A Prized Recruit Shows the Shoe Circuit Is Not the Only Path
LAS VEGAS — Few could have foreseen Xavier Booker, who as a sophomore barely got off his high school team’s bench, in his current position: being scrutinized by N.B.A. scouts and recruited by Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and a cadre of others.
Then again, who wouldn’t fancy a 6-foot-11 left-hander who can snatch a rebound, create his own fast break and either pull up for a 3-pointer, deliver a precise pass or drive for a dunk?
But as the recruiting season reaches its climactic month, Booker is a unicorn in another sense.
He is not playing in any of July’s marquee recruiting events run by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, shoe companies that invest millions in high-level travel basketball programs in the hope of fostering a relationship with the next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry.
Instead, Booker, 17, is the rare elite prospect who will perform in basketball’s Off Broadway circuit, playing in tournaments run by independent organizers with little or no shoe-company sponsorship — and without an array of name-checked college coaches sitting courtside.
Booker, from just outside Indianapolis, has turned away offers to play for several Nike-sponsored teams and at least one Adidas outfit to maintain his allegiance to a coach, Mike Saunders, who helped him blossom for George Hill All Indy, an Indianapolis team bankrolled by Hill, a veteran N.B.A. guard.
“Mike’s done a lot for me,” Booker said. “He’s been a big part of where I am right now.”
It’s hard to overstate the influence that shoe companies exert on youth basketball. They invest in travel-ball coaches who recruit the best players — paying annual stipends that reach six figures, supplying teams with gear and covering travel costs for tournaments around the country.
In turn, the coaches are expected to funnel elite players toward colleges with which the shoe companies have apparel agreements. Adidas, for example, pays Kansas $14 million a year. Duke and Kentucky are on Nike’s payroll, and Auburn is an Under Armour flagship school.
Sometimes, as a 2017 federal corruption case revealed, shoe-company representatives have acted as bag men — facilitating payments to recruits’ families as incentives to attend one of their schools. Now, with athletes able to profit from their fame, shoe companies can pay athletes over the table, as Adidas has announced it will do with a network that allows athletes at any of the 109 schools it sponsors to become brand ambassadors for the company.
Still, it is shoe-company money that incentivizes even younger players to hopscotch the country playing for different high schools each year and new travel-ball teams seemingly each tournament. (One Midwestern prep school coach attended a showcase event in Las Vegas last month solely to keep one of his players from being poached by another prep school.)
Booker, though, has stayed put entering his senior year.
He is still playing for Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, which in March he helped to its first state championship since 1998. He also remained with the George Hill All Indy team, where he began to turn heads a year ago.
“We don’t want to be one of these families or kids who are hopping around different A.A.U. teams or high schools every five minutes,” said Booker’s father, Fred, who spent 27 years in the Marines and now works for the Department of Defense. “I tell him, ‘Son, if things aren’t going right, you’ve got to stick things out. You can’t run or jump every time you think a better opportunity is out there.’”
He added: “If you’re getting attention now with a team that’s not on the circuit, what are you going to gain?”
Several college coaches had to trace back more than a decade, to Otto Porter Jr., whose father prohibited him from playing travel basketball, to recall a player as highly regarded as Booker who bypassed the shoe-company circuit. Chas Wolfe, who runs a national scouting service, noted two others in recent years — Malik Williams, a three-year captain at Louisville, and Pete Nance, who last month transferred from Northwestern to North Carolina — but said Booker’s case is exceedingly rare.
If Booker is an overnight sensation, it is only so for newcomers.
His first toy as a toddler was a 3-foot basket with a sponge ball, and by the time he was in elementary school, his hands were rarely without a basketball. His two older brothers, both in the Air Force, played on the armed forces’ All-Service team. And when Booker isn’t in the driveway shooting baskets at his family’s home in an Indianapolis suburb, he is often watching classic N.B.A. games and aspiring to transform his body in the gym like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Though Booker was always tall for his age, his father drilled him on dribbling and footwork, once the domain of guards, so he would have the skills to play away from the basket.
Those tools were not readily apparent to Saunders, the travel-ball coach, when he sat in the stands a year ago at a Cathedral game. Booker checked into the game, gobbled up a few rebounds, blocked a shot and scored a basket — and after a few minutes was back on the bench. Saunders was there to watch his nephew, who kept pestering him about how Booker, who averaged fewer than nine minutes per game, could do so much more.
Afterward, Saunders introduced himself to Fred Booker, who offered to send Saunders video clips that revealed the scope of his son’s skills.
“I watched them, and I’m thinking this can’t be the same kid sitting on the bench for his high school team,” Saunders said. “I called him back and said, ‘Fred, if he can show us what he’s got in a game, his whole world is going to change in three weeks.’”
It was not far off.
Dinos Trigonis, an independent tournament operator, caught a glimpse of Booker at a tournament in Indianapolis and invited him to Las Vegas last June for his Pangos all-American camp, which features many of the best 100 prospects in the country. The camp, which two years ago drew Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith — the top three picks in this year’s N.B.A. draft — is able to attract so many top players because it is held when college recruiters are not permitted to attend and thus does not conflict with shoe-company events.
By the time Cathedral’s season started in November, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo was sitting behind the bench.
And when Booker returned to the Pangos camp last month, playing in front of N.B.A. scouts, he was named the most valuable player.
It did not go so well last week at the National Basketball Players Association camp near Orlando, Fla., where Booker, perhaps for the only time this summer, played against other top recruits in the presence of college coaches. Bothered by a sprained ankle and with a bigger target on his back, Booker was not at his best.
For the two remaining windows when college coaches can evaluate in person — Wednesday through Sunday and July 20-24 — Booker will be with Hill’s team at tournaments in Atlanta and Milwaukee on the independent NY2LA circuit.
Jessie Evans, a former college coach who ran Booker’s team for three days in Las Vegas, made mention of his wingspan, quick feet and shooting ability, but he most admired his interest in being coached. “He’s a good player, but he doesn’t know it all,” Evans said. “Some of these guys are 15 years old and think they have all the answers. That’s a testament to home, but he also hasn’t been on the radar and had people telling him how good he is.”
More than a few N.B.A. players sponsor travel teams. LeBron James’s Strive For Greatness, Russell Westbrook’s Team Why Not, and Carmelo Anthony’s Team Melo are fixtures on Nike’s circuit. To many of them, it reflects their experiences coming up.
Hill, 36, is no different.
When Hill, who grew up in a troubled Indianapolis neighborhood, was in middle school, he was invited repeatedly by Saunders to play organized basketball. Finally, he agreed, opening a door that Hill felt obliged to keep ajar for others. Of the eight players on that initial boyhood team, Hill said, three are in prison and two are dead. It was the shooting death of one of them in 2008 that spurred Hill to start the program and enlist Saunders to run it, shortly after Hill was drafted 26th overall by the San Antonio Spurs.
“I could have been one of those kids — dead or in jail for selling drugs or gang banging,” Hill said. “I come from that background. I easily could have fallen into that trap. Mike gave me that opportunity. That’s why I go so hard, so they don’t fall into that trap of some of my former teammates.”
For a while, Nike sponsored Hill’s team. Then he partnered for five years with Peak, a Chinese sportswear company. When that arrangement ended, Hill said Nike refused to take him back. He also had a brief deal with Under Armour. Several years ago, he decided to go it alone.
Hill, who has earned more than $100 million in salary over his career, according to Basketball Reference, said it cost him about $150,000 per year to fund his team.
“I don’t ask anything out of my players. You could say, ‘Oh, it’s a financial burden,’ but what we’re getting out of it is tenfold,” said Hill, who has invited his players to his ranch outside San Antonio next week.
Saunders, who said eight players on the team have scholarship offers, believes what separates his program — and other independents — from the shoe-company teams is that he is not driven by winning and losing. For example, teams have to qualify to reach Nike’s Peach Jam, a tournament that will take place later this month in North Augusta, S.C. If coaches don’t win, they risk not having their contracts renewed by Nike. The same market forces exist at Adidas and Under Armour, too.
Saunders said his tenets were development and highlighting talent.
“When you’re labeled a travel or A.A.U. coach, they view us as used-car salesman because we all have the same pitch — you’ve got to play here to be seen,” Saunders said. “But good people know good people. It’s more than just opening the trunk of your car and showing a kid gear. If you can look a good player’s parent in the eyes and tell them it’s about development and growth and that we don’t care about winning, it’s not that hard.”
Saunders also figures that if a player tells him he’s been taking 1,000 shots a day or spending hours working on his dribbling, then the game will show him.
So when Booker told him he could handle the ball and shoot 3-pointers, Saunders encouraged him to bring the ball up the court when he grabbed a rebound. And when Booker received the ball beyond the arc, he was encouraged to let it fly. Play through mistakes, Booker was told. The game would tell the truth.
“He just made me be comfortable, let me be myself, let me express my game,” Booker said, describing his newfound confidence and also revealing a recruiting parable — the right landing spot is the one where you feel at home.