned
that Duke recruits Josh McRoberts, Greg Paulus and Eric Boateng will be
among the 24 players who are tapped to play the all-star game in South Bend,
Ind., next month.

They will become the 38th, 39th and 40th McDonald's All-Americans that Duke
has signed since the team was first chosen in 1977. That's second to North
Carolina, which has 48 selections after adding Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby
Frasor and Danny Green in this year's class.

But what does all that mean?

Three years ago, I did a breakdown of the first 26 McDonald's teams,
checking to see how many of the 24 annual selections ended up as first-round
NBA draft picks.

Of course, the relationship between McDonald's All-Americans and the first
round of the NBA draft is arbitrary, but it also seems fair. The McDonald's
selection committee picks what it thinks are the 24 best high school
basketball players in the country. The NBA picks approximately 30 players in
the first round of its draft, but that usually includes several foreign
players each year, so the numbers are comparable. (Note: The NBA also has
picked quite a few high school players in recent years, but those players
come from the McDonald's pool, so it doesn't skewer the study.)

Basically, I think it is fair to argue that if the McDonald's selection
committee does its job, each of its prep All-Americans eventually should be
a first-round NBA draft pick.

So how many reach that level?

My survey of every McDonald's All-America team between 1977 and 2002
revealed that 188 of the first 499 McDonald's All-Americans that have gone
through the draft became first-round NBA draft picks _ 37.7 percent. A
further 77 players (15.4 percent) became second-round picks.

That means that for all the flops _ the Joey Beards, the Delray Brooks, the
Curtis Hunters, the Clarence Tillmans _ more than half of the previous
McDonald's All-Americans have been drafted.

When you look individual schools, you see some interesting variations

Duke has had 14 of 31 of its McDonald's All-Americans drafted in the first
round, a healthy 45.2 percent. That doesn't include signee Shaun Livingston,
who never played at Duke, or the six Blue Devil prep All-Americans still in
college (five on the Duke roster; Michael Thompson at Northwestern). The 17
non-first round picks include several players who have had productive NBA
careers, including second-round picks Gene Banks, Carlos Boozer and Chris

North Carolina has had 17 of its first 40 McDonald's All-Americans drafted
(five are currently on this year's team). That's a better-than-average 42.5
per cent.

By contrast, just one of the seven McDonald's All-Americans signed by N.C.
State (not counting Julius Hodge) was a first round pick ... and Chris
Washburn turned out to be one of the biggest flops in NBA draft history.
Wake Forest's record is not much better _ one first-round pick (Rodney
Rogers) out of five McDonald's All-Americans, although Chris Paul and Eric
Williams are likely to improve that average soon.

At the other end of the spectrum, Georgia Tech has had 12 McDonald's
All-Americans go through the draft. Seven (58.3 percent) were first-round
draft picks, while four others were picked in the second round. Just one
(Daryl Barnes) failed to draw any NBA interest.

Of course, let's understand the limitations of our method here. We're just
measuring the ability of the McDonald's voters to project NBA success. That
doesn't mean that all the players who weren't drafted in the first round
were college failures. N.C. State's success rate looks a lot better when you
consider that McDonald's All-Americans Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg
led the Pack to a national title. And Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe
formed one of the great backcourts in ACC history.

In Duke's case, few players have had better college careers than Tommy
Amaker (a third-round NBA pick), while Chris Collins, Phil Henderson, Nate
James and even Casey Sanders all played significant roles on Final Four


Still, to peruse the list of McDonald's All-America teams is to wonder at
the big misses. How did so many experts think that Delray Brooks or Chris
Burgess were the number one players in their class? Some recruiting writers
thought that Clarence Tillman was better than Gene Banks, his teammate at
West Philadelphia High. I can still remember the celebration at Duke when
Coach K beat out Jim Valvano for the services of 7-footer Marty Nessley.

I can also recall the hysteria when Duke, UNC and N.C. State went
head-to-head for the services of Curtis Hunter. The Durham Sun alone had
three reporters at Southern High School for Hunter's announcement in the
spring of 1982. When Hunter picked Dean Smith's Tar Heel program, it was a
far bigger story in Durham than the day John Lucas announced he was going to

Hunter's decision forced both Coach K and Valvano to scramble. Krzyzewski
had been recruiting David Henderson from Warren County, but he was hoping to
convince the unheralded wing player to spend a year in prep school before
coming to Duke. When Hunter picked UNC, Valvano suddenly jumped into the
Henderson sweepstakes and Coach K swallowed his academic misgivings and
signed Henderson. Valvano had to settle for guard George McClain from Rocky

Of course, Henderson ended up having a much better college career than
either Hunter or McClain. He became a significant member of Coach K's first
significant recruiting class _ a starter on the 1986 team that won the ACC
title (with Henderson hitting the clutch shot in the title game) and
finished No. 1 in the nation.

The celebrated Curtis Hunter went on to a forgettable career at Carolina,
where he averaged just 4.2 points a game (a third of Henderson's career
average of 12.3). His career was marred by a series of injuries and by an
inability to make the transition from being a 6-4 high school post player to
a college wing.

The question I have to ask is whether or not we should have foreseen
Henderson's success and Hunter's problems? Both played in the same North
Carolina 3-A division, their schools less than an hour's drive apart. Their
teams met in the state semifinals with Henderson clearly outplaying Hunter
as his team advanced to the finals.

Was Dean Smith wrong to pursue Hunter first? Was Coach K wrong (he wanted
Hunter too)? Was Jim Valvano wrong? Were the McDonald's All-America team
voters, who voted for Hunter, but not for Henderson, wrong?


But this is the biggest question of all: Is Curtis Hunter a "flop" because
he didn't live up to his prep hype?

Obviously, any Duke fan reading this is going to understand that this is an
allusion to Shavlik Randolph, the Duke junior who was labeled a "flop"
his hometown newspaper last month _ on the same day when it was announced
that the Raleigh Broughton star would be out an extended period with

It's tough to judge Randolph's career without weighing the burden of
expectations that he carried when he signed with Duke.

There was one point during his junior season at Broughton when Randolph was
probably the consensus No. 1 player in his class. But in the summer before
his senior season, his stock dropped. We now know that Randolph was already
being plagued by the hip injury that would limit him as a freshman at Duke.
He dropped as low as 26th nationally in Bob Gibbons' final rankings. Dave
Telep ranked him No. 12 in the class ... Brick Oettinger had him at No. 15.

It's easy to sneer at the gurus for getting it wrong, but their rankings
only reflected the passion of the coaches pursuing Randolph. Florida's Billy
Donovan flew up to Raleigh just to wave 'Hi' across a parking lot. UNC's
Matt Doherty got Michael Jordan to wear a Randolph tee-shirt for a
photograph. Kansas coach Roy Williams flew to Raleigh to meet with a kid he
was certain would end up on Tobacco Road.

Were they all wrong? Were they all bad judges of talent?

Well, when you look at Randolph's career, it's hard not to see the flashes
of the talent all those coaches and recruiting writers saw. He had 23 points
in his first college game; 17 points and 12 rebounds in his second. He had
24 points and 10 rebounds in just 19 minutes against Butler before hip
problems shut his freshman season down.

Randolph started slowly as a sophomore after off-season hip surgery, but
did some amazing things late in the season. During Duke's five-game NCAA
Tournament run, he averaged 10.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocked shots
in just 18.6 minutes a game. Against UConn in the national semifinals,
Randolph had 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting, six rebounds and blocked shot in
just 14 minutes before fouling out.

So maybe maybe we should recognize that the kid CAN play some after all.

Randolph still has the rest of this season and all of next year to become
the consistent, productive player he's never been at Duke. Is it possible
that a player plagued for three years with injury and illness can suddenly
blossom into a solid player?

Well, just as a example of what's possible, check out the career of Alaa

If you knew Alaa when he was at Duke, you'll remember that he was an
intelligent, articulate, fun-loving guy. He didn't have the major injury
problems that have plagued Randolph, but he was a guy who didn't always work
as hard as he should. Through his first three seasons at Duke, the former
McDonald's All-American played a total of 842 minutes and averaged less than
six points and three rebounds a game.

As a senior, Abdelnaby played 947 minutes and averaged 15.1 points and 6.6
rebounds as a starter on a team that played in the national championship
game. He played so well that he ended up as the first-round draft pick of
the Boston Celtics.

To this point in Shav's career, even with all the injuries and illness, he'
s played almost 1400 minutes and averaged seven points and more than four
rebounds a game _ better than Abdelnaby in every category. I don't think it'
s unrealistic to suggest that if he can stay healthy and regain his
confidence, that he could do what Abdelnaby did and salvage his career with
a strong finish.


But even if he that doesn't happen, should Randolph be condemned as a flop?

Why is it that when the adults _ the coaches and the professional
recruiting writers _ make a mistake in judgment, it's the kids who bear the
brunt of the criticism? Instead of saying Randolph is a flop, why doesn't
anybody write that 'Boy, Bob Gibbons (or Clark Francis or Dave Telep) made a
bad call on that kid' or 'Al Featherston doesn't know what he's talking
about.' (I touted him too)?

I can think of two fair recent ACC players who went through hell for no
reason other than the high expectations laid on them.

One was King Rice, who had a pretty nice career at UNC. He was a strong
defender and an excellent playmaker who absolutely couldn't shoot. He
started off and on for three seasons, leading UNC to a stunning upset of No.
1 Duke in Cameron in 1989 and twice embarrassing freshman Bobby Hurley in
1990 matchups. He was the fulltime starter in 1991, when UNC went 29-6, won
the ACC title and reached the Final Four.

Rice should have been celebrated. His career wasn't all that different than
Jimmy Black's or Derrick Phelps' career. But Rice was criticized and derided
by his own fans for failing to live up to his prep hype. He came to UNC
heralded as "the human assist" by veteran prep writer Bob Gibbons, who
ranked him as the third best player in the prep Class of 1987.

Rice couldn't live up to those expectations and it soured what should have
been a pretty sweet college career.

I think Damien Wilkins went through an even worse experience. Part of his
problem (like Randolph's) was his famous name _ his father was Gerald
Wilkins of the New York Knicks and his uncle was Hall of Famer Dominique
Wilkins. At one point in the recruiting process, Gibbons rated Wilkins the
No. 1 player in a class that included Jason Williams, Joe Forte, Michael
Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer. No matter that Gibbons later dropped Wilkins to
No. 12, nobody ever forgot that No. 1 ranking and he arrived at N.C. State
heralded as the program's savior.

The trouble was that Wilkins wasn't a superstar player. He was not a great
athlete and, like Rice, he wasn't much of a shooter. What he did have was a
wide variety of skills and a nice understanding of the game. On a talented
team, he might have been a wonderful complimentary player ... he simply wasn
't good enough to carry a team such as N.C. State.

The pressure of trying to do so _ compounded by the ridiculous expectations
of his father and uncle _ drove the poor kid to distraction. A lot of N.C.
State fans vilified Wilkins when he proved unable to make the Pack a winner.
Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek booted him out of the program when he flirted
with the NBA (solely to appease his father) after the 2001 season. A lot of
Wolfpack fans still think that Wilkins was an overrated bum, but my
impression was that Wilkins was basically a good kid, torn apart by the
expectations placed on him.

I hope that doesn't happen to Randolph. His career has been derailed by
injuries and illness, but it has also been warped by those who are
determined to label him as a flop if he doesn't become a great player.
Coaches generally understand the limits of their judgment and the difficulty
projecting the futures of 17 and 18 year old kids.

Unfortunately, the writers _ and too often the fans _ don't approach
recruiting with the same humility.