ORLANDO — Jarmal Reid, one of the nation’s top high school basketball players, was tying one of his shoelaces when out of the corner of his eye he saw a man in a light-blue shirt walk by.
A few seconds later, Reid was informed by his AAU teammates on the Atlanta-based Southern Kings U16 — who were so excited that they were nearly out of breath — that they had all just experienced a brush with celebrity. The man in blue was none other than North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams, who took a nearby seat on the front row to be strategically positioned to observe the next game.
“We were all excited … it was like ‘Can you believe that’s Roy Williams? And he’s going to watch us play?’” said Reid, a 6-foot-5 guard-forward who helped lead Columbia High to the Class AAA state championship last season as a sophomore.
“When the game started, I tried as hard as I could not to look in the direction of [Williams]. Then I was talking the ball out of bounds and made eye contact with him. It was like ‘Oh my gosh, that really is Roy Williams.’ It was pretty cool.”
July is the most important month of the year on the NCAA’s basketball recruiting calendar. It’s college basketball’s dog-and-pony show, where celebrity coaches and their peers both stalk and fawn over stars of the future in a traveling circus across the country. Since Thursday, the majority of basketball’s inner circle has paraded around Orlando for the final stretch of the 20-day July evaluation period that ends Saturday.
Players are there to be seen, as are coaches. With Georgia’s ever-growing crop of elite recruits, there are so many celebrities spotted at games one would think that the paparazzi was camped out in the gym’s parking lot. Two weeks ago, Kings coach Morris Gordon counted 31 Division I head coaches in the stands, including Williams, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and Florida’s Billy Donovan. The star attraction was the 6-foot-8 rising junior from Milton High, Evan Nolte, who already has a dozen early scholarship offers, including from Georgia Tech and Georgia.
“You try not to pay attention to it, but you know who is sitting over there in the [NCAA coaches section] because they are so close to court,” Nolte said with a laugh. “It has been a big eye-opener for me this summer. The [older players] tell you avoid awkward eye contact with them, but it’s hard not to take a quick peek over there.”
As Nolte was talking to reporters near the gym entrance Tuesday, he looked up as a North Carolina assistant walked in and — without saying a word — winked. About a minute later, Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt had perfect timing, cruising by in his rental car with the windows rolled down as Nolte stood next to the team bus. Nothing was said, but Nolte noticed.
“With the big-name coaches we’ve had at our games this summer, it shows the rest of the country how good basketball is in the state of Georgia,” said Gordon. “When I got to Georgia in 1999, it seemed like the only thing that people talked about was football. But times have changed, thanks to Georgia guys in the NBA like Dwight Howard, Kwame Brown, Randolph Morris, Josh Smith and Louis Williams.
“Football is still big in Georgia and always will be, but basketball is getting stronger every year. It’s really telling when you have all those famous coaches at one team’s games throughout the whole summer. They are there for a reason, and the reason is that Georgia has a lot of great basketball talent.”
The Georgia Stars attracted a star-studded crowd of more than 40 head coaches for Tuesday night’s opener for the AAU U17 Nationals. When Miller Grove High’s Tony Parker, another of the state’s top juniors, caught a rebound and dunked so hard that it shook the rim, Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl and Minnesota’s Tubby Smith — sitting next to each other about 20 feet away — traded a quick glance and smiled.
The annual July tour with club teams trumps the high school season for recruiting because college coaches can evaluate hundreds of prospects in one spot over the two 10-day periods.
The games can be pressure cookers for all parties involved. The high school players view it as an open audition for the college of their dreams. Last July, the rags-to-riches story was Norcross High’s Jeremy Lamb, who was virtually unknown. He was “discovered” on July’s AAU circuit, soared into the top 100 player rankings, and was flooded with scholarship offers. A 6-foot-4 guard, he signed with Connecticut over Georgia and Texas.
This year’s “biggest find” may be Greater Atlanta Christian shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon, who has more than tripled his scholarship offers to 13 after being one of the leading scorers at the Nike Peach Jam.
“Not all the kids may admit it, but I think most of them feel a lot of pressure because these college coaches don’t get a long time to watch them in person,” Milton coach David Boyd said. “The coaches aren’t going to be at every game, so it’s nerve-wracking if you don’t shoot the ball well or play well in one particular game.”
Ironically, with the elite recruits, the biggest pressure is on the coaches. They are aware that the prospects and their parents are taking roll call with coaches. Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, is one of the nation’s most highly regarded guards and mulling over offers from Duke, North Carolina and Florida.
“I bet Austin Rivers doesn’t feel any pressure — it’s the other way around,” Boyd said. “The coaches need to be seen to have a chance. Let’s say [Krzyzewski] and [Donovan] are there, but [Williams] isn’t there for whatever reason. Well, the Duke people are going to use that against Carolina in recruiting Rivers.”
While Rivers was warming up with his Each 1 Teach 1 teammates before the ESPNU-televised championship of Tuesday night’s Super Showcase, Donovan got up from his seat twice to walk along the baseline and talk on his cell. No one knew if the coach really was talking to someone on the other line.
But Rivers was watching.