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Travel ball or high school sports: Which gives players the best shot at scholarships?

Over the weekend, the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association put on its Team Camp Showcase to allow member schools to play a series of basketball games in front of college coaches.

It was the second time players had been allowed, in North Carolina, to do this with their high school teams. And for players like Cannon School senior Christian Reeves, it provides a unique opportunity to showcase their skills — one that is often far different from when players are with their travel teams.

Annually, travel teams have NCAA “live periods” to play in front of coaches, usually in April and July, and it’s a time when many players receive their first college attention or get their first scholarships. But for many players, including Reeves, a 7-foot-1 center, their roles on travel teams are vastly different than in high school.

For Cannon, a two-time state champion, Reeves starts and plays nearly the entire game. On the star-studded CP3 All-Stars travel team, which represents NBA player Chris Paul on the Nike EYBL circuit, Reeves comes off the bench and doesn’t play as much.

“My role is different, depending if I’m playing for Cannon or CP3,” said Reeves, who will take an official visit to South Carolina Monday. “With Cannon, I’m able to do more. With CP3, I have a job: block shots and rebound.”

Reeves said both environments have their advantages: an increased role in high school versus playing against elite national competition with CP3.

Northside Christian junior Wesley Tubbs, a Power 5 recruit, also plays on the EYBL circuit with his Team United travel team. Like Reeves, he enjoys a chance to play in front of coaches with his high school team.

“I feel like high school is a little bit more structured,” Tubbs said. “We’re kind of building something here as a team, where AAU is more of an individual thing. Like y’all really don’t talk that much, but when you’re with your high school, y’all are with each other every day. AAU is kind of like a weekend thing.”

For players like Reeves and Tubbs, who are good enough to play on national circuit teams, the NCISAA showcase provided them an additional chance to get looks from colleges. For many of their teammates, it provided an opportunity to play in front of more coaches than many of them ever have.

Coaches scout high school games, but it’s easier for them to come to events that bring together multiple prospects, like the shoe circuit events that are held around the country. In 2019, the NCAA allowed states to hold “live period” events for high school teams. And hundreds of coaches attended public and private school events in 2019 — and in the past two weeks. No event was held last year due to the pandemic.

And Tubbs said when coaches come to see the top prospects, they see their teammates, too.

“It puts them in a situation to be looked at,” Tubbs said. “That’s always a plus. And you have got to take advantage of all your opportunities. Don’t let any get wasted.”

The scout/coaches perspective

Northside Christian coach Erasto Hatchett, who has coached on the travel ball circuits, really likes the high school format. Last weekend, teams played on three courts at Forsyth Country Day School near Winston-Salem. Games were spaced out an hour apart.

The gyms were set up so college coaches had their own section, and glancing there during each game was like looking at a color wheel. Coaches, like N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts and High Point’s Tubby Smith, came in and out of the gyms wearing bright team colored apparel, watching recruits at all levels.

“I think it’s a good platform for the kids,” Hatchett said. “One way or other, as long as kids get a chance to be seen by college coaches, that’s the most important piece.”

Hatchett believes coaches get a more realistic view of a recruit in the high school game, but thinks there are advantages to both formats — travel ball and the school setting.

“It’s probably just the structure with the high school teams,” Hatchett said. “That’s no knock on any coaches or organizations. I just think AAU gives more of a freedom platform, whereas in high school you have to be a little more methodical in what you’re doing and strategize a little more. I think that’s the biggest difference.

“At the next level (college), it’s structure. It’s just not a free-for-all. But I think it helps your skill to play AAU as well because you get a chance to kind of practice some of those things you were working on with your trainer and whatever it may be. But at the end of the day, it’s a team sport and I think both platforms are good to rate kids.”

Former McDonald’s All-American Tyler Lewis agrees with Hatchett.

He thinks players today are lucky to have both platforms. Lewis played high school at Forsyth Country Day and later became the Virginia state player of the year at Oak Hill. He played in college at N.C. State and Butler.

Lewis is now a regional scout with the N.C.-based Phenom Hoop Report, and said he wishes he had a high school event like this when he was playing.

“Normally,” he said, “players have more of a chance to shine on their high school team because their AAU team is so stacked. But it’s two totally different settings. Some kids play better on AAU teams, some play better on high school. So now you get to see both settings and see which one they thrive in. It gives coaches a better feel of who they are recruiting.”

‘I get a chance to show what I’ve got’

Rivals national scout Jamie Shaw said more than 100 college coaches being at these events is nothing but a net positive. He notes that at a similar camp at South Carolina two weeks ago, a player got an SEC offer who was not a known recruit beforehand.

South Carolina got a commitment from Zack Davis (a point guard from Denmark-Olar),” Shaw said, “and he was a kid who might not necessarily be on the radar at an AAU event. They saw him with his high school team and not only did they offer, but he committed. So this type of event absolutely helps guys who maybe don’t play on shoe teams and gives them a chance to be seen.”

And for players like Cannon’s Reeves, Shaw said playing in the bigger role on the high school team gives recruits a chance to answer questions coaches may have watching them on their travel teams.

“It’s just a different look,” Shaw said. “Talking with coaches, they are advocates of both.”

Reeves, a rising senior, said he has offers from Boston University, Charlotte, Houston Baptist, Lehigh, South Carolina, South Florida and Tulsa. Reeves should add to that list after a strong week at Forsyth Country Day.

He blocked shots. He rebounded. He showed off a soft outside touch.

He also dunked. A lot.

“I get a chance to show what I’ve got,” Reeves said. “The past few years I’ve had injuries, and the biggest thing for me is keeping the same level of play. I struggled with that (two weeks ago in the first high school live period). My body was sore the last day and the biggest thing for me is to stay healthy the whole time. It’s huge. I know every time my team played, we had a lot of coaches and lot of us are getting looks now, some of them are newer guys.

“It’s just a big opportunity for us all.”

Langston Wertz Jr. is an award-winning sports journalist who has worked at the Observer since 1988. He’s covered everything from Final Fours and NFL to video games and Britney Spears. Wertz — a West Charlotte High and UNC grad — is the rare person who can answer “Charlotte,” when you ask, “What city are you from.”
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