It was spring 2008, and a young coach named Jason Smith took a few minutes to watch film of a mostly unknown basketball player from Washington D.C.
Smith, the coach at Brewster Academy, a prep school in Wolfeboro, N.H., was mostly unmoved. Sure, he saw a kid with a promise, an athletic player with the ability to chase rebounds outside his area. But he also saw limitations.
In the coming months, this teenager would be on his way to spend his final high school season in the structured confines of Brewster. But Smith had already made his evaluation of Thomas Robinson’s future.
“A solid recruit at the Atlantic 10 level,” Smith says now. “That’s what we thought his ceiling could be.”
More than four years later, Robinson is preparing to be a top-five pick in this June’s NBA Draft. He’s a unanimous All-American after a three-year career at Kansas. And his jersey will someday hang in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse. Robinson, a 6-foot-10 forward, will always be known for the remarkable transformation that occurred between his sophomore and junior seasons, a reserve forward becoming one of the two best players in the country in 12 months.
But Smith can tell you that part of Robinson’s first transformation came at Brewster, one of many prep schools that dot New England. In the last five to 10 years, these schools have gained increasing influence in the heartland hoops scene; first and foremost as a fertile recruiting ground, but also as a one-year incubator for local standouts looking to improve their recruiting stock.
In New England, coaches from the New Hampton School and Brewster — schools that straddle the resort towns near Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire — say that the basketball culture in this part of the country is nothing new. For years, rich legacies and ambitious teens have come to prep schools to bump up their college potential with a postgraduate year. And talented basketball players from East Coast cities have often followed, using prep schools as a respite from unsettled situations back home.
But recently Kansas coach Bill Self has made a habit of targeting prep school kids — soon-to-be sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe spent three years at Brewster. Comb the K-State roster, and you’ll see that center Jordan Henriquez spent a postgrad year at the Winchendon School in Massachusetts, time used to boost his qualifying test scores. Former Missouri guard Kim English spent a post-graduate year at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., the same school that produced K-State star Michael Beasley.
But the influence goes beyond local colleges mining East Coast prep schools for talent. In 2005, future KU guard Brady Morningstar moved from Lawrence to New Hampton. Last year, Lawrence Free State graduate Evan Manning, who’ll walk on at KU this fall, followed the same trail east, a place, coaches will say, where the competition is tougher, the distractions fewer and the ability to improve is greater.
“We played 75 Division I recruits last season,” says Smith, the Brewster coach.
Still, coaches say that players go to prep schools for different reasons. Some need the structure to improve grades and test scores. Others need more exposure. Some may need an unofficial redshirt year — a postgraduate year at a prep school doesn’t start an athlete’s NCAA eligibility clock; going to junior college does.
“A kid may be a late bloomer,” says Michael Byrnes, who coached Henriquez at the Winchendon School. “A kid may have played out of position in high school, or maybe he played at a small little school and no one ever saw him play.”
On a Monday evening in mid-April, Andrew White picked up a phone in Charlottesville, Va. White was on campus at the Miller School, just a few hours away from signing a letter of intent to play basketball at Kansas.
A mature-looking 6-foot-6 guard, White began to talk about the future, this next season at Kansas, and all the opportunities that awaited.
“If I come in and I’m shooting the ball well, picking up on the concepts and doing my job on the defensive end,” White said, “there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to earn some minutes early.”
But first, he had to think about the past. White, who grew up near Richmond, Va., arrived at the Miller School after his junior year of high school. He had potential. But he was raw.
One solution: White could reclassify his grade status and repeat his junior year. Unlike most prep schools in New England, the Miller School doesn’t offer a postgrad year. But some players do elect to reclassify and spend an extra year in high school. According to NCAA rules, players must still graduate from high school and pass their 16 core classes in eight semesters. But White could spend his fifth high school year improving his standardized test scores and putting on pounds in the weight room.
“You can narrow your focus,” says Scott Willard, White’s coach at the Miller School.
This was White’s life at prep school: Wake up a 5:30 a.m.. Go to the gym to shoot and work on individual drills at 6 a.m. Spend the day in class. Practice in the afternoon. Study hall at night.
“Then it’s pretty much time for bed,” said Willard, who also has coached at The Tilton School, a prep school in New Hampshire.
According to Willard, White put on 15 pounds of muscle during his fifth year, cementing his spot as one of the top 50 or 60 players in the country.
“There’s a gym and a weight room,” Willard said, “within 200 yards of where you’re sleeping.”
Listen to enough prep school coaches, and the term usually comes up: Diploma mill.
In 2007, the NCAA went on a crusade against a certain type of prep school, hacking away at the seedy underbelly of basketball recruiting.
These were schools, Byrnes says, that operated under the guise of a prep school but existed solely to qualify players for scholarships.
In response, the NCAA passed a rule that would limit high school students to one core course that would count toward college eligibility after their four-year high school graduation date. In short, students could still take a postgrad year but still had to graduate high school in eight semesters.
“If you’ve been a prep school focused on simply getting kids eligible that are not high school graduates,” NCAA vice president Kevin Lennon told The New York Times in 2007, “this is going to be problematic for you.”
When the rule was passed, many feared that legitimate prep schools would be hurt. Five years later, Smith says Brewster has hardly been affected by the rule. But Byrnes, now an assistant at Robert Morris, says some kids in poor academic standing have been pushed back toward junior colleges. You can only make up so much in one or two years, he says.
Meanwhile, even as many diploma mills have shuttered, the doors have been opened for Midwestern kids to pick up and enter the prep school culture.
Byrnes remembers hearing from KU’s Bill Self as Morningstar searched for the right prep school. This kid could play. But his body needed work.
“I see him starting at Kansas,” Byrnes remembers Self saying, “where everyone else was like, ‘A little scrawny white kid?’ It doesn’t look right.”
At the Miller School, Willard says he fields five calls a day from high school players interested in attending, many from places outside Virginia and surrounding region.
“We turn down 99.9 percent of them,” he says.
Back in 2008, Robinson was one of the kids who was accepted. And now Smith can claim him as another Brewster success story. He just kept improving, Smith says, and soon KU came calling.
This fall, dozens of blue-chip basketball prospects will return to pockets of New England, some from the middle of the country. Walk in to any prep school practice in New England, and you may see a future first-round pick. But you also may see a Morningstar, a player using an extra year to prove people wrong.
“In the past, they were just some select schools that were pretty powerful,” Willard says. “But it’s definitely increased up there as fast as exposure goes. There’s no question.”