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Brandon Angel, a senior at Torrey Pines, scores a basket during a high school game in December. Courtesy photo
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New NCAA-sanctioned high school ‘team camp’

REGION — Brandon Angel and his Torrey Pines Falcons teammates had finished their final game of the Section 7 Team Camp in Phoenix 20 minutes earlier on June 23 when his phone rang.

On the phone was Joe Pasternack, the head coach of the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, calling to offer Angel, who just completed his junior year, a basketball scholarship.

As it turns out, Pasternack’s call was just the beginning.

Over the next four days, 12 Division 1 college basketball coaches would call Angel and offer him basketball scholarships.

“It felt good to see the hard work and time I’ve put in pay off, and it’s something to motivate me into the future,” said Angel, a 6-foot-8 forward. “The team camp was a great opportunity, especially for me, because coaches from all across the country were there, and if you capitalized on the opportunity, good things would happen.”

Angel’s impressive haul highlights a recent change to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball recruiting calendar that puts high school athletics back in the recruiting spotlight.

Spring and summer have long been the domain of what is known as grassroots, or travel basketball, where players from different teams join forces and play for various basketball clubs. Those clubs play in large tournaments where college coaches are allowed to observe and evaluate players. These evaluations play a major role for college programs as they determine which players they will recruit to their programs.

The month of June, however, has been a time for players to return to their high school clubs and participate in team camps and summer leagues, which college coaches can’t attend unless they are hosting the camp.

But last year, the NCAA announced sweeping changes to the recruiting calendar in the wake of a FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting and grassroots basketball.

In an effort to shift the focus of recruiting away from the grassroots events, the NCAA announced that college coaches would be allowed to attend tournaments during two weekends in June. Those tournaments would have to be sanctioned by the state’s high school athletics governing body, and only schools that were under the body’s jurisdiction could attend the events.

The June periods replaced two of the weekends in July when colleges would normally attend grassroots tournaments.

But many of the large states — including California — opted out of hosting tournaments, citing costs, the exclusion of non-traditional schools from the events and other regulatory hurdles.

Only two states west of the Mississippi — Arizona and Washington — chose to host events. The Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), which governs the state’s athletics, sanctioned the Arizona Basketball Coaches Association’s Section 7 Team Camp, which was held from June 21-23. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) will host its event June 28-30.

Because only one event was held the weekend of the Arizona event, literally hundreds of college coaches converged on Phoenix for the tournament, which featured nine, 16-team brackets for boys and one 16-team bracket for girls at various schools across the city.

High school basketball analysts have widely classified the event as a sweeping success, from the coaching contingent that attended to the style of play, which was more structured than grassroots games, which makes for a different evaluating environment for coaches compared to the up-and-down grassroots format.

“I think the entire weekend’s games showcased the importance — for the “recruitable-athletes” and college coaching staffs — of NCAA coaches (D-I) having the ability to closely watch how an athlete plays for his high school team, and interacts with his teammates and coaches,” said Frank Burlison, a longtime high school basketball scout and McDonald’s All American Game voter.

“Seeing a kid in a ‘camp’ or ‘club ball’ setting is advantageous for a number of reasons, mostly getting a real-time look at the kid’s size, innate ‘athleticism’ and level of skill,” Burlison continued. “But it’s very rare that you see kid playing within any real ‘structure’ in that setting. He’s playing for a coach who, in many cases, doesn’t offer a real ‘authoritarian-like leader,’ one that commands a kid’s respect by way of the day-to-day interaction that comes with being in the gym with a coach from September to March (in many cases).”

The event also allowed for lesser heralded prospects on the grassroots circuit who have bigger roles on the high school level to showcase their talents — and reap the benefits.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo extended a scholarship offer to Kobe Sanders, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from El Cajon Christian High School, who did not have a scholarship offer entering into the weekend.

Chibuzo Agbo, who is a reserve on the high-powered Compton Magic travel basketball program, parlayed his weekend into two high-major scholarship offers, from Marquette and Texas Tech.

And then there was Angel, who entered the weekend with five scholarship offers — the highest profile basketball program of the group being the University of San Diego. He left with scholarship offers from Washington State, UC Berkeley — both schools in the Pac-12 Conference — UC Irvine, Pepperdine, UC Santa Barbara, Rice, UC Riverside, Dartmouth, Yale, Hawaii, UC Davis and Northeastern.

Angel said he liked the high-school environment more than the up-and-down game traditionally played at grassroots tournaments.

“The biggest difference was the level of defense, the rotations were there, there was more team defense, which I enjoyed,” Angel said. “There was really good competition, and I think everyone treated it like a high school game, as opposed to playing in transition like you see in AAU ball.”

California players probably won’t have to travel to Arizona next year for the high school live period. The California Interscholastic Federation’s state executive director Ron Nucetti was seen in Arizona, and many experts see California setting up its own event next year.

Burlison said that while he believes it’s a key component to recruiting, coaches get the best gauge of a recruit’s ability seeing him in all settings.

“Again, I believe that having the opportunity to see a prospect in every setting — ‘high school,’ ‘club ball’ and ‘camp’ — is the ideal path toward getting as good a ‘real evaluation’ as possible,” Burlison said. “Having the opportunity of seeing a kid in the ‘high school’ setting — especially within the framework of the event put on by the Section 7 folks, especially in providing competitive game platforms in pretty much every round — extensively is truly a ‘win-win’ opportunity for both sides of the recruiting dynamic.”

Photo Caption: Brandon Angel, a senior at Torrey Pines, scores a basket during a high school game in December. Courtesy photo