King James is now. The One is supposed to be next.
Long past midnight on a sticky night in Brooklyn’s Coney Island last week, Lance Stephenson provided another peek of the basketball potential others have noticed for more than three years. Stephenson, with his parents watching closely, is pushing the ball upcourt during a pickup game. This is The Garden, as the locals dub it, a concrete playground where legends such as Stephon Marbury are made and foul calls draw name-calling.
The One offers a clever hesitation, leaving his defender guessing something else. He drives the lane but is smothered by taller defenders. In a forest of shot blockers, Stephenson splits three players with a scoop pass to a teammate cutting to the basket for a layup.
It was another spectacular moment for this 12-year-old competing against players ranging from 16 to 25.
“He will make a pass and put you in awe,” said Michael Moore, Stephenson’s summer coach. “He is a one of a kind.”
The One is supposed to be next. He just has to get to high school first.Stephenson, a soon-to-be seventh-grader from Brooklyn, is regarded as the nation’s No. 1 player in the Class of 2009. He’s 6-foot-1, 160 pounds, wears a size 12 1/2 shoe, can palm a basketball and play all five positions.
He is also the centerpiece of a growing trend of scouting youth players and trying to identify the next sure thing. And in the present tense of LeBron fever, players like Stephenson are gaining more attention, which is creating more pressure and astronomical expectations. Some consider this exploiting children, setting them up for failure. Lance and his father don’t think so.
“I love that’s he ranked,” said Lance Stephenson Sr., who nicknamed his son “The One.” “It lets me know people see what I see.”
“It’s good for me,” said the younger Stephenson, who averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds per game in sixth grade. “I like people saying, ‘That’s the No. 1 player.’ “Stephenson Sr., a former junior college player who is 6-6, works with his son on drills daily and says his son will be physically ready for the NBA in two to three years.
Clark Francis of hoopscooponline.com, a popular Web site, is one of the few analysts to rank players before high school. He said Lance “probably is” the No. 1 seventh-grader in the country. Francis, who is based in Kentucky but has 20 to 30 correspondents across the nation, defends ranking pre-high school players.
“If you are hearing about them and people want to know, why ignore it?” Francis said. “It’s a starting point. We’ve got six years to get it right.”
FutureStars magazine and scouting service publisher Van Coleman steers clear of ranking players before high school age because of the potential backlash.
Mike Kunstadt of texashoops.com said he does not rank players before high school because there is too much margin for error, and he wants to maintain a credible product for the 200 college coaches who receive his scouting reports.
But players are beginning to make career decisions at a much younger age. Fort Bend Hightower guard Nic Wise, coming off his freshman season, has committed to Arizona. A player cannot sign a binding commitment to a college program, however, until November of his senior season in high school.
NCAA rules prohibit the active recruitment of freshmen, but an informal scholarship offer can be made to them.
SMU coach Mike Dement and TCU coach Neil Dougherty said they don’t pay any attention to youth rankings.
Dougherty has been frustrated by hearing parents talk about player rankings and feels it is harmful to rank middle schoolers.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” Dougherty said. “You’re talking about kids whose voices haven’t changed yet.”
Last year, Derrick Caracter and Demond Carter became the first middle schoolers to participate in the elite Nike All-America Camp in Indianapolis. The camp is a who’s who of the nation’s top recruits.
For some, the pressure has never been a burden. Seagoville’s 6-foot-11 center, LaMarcus Aldridge, who has committed to Texas, is the No. 1-ranked player in the Class of 2004 by texasroundball.com
“It’s not any pressure,” Aldridge said. “It just keeps me motivated to play my hardest every game and to lay it out there all the time.”
Don McPherson, a former NFL quarterback and Davey O’Brien Award winner at Syracuse, works with youth and athletic organizations as executive director of Adelphia (N.Y.) University’s Sports Leadership Institute. He believes youth player rankings give a false sense of expectation and contaminate the sport.
“They are exploiting kids,” McPherson said. “That early, there’s no way to predict the next LeBron James. The corruption is going to start very, very early.”
Dallas Lincoln point guard Byron Eaton is regarded as the No. 1 player in the Class of 2005. He has been nationally ranked or recognized since his freshman season, when he was a member of Lincoln’s 40-0 Class 5A state championship team.
“Byron has qualities you can’t teach,” Lincoln coach Leonard Bishop said of his 5-11 star. “He’s a good point guard who’s going to end up a great one. I think he’s a can’t-miss.”
Being a can’t-miss talent is starting earlier than ever. The Garden has proof.