Jensen: In women’s basketball, a star recruit is almost never too young

Maddie Burke, a Philadelphia Belles travel team player and Central Bucks West freshman, moves the ball at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in Hampton, Va. Burke and her teammates are already drawing attention from college recruiters.

HAMPTON, Va. — The trick, these two girls say, is this: Try not to look at faces. They’ve played in front of crowds. This is just another one. These girls know the crowd sitting past the baseline at their invitational tournament game, most dressed in a particular school’s colors, are college basketball coaches. Don’t look at some of the most familiar faces in the sport, right there.

Chase a ball out of bounds, scatter a couple of coaches, knock over a chair, send a spiral notebook to the ground — turn around and get upcourt, don’t look back.

If the Philadelphia Belles’ Maddie Burke and Kylee Watson had really investigated the people they weren’t looking at, they would have found the biggest crowd of college coaches inside the Boo Williams SportsPlex in Hampton, Va. Four games going on that side of the gym, four more across the hall, but it was standing room only at 9:30 on a Friday morning past the baseline of Court 4.

Kylee Watson (right) looks for the rebound during the 2017 Boo Williams Nike Girls Invitational in Hampton, Va., Friday, April 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Julia Rendleman)

“Ten times more coaches were here than last year,” Burke said after the game.

The crowd wasn’t just for the two of them — they have big-time teammates, and were playing a big-time team from Texas. However, as high school freshmen Burke and Watson already have the full attention of this crowd, which included coaches from all the Big Five schools.

While they are teammates on the Belles travel team on the highest-level Nike circuit, Burke goes to Central Bucks West High and Watson is at Mainland Regional High. Technically, Burke isn’t even in high school yet. Her high school goes 10th through 12th grade, so Monday morning she was heading back to middle school.

In recruiting terms, none of that matters. These two are simply Class of 2020. Within it, they already have been deemed significant. Watson, a 6-foot-3 post player, is rated first and second nationally in the 2020 class on a couple of recruiting lists. Burke, a wing player listed at an even 6-feet, is ranked 10th and 20th. Both have been invited to tryouts for the USA under-16 national team.

The Boo Williams Nike Invitational draws college coaches and recruiters from all over the country. JULIA RENDLEMAN / AP

Both have gotten used to the idea that their college recruiting is in full stride. They took an unofficial visit together this winter to the University of Connecticut and Geno Auriemma’s Huskies. Watson got a scholarship offer from a Big Five school on the car ride down to Virginia. First offers for both came before they played a high-school game. A Belles teammate, a junior center from Long Island, has committed to Notre Dame. (Irish coach Muffet McGraw was in the front row for the second Belles game in Virginia.) Belles point guard Alisha Lewis, a sophomore who goes to Ursuline Academy in Wilmington but lives in Wallingford, Delaware County, was Delaware state player of the year and has her own Division I offers.

This summer, the Belles have Watson and Burke playing two years up against many of the top juniors in the country, Class of 2018. Their games at the Hampton tourney were against teams from Texas, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois, and Virginia. The three-day event at Boo Williams, run by a former St. Joseph’s hoops player, is separated into the Boo Williams Nike Invitational, full of Division I recruits right down to under-13 age levels. Across the hall, past the concessions stands, 32 more teams are playing their first league games in the nationwide Nike EYBL League, which goes through the summer. A league for those programs deemed best of the best, or at least those with a Nike contract.

Hovering above the EYBL courts, embedded into the fabric, are icons of the sport, wearing swooshes.

No reason to look too long at those faces either. Just play ball.

The Philadelphia Belles’ Kylee Watson puts up a shot at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in in Hampton, Va. JULIA RENDLEMAN / AP

“Wow, this is crazy”

It was a year ago at this same event when Burke, playing across the hall for a younger Belles team, began dropping three-pointers — five, six, seven. Word spread among the recruiters about this tall eighth-grader knocking down threes. Coaches from the highest-level programs began coming across the hall, not stopping at the concession stand for the crabcake sandwich.

Did Chris Burke, Maddie’s father, have any idea the recruiting would pick up at such a young age?

“Absolutely not,” said Burke, who played at Monsignor Bonner and for C. Alan Rowe at Widener and a number of years professionally overseas. “When I was growing up, maybe sophomore year, junior year, you’d start to get some interest. Even the kids who were really high-level that I played with, you never got this [attention] early. She was getting attention in eighth grade, which I was totally not ready for.”

He didn’t mean he and his daughter weren’t prepared to handle it.

“More like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’ ” Chris Burke said.

Some of it, Burke figures, has to do with social media. “Everything that’s out there. Everything comes earlier now.”

The difference also, he realizes, is that his daughter was playing against her national peers at a young age. That increases the opportunity for evaluation.

“I think these coaches, too, want to be the first one in — want to say, ‘Hey, we offered you first, we were there early,’ ” Burke said. “So when it comes time, when they can really start talking junior year, we can say ‘We’ve been talking to you since eighth grade.’ ”

Tim Watson, Kylee’s father, is the head football coach at Cedar Creek High in Egg Harbor City, N.J. He played defensive line at Maryland and Rowan, and jokes that his claim to fame is being selected ahead of Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. (Fourteen spots). An injury put Watson on injured reserve as a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks and ended his career before it began. Kylee’s mom, Courtney Watson, a Mainland assistant coach, played hoops at Delaware.

“Between seventh and eighth grade, we saw the attention picking up, and colleges reached out to her AAU coaches,” Tim Watson said of their daughter.

The competition even within her team is high enough that Watson came off the bench at the Virginia tournament. When is the last time that happened? Ever?

“Ah, maybe very young in AAU, when she was very young,” her father said. “Obviously, we don’t caught up in that. … There’s nothing like this — especially this right now. This is an adjustment, this tournament right now. She needed to get out and cut her teeth and show what she can do.”

You could see the slight adjustment in talent level for both Watson and Burke. You wouldn’t have picked them out as the youngsters in the game. But the passes were getting to Watson inside very quickly and she bobbled a couple, and there was a little stretch in the first game when a couple of Burke’s passes that must have seemed routine to her were picked off by the Texas team.

“That’s the whole learning process with this,” said Kevin Lynch, director of the Belles. “I told [both families], two years up against the top kids in the country, it’s almost impossible to be really successful. You can do well. They can’t buy this type of experience.”

The Philadelphia Belles’ Kylee Watson (left) on defense at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in in Hampton, Va. JULIA RENDLEMAN / AP

Belles coach Brian Creech mentioned how Breanna Stewart, now a WNBA star, got a ride down every weekend from her hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., to play with the Belles as a freshman. “And [she] struggled. I think she would tell you that. It was the first time kind of being in this world. I’m most proud of these two kids in that they seemed to have handled the mental part of it, not questioning do they belong? It’s not about effort at this level, it’s can you stay consistent mentally. Every kid plays hard. I think they both understand they belong.”

As a society, Creech said, “we want the next big thing to happen now. We don’t want to wait for it. We put probably undue pressure on kids to be so great so early. We’ve got to keep in mind — they’re kids.”

The on-court adjustments he likes seeing, Creech said, is how Burke can handle perimeter defensive assignments, including rolling with little tweaks in how the Belles guard opposing threats.

In the second game against a team from North Jersey, the other girls were smaller and quicker so the Belles went to a smaller lineup, which mostly kept Watson on the bench. (That’s probably part of the evaluation process too — seeing how the top-rated post player in the Class of 2020 was out of her seat slapping palms, not sulking.) Watson got more time in the rest of the games, and led her team in rebounds and blocks per minute.

“She doesn’t do a lot of things wrong — she’s really pretty technically sound,” Creech said.

Of the recruiting, which has included unofficial visits to Virginia and Villanova, Watson’s father said, “It’s been exciting. It is in some ways, it can be overwhelming if you let it get to you. … She’s been conditioned to ‘You just play, it will take care of itself.’ ”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley watches the Philadelphia Belles play. JULIA RENDLEMAN / AP

The coach of the newly minted NCAA champions wore a camouflage shirt, but Dawn Staley wasn’t trying to hide, sitting in the third row of the bleachers past the baseline. Her shirt had her last name spelled out, front and back.

Is South Carolina’s coach evaluating players at a younger age now than, say, 10 years ago?

“Oh, absolutely,” Staley said. “It’s nothing for us to be looking at 2022 players.”

That’s seventh-graders. And that’s the coach of the national champions talking, which means she’s far from alone.

In good company

Unofficial visits are part of the process now. Recruits pay their own way but can otherwise get VIP treatment, which mostly means attention.

High school students everywhere take campus tours. Watson and Burke ate breakfast with UConn’s team. Huskies stars Kia Nurse and Katie Lou Samuelson sat with them and included them in conversation. Their families sat at another table with Auriemma and his staff. Everyone got a tour of the facility from a graduate assistant, and a tour of the coach’s office from Auriemma. They attended a shootaround in addition to a game.

“We got treated very well,” Burke said.

“Talking outside basketball,” Watson said when asked what she enjoyed about sitting with the team at breakfast.

There was no offer extended from UConn to either one, but the group left impressed.

“Because of their success, they can kind of pick and choose a little bit better,” Chris Burke said of UConn. “They can wait a little longer. They’ve earned that.”

Linda Genther, director of the Comets, the other top Philly girls’ travel program, with a slew of Division I recruits in recent years, said a problem with very early commitments is that the girls the player visited with won’t be there, and often the coaches will be gone, as well. Genther spoke of the problem of schools “offering eight kids for four scholarships — so parents panic and take it.”

It’s not true at all levels, she added, more at the BCS schools. Mid-majors typically wait for the fallout, which includes holding spots for transfers. A Patriot League coach told Genther at Boo Williams that he saw the Comets’ eighth-graders were playing over on Court 11.

“I can’t be watching eighth-graders this soon,” the coach told her, apparently staying away.

If Auriemma can take it a bit slower, with two handfuls of national titles to sell, it does not mean he can be blasé about any of this. Shooting the breeze for a minute after the Belles’ game, UConn’s coach got moving when his top assistant, Chris Dailey, came over and said, “I need you over on that court” — another game tipping off, the need to see and be seen, an unending cycle.

The Philadelphia Belles huddle before the start of a game at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in Hampton, Va. JULIA RENDLEMAN / AP

An easy takeaway from the Boo Williams weekend was that Burke and Watson had proven they belonged in older company. Burke made 43.5 percent of her three-pointers. Watson had a double-double against a Virginia team. When it was time to head back up I-95, there was no reason to think the recruiting would slow down for either Burke and Watson. They’re in the express lane now.

The girls were true to their word about not looking at faces. They didn’t know, for instance, that Staley had been at their first game. (Their eyes got just a degree wider at the news).

Burke’s eyes were down in the last minute of the game, the Belles holding a two-point lead, when she got free in the left corner. The freshman looked to the floor, spotted she was in front of the three-point line, and took a step back and then another one. The ball found Burke and nobody was shocked by the result. She wasn’t trying to impress anybody, just playing ball.

“That’s what she does,” said one of her coaches.