Traditional HS hoops programs being hurt by ‘talent drain’

(This is Part I of a two-part article)

We’ve all been watching the talent drain that has been taking its toll on college basketball, as an increasing number of the sport’s best players continue to leave after one season to pursue a professional basketball career.

But the problem is no longer confined just to the college game.  High schools right here in Arizona are beginning to experience a similar threat to their ability to compete.

This talent drain among the prep programs is a direct result of the proliferation of what are commonly referred to as “basketball factories,” those school-affiliated programs that are established for the sole purpose of giving high school students the opportunity to join “elite” teams that compete against other similar specialized programs around the country.

How do these basketball academies fill their rosters?  By skimming the cream of the talent off the teams that play a regular high school season as members of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the state’s official governing body for high school sports.

Their pitch to the kids: play for a national prep program and have a greater opportunity to improve their game by playing better competition than traditional high school sports offers, while getting greater exposure to college scouts who follow the national schedules — and, hopefully, scholarship offers will follow.

However, the result is a watered-down game experience for high school sports fans.  Sure, the majority of those attending high school basketball games, in addition to the students, are parents or other family members related to the players.  But they’re also showing up for a chance to watch some really good basketball – which means they want to see the best players the state has to offer.

But many of those top players have dropped out of the regular prep  programs, opting instead to play for a national team.

So much for school pride, student bonding, and pep rallies.

The idea behind these basketball ‘academies’ is to give the really talented players a better chance of getting recruited to a top college program.  College scouts follow the players as they move around the country, knowing they won’t be wasting their time since a lot of talent is assembled in a single game.

But that also means there will be fewer of those scouts checking out the regular high school season.  Normally, they would show up to watch a particular star player and would, at the same time, get a look at some of the kids that otherwise would be overlooked.  So who gets shortchanged when those college recruiters stop showing up?

The situation really started to gain some attention three years ago when Marvin Bagley III, the No. 1 prospect in his recruiting class, left Corona del Sol High School after his sophomore year to play at newly-founded Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, where he stayed for just one season before moving to California.  He went on to play a season at Duke and is now playing in the NBA.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Since Bagley left behind his high school teammates to concentrate on elevating his game, others have followed suit.

Now it seems that the stream of talent flowing from the AIA schools to the ‘factories’ has the earmarks of turning into a raging river.  And it’s becoming a concern of both the AIA and the coaches at its member schools across the state.

(Tomorrow: Part II)