Will Smith | The US Prep School System. What it's like, things to look out for and look for
Intro by Coach Janx
Will is one of the rare few of coaches from Australia coaching in the United States, even rarer in that he is from South Australia and even rarer again in that he coaches in the Prep School level of competitions.
In South Australia he previously played Premier League with Forestville Eagles, before moving to Eastern Mavericks and then starting his coaching journey with Eastern. Quickly finding a real love for coaching he decided to take the big plunge into fulltime coaching, packup shop and head to NBA China to work in the youth basketball sector there. He has since moved over to the United States working for St Louis Christian Academy a private, prep school with a strong basketball program, whilst still running a coaching program in China called World Hoops Basketball Academy.
In this article Will takes us into the very different world of high level US High and Prep School basketball, what to look for in bad vs a good prep school, the style of game played, as well as some tips and advice on selecting a college. This is a good read for any athlete, parents, coaches and supporters who are might be considering US High School/Prep School or just interested in learning more about overseas basketball. Whilst we always enjoy reading content and opinions I HIGHLY recommend that any athletes considering this pathway seek out advice from a number of coaches with experience and knowledge in basketball pathways, both here and in the US, before making such a decision, there a lot variables involved. I’ve seen poor decisions made without speaking and listening to the right mix of people first and considering specific variables for themselves.
Over to Coach Smith
PICTURED: Will and the team from St Louis Christian Academy Prep School at Game 6 of round 1 of the NBA playoffs between the Cavs and the Pacers.
For High School aged athletes the talent level, level of general competition, amount of games and the whole deal I believe is unsurpassed in the world compared to the United States.
Unfortunately a lot of this derives from the harsh realities we already know; For many kids in the USA- basketball is their ticket to a better life. Some players struggle with school, have bad situations at home, or come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. However, this painful truth has also helped borne a fire, hunger and passion unrivaled. Games are intense, filled with scrappy players who fight tooth and nail every possession. The competitive nature of getting ‘an offer’ from a college team makes each game, tournament and season much more important.
USA High School Basketball Landscape
For those who don’t know- players are ranked inside America for their class. This is one of the aspects of US High School ball that makes it unique to other countries. The 2018 kids will be ranked by various websites such as espn etc. It is subjective, but players in the top are generally pretty similarly ranked depending where you look. They can also be ranked by position.
This forms an extremely public scrutiny of high school players. It also creates excitement and pressure. A bad couple games or tournament can certainly hurt a kid’s ranking. These rankings are certainly closely monitored by college coaches/scouts when they are evaluating players for whom they want to offer scholarships to. As with any commodity, highly sought after things create higher prices- so sometimes a top 10 ranked kid will obviously be very hard for colleges to sign. This is where the not so kosher side of the basketball business thrives.
On the flip side-many schools and coaches want to find that diamond in the rough that somehow slipped through the cracks and is unknown- easier to negotiate with, manage and obtain. I’m sure we have all read countless stories of these scenarios- Manu Ginobili picked in the 50’s, Isaiah Thomas picked with the last selection in the draft etc.
PICTURED: The NCAA Final 4 of March Madness. Not too many tournaments in the world like it and all for college kids.
International Players in the USA
Now- for international kids- getting these offers is even harder. Basketball in America is a bit of an old school business- coaches believe what they see with their own eyes. They want to see players in the flesh, watch them train-watch them play games, watch them interact with teammates and coaches etc.
Watching a highlights video can be good and bad for coaches. I have seen countless videos of players who look a million dollars in highlights and when you see them- they are terrible. Everyone can look good on edited highlights that only show your good side! If a coach is actually interested in a player, they will usually ask for full game footage also. This shows the players ups and downs through the natural flow of a game.
As an international student, it also can be difficult for coaches to get a good grasp of your abilities. There can be many big fish in small ponds and this syndrome is a reality. We have had players come from Europe who were the best in their team/league/city/junior national team players and they have struggled at times in America. Coaches want to see talent against talent. The reality is that the talent pool is vast and deep in America. If you’re a 5’9 PG, coaches want to see how you play against a 6’4 PG who is taller, faster and stronger than you. These factors make a big difference.
This also helps your own development. Playing against the best high school players in the world, week in- week out, only does wonders for your game. It’s brutal and hard work, but the sooner you realize your deficiencies at this level- the sooner you can work on them and improve. Some players find this out the hard way during their college years and that is 2 or 3 years later than it has to be.
There is also a speed adjustment and style of play difference that needs to happen for international players. The game in the states is EXTREMELY FAST. The pace of the game, the officiating, the athleticism, rules and general basketball atmosphere all needs adjusting too. Again, better to do that earlier than waste 6 months or a year of a college season adjusting to this.
VIDEO: With a little help from www.highperformancehoopsnetwork.com elite youth athletes HAVE been able to find alternate pathways to secure top US College Scholarships without ever setting foot on US soil prior to them doing official visits. We agree with Phil it helps to play in the US but it is not the be all and end all, with a lot of variables involved.
Prep School Life
PICTURED: WIll's prep school arrives at La Lumiere, one of the top prep schools in the United States. They were national champions in 2017 and Will tells us "they gave us a nice lesson".
Coming and playing high school basketball in America can be a tremendous development and cultural experience. Our school, St Louis Christian Academy, plays approximately 30-35 games a season from November to March. Either side of that there are AAU competitions also. This is where coaches go to watch and see players. From there- they can and will actively follow teams/players at tournaments, online or in talent Identification camps also.
But choosing a school isn’t easy. There are lots of bad situations out there. Basketball is a big business in the USA and some people can choose short term gains over quality. By this, I mean, some “schools” can be setup which don’t offer much beyond basketball. This is where due diligence is required when making a decision.
Simply ‘googling’ or doing a YouTube search can help you learn more about the school you are considering.
Private schools do offer scholarships, but this depends on the player. Obviously there are lots of costs involved for schools- boarding (living costs), food, tuition, travel, basketball equipment, insurance, employee wages and tournament fees etc all make up costs for teams.
Asking lots of questions is a great way to begin- talk to the coach, ask what their experience is, questions you may have about the school-it’s history etc, are all good places to start. Try and ask previous players or a contact you may know (your coach in Australia/Europe may know a coach in the USA to help with questions/insights).
Generally, schools open for a short amount of time can be questionable. Google a coach/administrators name and sometimes this can give insights too. Some people set up shop, do a year or 3 and move on. This may not be an ideal scenario. They may also sublease the whole setup- rent apartments, send kids to a nearby school and/or rent gym space. Again, this is a case by case basis for which you need to make a judgement call to the best of your ability. Some of these scenarios work out fine- some not.
Bricks and mortar schools are good signs. This means they are established and have been for some time and generally aren’t going anywhere. Our school has boarding rooms and our basketball gym onsite- so everything is run in-house. We travel for all our games, but the school itself is solid (Both literally and figuratively).
International students must go to a private school, government schools are not permitted to accept non-US citizens (only as an exchange-student they can-but this is NOT what an international basketballer wants).
The rules are also that someone can be in high school when they are 19 years old, as long as they do not turn 20 during the school year. This allows some players to do what is called re-classifying and gives them another year to mature physically etc. Ben Simmons did this when he transitioned from Australia to the USA, Thon Maker was another one.
So choosing a school isn’t easy, but like anything- requires patience, research and following your instincts; if something doesn’t feel right- perhaps trust that gut feeling.
Generally speaking, boarding schools run a ‘dorm’ style living arrangement. This would be living in a room, generally about 50 square metres with 4 boys per room. This provides ample space and also a very social atmosphere. I found that when players are together- not only does it help with bonding, but also with competitive development. By human nature, we can all be lazy at times. But when your roommate is working out and asks you to come along- it’s much easier to ‘grind’ when doing it with others. I found that this created a good atmosphere for players to get up extra shots, do strength and condition programs, jump programs and the like. It is inevitable during any basketball season that players get physically and mentally fatigued. That grind usually seems to happen about half or two thirds of the way through the season. Pre season is exciting, filled with the unbridled enthusiasm of what may be for the season. Playing 35 games sounds great, but factor in training 5 days a week, travel, school, homework and it can become that ‘grind’. Having a support network in your close environment can be critical for success or failure.
Some schools also provide apartment living for boarding students. This may be in residential apartments close to school and/or transport to school. I know that Sun Rise Christian Academy (one of the top schools in the country) employs this strategy with students living in the neighboring community, only a stone’s throw from the school grounds.
The Nuts & Bolts
Playing at this level, you will play against NBA level talent, high and mid major division 1 college talent and everything in between.
To qualify for D1 schools- your academics need to be in good standings. It varies from school to school and league to league. But there are many great players who are D1 talents, but do not qualify and may play D2 or JUCO (Junior College) as a result. Juco is also a great option for players to migrate into D1 if they do not get an offer straight away. Juco’s offer high level programs and schedules which allow the regular D1 colleges to scout and follow players also. Jimmy Butler is a great example of this. He started at a Juco, transferred to a D1 college and is now an NBA All-Star. Steve Nash is another who springs to mind that wasn’t a high level college player- but obviously became an 2x NBA MVP player.
PICTURED : Nike EYBL. An AAU tournament with Coach K and others looking on.
So I implore players to not get caught on D1 or D2 or labels any which way. I was never a great player, but the thought of having the opportunity to play on any team, at any level in college is an awesome thing. There are 370 D1 Colleges in America, of which each team has about 10 full scholarships each year. If you factor in the mathematics that not all 10 leave each year (not all schools are Kentucky!) then you might have 3 or 4 scholarships available each year from each school. So that means, at best, there might be 1200-1300 full D1 scholarships available each year.
Now, again, we have to be smart in our analysis- there are probably each year at least 500,000+ players playing high school basketball in the states (statista.com). In an even playing field, that puts you at about a 1 in 384 chance, around 0.0026% of making NCAA D1.
So, being realistic, if ANY school at even a mid-to high major D2 level or Juco level shows interest in you, then you should give it strong consideration. There are 312 D2 schools and 525 Junior College teams. If we factor in that D2/Juco College teams are not all full-scholarship, that’s about another 6,200 scholarships on offer.
Therefore your odds increase to about 7500-8000 scholarships on offer, or about a 1.6% chance (everything being equal). NCAA.org states that the chances of playing NCAA are 3.4% of all High School participants. So, somewhere between 1.5% and 3.5% are your chances, aim for the top-but be mindful of the realities.
Offers are also a strange thing. Players want to wait and wait and wait for more and more and more offers. Be realistic, perhaps set a date with your family and make a decision. Schools may give 3 or 4 offers for the same position/type of player- if another player signs and fills that spot- your offer can be pulled from the table and you are left with nothing. And, at the end of the day, a free or even partial scholarship to get a college education AND play basketball is a great opportunity for anyone (man or woman).
But once you have a good school, a good schedule to play on, a high level AAU team and the exposure and experience you need- then it’s time to immerse yourself in the USA basketball culture, get to work and enjoy the ride!!!
Charles Bassey PF/C, 2018
We played against Charles Bassey during our Grind Session schedule. He is touted to be the #1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and just committed to playing with Western Kentucky next season. He’s a 6’11 big with amazing hands and footwork. He can vacuum in rebounds on both ends and has a great vision and touch. He can shoot 3’s, mid-range and post guys up. I was probably most impressed with his passing ability and IQ for reading the game- he rarely makes a bad decision.
Antavion Collum , 6’9 PG. 2019 Reportedly has 51 D1 college offers.
Collum is a 6’9 PG who grew up playing the 4 and now has just evolved into a 1. This gives him a tremendous advantage. With his size and length- he can post up any smaller guards and also take bigger players off the dribble- so he’s a matchup problem. He’s strong and again has a great IQ for the game.
N’Faly Dante, 6’11 C, 2020
‘Dante’ as he is known, is again a highly ranked player (#3) for the 2021 class. He’s the real deal. I have seen him practice multiple times with Mokan and play live at EYBL. In the first session event, in Dallas- John Calipari, Coach K, Jay Wright, Tom Izzo and a plethora of who’s who of D1 coaches were on-hand to watch Dante play. He doesn’t disappoint, a constant 20-10 guy with the ability to dominate games on the defensive end also- make him a lottery-pick lock.
Malik Hall, 6’7 SF/PF, 2019
Hall is another Mokan player dominating the EYBL circuit. He has a very unique- do-it-all type of skill set. He reminds me a lot of perhaps a Pippen/George Lynch type of player. He could absolute stuff the stat sheet you wouldn’t even know it- a silent assassin of sorts. He plays both sides of the ball, plays extremely hard and has range out to 3.
Isaiah Stewart, 6’7 PF. 2018
Stewart played with La Lumiere and gave us a dominant performance when we played them. He’s a proto-typical ‘Man-Child’ who has an amazing physique and isn’t afraid to use it. He just made the US Junior National Team for the upcoming championships and looks to be a talent to watch. He’s a key-way dominating big who can affect the game at both ends- he rebounds extremely well and has great back to the basket post moves. Again great feet and hands for a big.
These are just 5 of the tremendous players that play in high school basketball, to give you an understanding of what the level of play is.
Coach Will Smith