How COVID-19 has impacted college basketball prospects

The head coach will be coming out to see you.

Mid-level college basketball prospects hear some version of these phrases over and over from programs in conversations with coaches throughout high school. 

The fate of their careers, delivered in the form of an official offer, is often determined by their performance on the hardwood of gyms filled with dozens of teams and a steady stream of coaches and analysts eager to discover the next hidden gem in the heart of summer on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit. 

None of those promises have come to fruition this year as the three major circuits — Nike Elite Youth Basketball, Adidas Gauntlet and Under Armour Association — completely canceled their national string of tournaments by the end of May in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some programs have now started competing in small tournaments, though there is much less competition and exposure, and coaches are unable to attend due to the NCAA’s prolonged suspension of in-person interaction with recruits.  

Assistant and head coaches travel to scout prospects when time permits throughout the course of a season. The recruiting process ramps up to full speed following the conclusion of the season. 

“The head coach[es] are the CEO, they are the last person to give the sign-off [on offers],” said Corey Evans, a national basketball analyst for Rivals. “And confidence and comfortability and relatability have not been easy to come by this spring and summer.” 

While coaches can’t go to AAU events this summer, some tournaments have been live-streamed through online streaming services. Though Evans said coaches are able to evaluate prospects better by seeing them play in person.

As a result, Evans said he’s seen a dramatic decline in offers this summer, particularly at high major programs. A head coach’s fate relies on the makeup of its roster, and most programs aren’t willing to take a chance on a player they’ve never seen play in person, especially if no other schools of their caliber have. 

“Unfortunately in the industry it’s kind of like follow the leader, it’s a domino effect,” Evans said. “All it takes is one high major program to offer a so-called mid-level prospect and that one offer becomes 10 high majors.”

The unique circumstances of this summer have made getting that first domino to fall significantly harder for recruits that haven’t yet garnered national attention. 

Yahoo Sports spoke with over a dozen players whose AAU seasons were outright canceled. Abdou Samb, Nana Owusu-Anane and Adam Dudzinski are three of those young men trying to navigate their futures amid uncharted circumstances completely out of their control. 

Abdou Samb didn’t discover basketball until he was in fifth grade. As in, he didn’t know the sport existed. 

The 6-foot-8, 210-pound center was born in the United States, but his family moved to Senegal for his father’s job when he was 2 years old, and he spent most of his childhood in Africa. Samb’s mother told him and his sister that if they worked hard and got good grades, they could take a vacation to the States. The family flew to the Washington D.C. area when Samb was in fifth grade, and they never left. 

Samb barely knew any English at the time and was accustomed to a completely different culture. Basketball helped serve as a bridge.

He was sitting at home on Jan. 2, 2014, when he came across a game between the Golden State Warriors and the Miami Heat. Samb quickly became enamored with Stephen Curry and the way he shot the ball from deep; he had 36 points, including eight triples, and 12 assists in that game.

Fascinated by his new discovery, Samb was determined to try it out for himself. He found a basketball and went to a local court, where he threw the ball up at the basket over and over again until it went through the net. 

“When I made that shot, I was like, ‘Oh man, I would love to do this more and more,’” Samb said. He was immediately fixated. 

As he continued to learn the basics of the sport, he did the same with English. Samb tried to join his school’s basketball team in seventh grade, but he wasn’t allowed to join because he was still learning the language and needed to focus on improving his grades. 

He’s once again unable to compete with the cancelation of this AAU season. 

Samb, who averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game for Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, last season, holds offers from numerous mid-major programs, including Rhode Island, East Tennessee State, George Mason and Hampton, among others, and appeared inches away from earning a Power Five bid.

“He has a great touch. He can shoot the basketball with anybody,” Frederick Douglass head coach Tyrone Massenburg said. “His wingspan is probably over 7’2, so he’s able to score different ways, different angles. He’s very strong defensively, blocks shots at a high rate because just his motor and his arms are long, and he knows how to play the position. And he’s a student of the game.”

While he said having the circuit canceled was a little upsetting, Samb’s found solace in knowing that a mid-major player like Ja Morant went as the second pick in the 2019 NBA draft out of Murray State. While he describes himself as someone who is always competitive and never satisfied, he knows becoming the first member of his family to attend college is a feat in itself. 

“I’m the type of person to really get it out of the mud,” Samb said. “I go to a public school … and people really didn’t believe I’d be getting offers. I had to work hard, really hard, so I could get noticed a little bit.”

And that hard work has continued for Samb this summer as he works out three times a day, now with even more of a chip on his shoulder. He wakes up early in the morning and goes on a run, and then after a short break, Samb goes over to his neighbor’s house for a weightlifting session. To cap things off, he meets up with friends at a court to either play five-on-five or just get shots up and work on his overall game. 

DC Premier, part of the Under Armour Association circuit, isn’t playing in any tournaments, but the team recently started having inter-squad scrimmages. Having not played live ball in a while, Samb was noticeably tired towards the end of the first game. He was unsatisfied and decided to go running right after. 

“He’s always trying to find ways to get better,” DC Premier head coach Jamal Hulum said. “He just really wants to make a better situation for himself and his family. He doesn’t want his mom to have to worry about college and stuff like that, so he’s working hard to make sure she doesn’t have to.”

Public schools across Prince George’s County in Maryland, won’t resume sports until 2021, delaying the high school basketball season and shortening players’ windows to compete in front of scouts. But Samb is confident everything will work itself out. From immigrating to the U.S. and adapting to a new language and culture, to grinding to catch up with everyone on the basketball court, he’s used to overcoming adversity. This is nothing new. 

“[Getting a Division-I scholarship] is one goal out of the way and there’s more to come,” Samb said. 

Nana Owusu-Anane: ‘ I know I feel like I can play in any conference’

After the Vermont Academy basketball team arrived back on campus after a three-hour bus ride from a game in Massachusetts, Nana Owusu-Anane called an impromptu team meeting. 

Typically, players return and want to go to their dorms and play video games, go on social media, hang out in the common room, or meet up with other friends, but on that day in early January, the junior had something he needed to get off his chest. 

As everyone gathered in the locker room, he gave a speech about how the respect level between players and coaches needed to improve dramatically. The team had just won, but Owusu-Anane knew it was vital for everyone to do better in this regard, even taking some of the responsibility himself. 

“I’ve never seen that at any level, let alone the prep school level … it was incredible,” said head coach Alex Popp, who’s previously held coaching roles at Holy Cross, Middlebury College and former G-League affiliate Springfield Armor. “I pinch myself even thinking about it.”

The practice the following day was significantly more high energy than it usually is after a win. “Guys were laser-focused,” Popp said. 

Vermont Academy sends a multitude of players to compete at D-I basketball schools each year and has produced the likes of Detroit Pistons guard Bruce Brown Jr. and 2020 NBA draft prospect Jordan Nwora, among others, but Popp believes Owusu-Anane has been one of the most important players to the program in its history; that speech is just one example of why. 

Owusu-Anane was born in Baltimore, though he spent the majority of his childhood in Burlington, Ontario, where his family moved when he was 2 years old. He enrolled at the Vermont prep school for his sophomore year after coaches made it clear to his parents, who immigrated from Ghana to the United States in 2000, that he was ready for a bigger stage at the next level. 

The path to get there was anything but easy, though. The year leading up to that first season was one of the hardest periods Owusu-Anane has ever gone through as he dealt with the grueling process of recovering from a major injury. 

During the summer prior to his ninth-grade year, the forward tore his labrum while blocking a shot in Arizona on the AAU circuit. In a decision he now realizes probably wasn’t the best, he was insistent on playing on it, thinking it wasn’t that serious, despite the pain. And when it came time for his high school season in Ontario, he did the same. 

“Because [of] his love for the game and for his love for the school and for his program, he decided to play,” said his dad, Owusu Anane. “They just had to tape it, even though he was in so [much] pain.”

Owusu-Anane played with a brace through his freshman year, but surgery became inevitable as he continued to develop bone chips in his shoulder, which also dislocated frequently. Following the procedure, it wasn’t so much the pain that frustrated him, but rather the nine-month recovery time that came along with it. 

He had to miss the AAU season that summer and was still going through the rehab process when he arrived at Vermont Academy. Owusu-Anane was able to shoot to some capacity but was restricted from any contact, and he had to miss the first month of the season. Once cleared to play, he had to both adjust to the higher level of competition and find his groove back, so the process put a damper on his early recruitment. 

NANA OWUSU-ANANE ’21 from COACH POPP on Vimeo.

“It’s tough, obviously, but I felt like it also made me appreciate the game even more just because I realized it can be taken from me at any second,” Nana Owusu-Anane said. “So when I’m on the court, I just try to give it my all each and every time.” 

He currently holds offers from several mid-major programs, including the likes of Duquesne, Boston University, VCU, Hofstra and multiple Ivy League schools. He switched from Bounce, a Nike EYBL team in Canada, to Expressions Elite in Massachusetts in early spring in an effort to gain more exposure, and he was expected to make the jump to Power Five offers.

“My whole mindset was that this AAU season I’m going to make a lot of noise, get my name out there, because I know I feel like I can play in any conference,” Nana Owusu-Anane said. “It sucks not being able to put myself in that position, but I just got to keep on working.”

Owusu-Anane, who is currently ranked as a three-star recruit by Rivals and stands at nearly 6-foot-9, 225 pounds, averaged 10.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.3 blocks in a little under 26 minutes per game against top prep school talent last season. He shot 62% from the floor and 77% from the free-throw line. 

Popp and Owusu-Anane set a goal that if the forward didn’t shoot over 60% from behind the arc in his workouts, then they’d wait until his senior year until he started firing off more threes in games. Popp proposed the idea thinking that Owusu-Anane would have the AAU circuit to show his long-range ability, and he said he now regrets the deal given feedback from recruiters.

“I would guarantee that when he gets to college basketball, he’ll be able to make the catch and shoot three over 40 percent,” Popp said, noting that the forward is just scratching the surface of his potential.

Owusu-Anane has continued to work on his shot from beyond the arc and his scoring ability during the pandemic, looking to make the most of these circumstances. He works out around four hours with a few friends every day, both at a track for cardio and bodyweight exercises and on the court to fine-tune his basketball skills. 

He’s also spent a lot of time with Shane Bascoe, who has trained him since he started playing competitively in third grade and also coached his Canadian AAU team. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, however, he had to get creative. He didn’t have access to a court and Canadian police told him he had to leave when he tried to work out at the track. Instead, Owusu-Anane spent his days in his basement improving his ball-handling and running on a treadmill.

Now back at Vermont Academy’s secluded campus, the rising senior is putting the team before himself, as he typically does. While he hopes to earn some Power Five offers, he’s placing greater importance on another goal. 

“I really want to be able to try and leave with a ring,” Nana Owusu-Anane said. “Whatever’s put in front of us, I think that we’re gonna be able to try and secure a chip.”

Adam Dudzinski faces a tough decision about his senior year

Jason Dudzinski has seen his son’s demeanor shift over the last few months. The stress that’s weighing heavily on Adam Dudzinski’s mind is evident on his face and he’s a lot quieter these days. 

After being told the AAU season was canceled on a Zoom call in April, the rising senior spent a few days holed up in his room trying to process the reality of the situation. 

He only held two Division-I offers and thought this summer was when he was going to break out and earn the attention of scouts. Several schools he’d been talking with planned to see him play for the New York Jayhawks on the Adidas Gauntlet, and it seemed like he was finally going to get past the recruiting hump.

“Nothing’s gonna happen, Dad,” Jason Dudzinski recalled his son telling him at the time.

“Yes it will,” he responded. “We have to keep our faith. We’ve worked too hard.” 

From that point onward, Dudzinski dedicated his time to further improving his game in hopes of getting a chance to compete in front of scouts down the line. He puts up hundreds of shots each day in addition to working with a shooting coach a few times a week, and he’s ramped up weight training to add more muscle to his frame. 

“He just keeps plugging along, and just like the rest of these juniors, there’s nothing that you can do,” Jason Dudzinski said. “You can’t quit. Life throws curveballs at you, and life is hard sometimes. It’s definitely not fair.” 

The younger Dudzinski has been working to get his opportunity to compete at the next level from a very young age, declaring to his dad in fifth grade that he was going to play Division-I basketball

“Are you sure about that? Because that’s a hard thing to do,” he responded. “Ninety-nine percent of kids in the country don’t play Division-I basketball.”

And once Dudzinski reached the end of middle school that reality became even more clear. While his friends slept in, hung out and went to parties, he was in the gym pushing himself to get better. The grueling hours competing at that level in college requires was always stressed to him, and his dad remains proud he insisted on accepting the challenge. 

Jason Dudzinski, who is an assistant coach for his son’s high school team at West Genesee Senior High School in Camillus, New York, knows what it takes to compete at that level. He started his collegiate career playing football in junior college and then moved on to a Division-I program in California. He stayed there for a year and then returned to New York, where he started for Onondaga Community College’s basketball team and won a national championship in 1993. He got into coaching shortly after. 

And though the high schooler has continuously made such sacrifices, Dudzinski hasn’t had a lot of exposure up until this point, especially since he played his first season of AAU basketball last summer. 

He averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals per game as a junior, though playing for a public school made it hard to gain much attention. Dudzinski, who is listed as a small forward but plays more as a guard, entered the season at around 6-foot6 and has now grown to 6-foot-8. 

“He is a Division-I basketball player. In terms of what level that is, that will be solely up to his continued development,” New York Jayhawks coach Jay David said. “We’re in a very different time, so sometimes you can end up at a lower level when you’re a high-level kid.”

The pandemic has forced Dudzinski into a tough choice that will likely have a direct impact on what level he ends up at. High school basketball seasons have been pushed back to at least 2021 in New York, and it could be longer depending on the city of the county. So now the wing player is trying to decide whether to spend his senior season away from home or at a prep school.

Dudzinski and his family have had countless emotional discussions about what the best option might be. They’ve made multiple pros and cons lists and tried getting advice from people around their basketball community, but neither situation is ideal. He either has to leave home and spend his senior year without his friends and his teammates or stay in New York and potentially hurt his recruitment.

“Some nights I’ll be like, ‘Yeah I definitely want to leave and go to a prep school.’ And then some nights I’ll be, ‘No I want to stay, this is my home. I don’t know how beneficial it’ll be,’” Dudzinski said. “That could be the same night. I’ll just switch my mind constantly.”

As the summer winds down, the deadline for that tough decision is approaching at lightning speed.

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