LAS VEGAS — Few could have envisioned Xavier Booker, barely off the bench for his high school team as a sophomore, in his current position: scouted by NBA scouts and recruited by Kansas, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana. and other shots.
Then again, who doesn’t like a 6-foot-11 lefty who can rebound, create his own fast break, and either pull up a 3-pointer, make a pinpoint pass or drive for a dunk?
But as the recruiting season reaches its climax, Booker is a unicorn in another sense.
He’s not playing in any of the July marketing events run by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, the shoe companies that invest millions in high-profile travel basketball programs in hopes of cementing ties to the next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Stephen Curry. .
Instead, the 17-year-old Booker is a rare elite prospect on the Off-Broadway basketball tour, playing in tournaments run by independent organizers with little or no shoe company sponsorship — and without a whole row of college coaches sitting courtside.
Booker, out of Indianapolis, declined to play for several Nike-sponsored teams and at least one Adidas team to maintain his loyalty to coach Mike Sanders, who helped him thrive at George Hill All Indy, an Indianapolis-sponsored team. . By Hill, a veteran NBA guard.
“Mike has done a lot for me,” Booker said. “He was a big part of where I am now.”
It’s hard to overstate the impact that shoe companies have on youth basketball. They invest in travel ball coaches who recruit top players — paying annual stipends that reach six figures, supplying teams with equipment and covering travel expenses for tournaments around the country.
In turn, coaches are expected to lure elite players to colleges with which shoe companies have apparel deals. For example, Adidas pays Kansas $14 million a year. Duke and Kentucky are on the Nike payroll, while Auburn is an Under Armor flagship school.
Sometimes, as a 2017 federal corruption case revealed, representatives of the shoe companies acted as purse strings — facilitating payments to families of recruits as an incentive to attend one of his schools. Now that athletes can cash in on their fame, shoe companies can pay athletes on the table, as Adidas announced it will do with a network that allows athletes from 109 schools it sponsors to become the company’s brand ambassadors.
Still, it’s shoe company money that incentivizes even younger players to cross the country at different high schools each year, and new travel ball teams seemingly at every tournament. (One Midwestern prep school coach attended an event in Las Vegas last month, only to have one of his players poached by another prep school.)
Booker, however, remained on the year off.
He still plays for Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, which he helped to its first state championship since 1998 in March. He was also retained in the George Hill All India squad where he started the attack a year ago.
“We don’t want to be one of those families or kids that bounce around every five minutes to a different AAU team or high school,” said Booker’s father, Fred, who spent 27 years in the Marines and now works for the Defense Department. . “I tell him, ‘Son, if things aren’t going well, you’ve got to sort things out.’ You can’t run or jump every time you think there’s a better opportunity.”
He added: “If you focus now on a team that is not on the circuit, what will you gain?”
Few college coaches have to go back more than a decade, to Otto Porter Jr., whose father banned him from playing travel basketball, to recall a player as revered as Booker who bypassed the shoe company circuit. Chas Wolfe, who runs the national scouting service, has noted two others in recent years — Malik Williams, a three-year captain at Louisville, and Pete Nance, who transferred from Northwestern to North Carolina last month — but said Booker’s case is extremely rare.
If Booker is an overnight sensation, it’s only for rookies.
His first toy as a child 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 for the Armed Forces All-Service team. And when Booker isn’t in the driveway picking up baskets at his family’s home in suburban Indianapolis, he often watches classic NBA games and aspires to transform his body in the gym like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Although Booker was always tall for his age, his father drilled him in dribbling and footwork, once the domain of guards, so he would have the skills to play away from the basket.
Those tools weren’t apparent to Saunders, the travel ball coach, when he sat in the stands at a Cathedral game a year ago. Booker made the play, grabbed a few rebounds, blocked a shot and scored a basket — and returned to the bench minutes later. Sanders was there to watch his nephew pester him about how Booker, who averaged less than 9 minutes per game, could have done so much more.
Sanders then introduced himself to Fred Booker, who offered to send Sanders video clips showing the extent of his son’s skills.
“I looked at them and thought, this can’t be the same kid who was sitting on the bench for his high school team,” Saunders said. “I called him and said, ‘Fred, if he can show us what he’s got in the game, his whole world will change in three weeks.’
It was not far.
Dinos Trigonis, an independent tournament operator, spotted Booker at a tournament in Indianapolis and invited him to Las Vegas last June for his Pangos All-American Camp, which features the nation’s top 100 prospects. The camp, which two years ago welcomed Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith — the top three picks in this year’s NBA draft — is able to attract so many top players because it is held when college recruiters are not allowed to attend. Does not conflict with the events of the shoe company.
When Cathedral’s season began in November, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was behind the bench.
And when Booker returned to the Pangos camp last month, playing in front of NBA scouts, he was named the Most Valuable Player.
It didn’t go so well last week at the National Basketball Association camp near Orlando, Fla., where Booker played for perhaps the only time this summer against other top recruits in the presence of college coaches. With a sprained ankle and a bigger target on his back, Booker wasn’t 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.
Jesse Evans, a former college coach who coached Booker’s team for three days in Las Vegas, mentioned his wingspan, quick feet and shooting ability, but he was most impressed with the coach’s interest. “He’s a good player, but he doesn’t know it all,” Evans said. “Some of these guys are 15 years old and they think they have all the answers. That’s the promise of the house, but it’s also not been on the radar telling people how good it is.”
More than a few NBA players sponsor travel teams. LeBron James’ quest for glory, Russell Westbrook’s Team Why Not, and Carmelo Anthony’s Team Melo are matches on the Nike circuit. For many of them, it reflects their experience.
Hill, 36, is no different.
When Hill, who grew up in a troubled Indianapolis neighborhood, was in high school, Saunders repeatedly invited him to play organized basketball. Eventually, he agreed, opening a door that Hill felt obligated to keep open for others. Of those eight players in that original childhood, Hill said, three are in prison and two are dead. It was the death of one of them in 2008 that prompted Hill to start the program and bring in 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 being in a gang fight,” Hill said. “I come from this background. I could have easily fallen into this trap. Mike gave me this opportunity. That’s why I’m going so hard so that some of my former teammates don’t fall into this trap.”
For a while, Nike sponsored Hill’s team. He then collaborated with Chinese sportswear company Peak for five years. When that deal ended, Hill said, Nike refused to take him back. He also had a brief deal with Under Armour. A few years ago, he decided to go it alone.
Hill, who earned more than $100 million in his career, according to Basketball Reference, said his team’s funding cost him about $150,000 a year.
“I don’t ask anything from my players. You might say, ‘Oh, it’s a financial burden,’ but what we get out of it is tenfold,” said Hill, who has invited his players to his ranch outside San Antonio next week.
Sanders, who said eight players on the team have scholarship offers, believes what separates his program — and other independents — from shoe company teams is that it’s not driven by wins and losses. For example, teams must qualify to reach Nike’s Peach Jam, a tournament 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.
Sanders said his principles were to develop and highlight talent.
“When people label us as a travel or AAU coach, they see us as a used car salesman because we all have one ballpark — you have to play here to see it,” Saunders said. “But good people know good people. It’s more than just opening the trunk of a car and showing off a kid’s gadget. If you can look the parent of a good player in the eye and tell them that this is development and growth and that we’re not interested in winning, it’s not that hard.”
Sanders also believes that if a player says he takes 1,000 shots a day or spends hours dribbling, the game will show.
So when Booker told him he could drive the ball and shoot 3-pointers, Sanders encouraged him to drive the ball up the court when he grabbed the rebound. And when Booker received the ball beyond the arc, he was encouraged to fly. Booker was told to play for mistakes. The game will tell the truth.
“He just put me at ease, let me be myself, let me express my game,” Booker said, describing his newfound confidence while also revealing the adage that the right landing spot is where you feel at home.