Even a call from John Calipari wasn’t enough to entice the hottest prospect in college basketball recruiting to leave his home state of Arizona.
Nico Mannion said he enjoyed a 30-minute phone conversation with the Kentucky head coach, one of two conversations in the same week, part of the intense recruiting push just about every major basketball program in the country was making for the services of the Pinnacle High School junior.
But in the end, the five-star guard rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 1 point guard decided it was time to bring down the curtain on the circus and announce his commitment to a different Wildcat team, the one in Tucson. After an in-home visit by head coach Sean Miller on Sunday, the announcement came yesterday that Mannion had committed to play for the University of Arizona.
After leading the media around by the nose since his freshman year at the north Phoenix school when Sports Illustrated profiled the then-15-year-old, the 6’3″ guard set aside offers from elite programs like Kentucky, Duke, Villanova, Kansas, and UCLA to stay close enough to home that his family will have a simple two-hour drive down I-10 to watch his home games.
Arizona had always been considered a favorite among the many suitors, but Mannion kept everyone guessing. And he kept his recruitment front and center with the media, giving them some additional material when he reclassified during the summer to the Class of 2019, immediately putting him among the top high school senior point guards in the nation.
Originally a part of the Class of 2020, Mannion has been taking online courses that will enable him to graduate in the spring. His decision to re-classify to 2019 put him at the top of Arizona’s wish list for that class. In fact, he becomes the first member of the class.
Mannion led Pinnacle to the school’s first-ever state championship in boys’ basketball. He averaged 23.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.7 rebounds a game last season. Then, in July, he played with the Italian national team in the FIBA World Cup qualifying game to hone his skills at a much higher level. Mannion holds a dual U.S.-Italian citizenship since his mother, Gaia, is Italian and played professional volleyball in that country, and his father, Pace, is a former NBA player who also played professionally in Italy.
While spending his summers playing the club circuit as a member of the West Coast Elite, it was that month spent playing with the Italian team that convinced his parents that Nico was ready for the college game. But that comes as no surprise to college recruiters, who have been attending his games in greater numbers each year; his first college offer came from Cal State when the young phenom was in eigth grade.
For some time, the newest UofA commit has been saying he wanted to wait a while longer and watch the Wildcats play this season to see whether they would be moving more toward a fast-paced offense that relied more on perimeter shooting – his preferred style of play. It would also give him some time to check out the roster he could expect to play on next year.
But evidently he’s seen enough and decided it was time to pull the trigger — much to the relief of Miller and his staff who have spent many hours attending some of his high school games and following the youngster on the summer AAU circuit. The coaching staff has been consistent and relentless in their pursuit of their prized catch; during the July evaluation period, they were in the stands for every one of Mannion’s club games.
Mannion was an absolute ‘must-get’ for Miller, who has been beating the bushes for a top-rated point guard after Brandon Williams, a four-star point guard from California, de-committed in early spring in the wake of an FBI investigation into college recruiting that had implicated the Arizona program. Miller lost several top recruits following an ESPN article that claimed Miller had been caught on a wiretap discussing a payment to a potential recruit.
Miller denied the claim and the university is standing behind him. Recruiting is picking up again, and Mannion may just be the boost he needs to encourage other top prospects to take another look at the Wildcat program.
Back when Hall-of-Fame coach Lute Olson was running the Arizona program, he was able to recruit some of the top talent in the country to run the point for the Cats and serve as the building blocks for championship-caliber teams. That list included names like Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jerryd Bayless, and Jason Terry.
Because of that recruiting success, Arizona became known as “Point Guard U” and Miller, himself a stand-out point guard in college, has tried to continue the tradition. It was beginning to look like it might be awhile before he found a true point guard worthy of being included with the legends of the past.
But the kid with the high-rev motor and huge shock of red hair is on the way to take his place at the head of the class.
And hopefully carry on the tradition of Point Guard U.