Last spring men's college basketball coaches hit the recruiting trail, like they do every year, to watch the next wave of high school prospects. Most descended on the Indianapolis area, where Nike was hosting its second of four EYBL sessions.
Unlike previous years, though, the biggest storylines coming out of the weekend didn't center around the under-the-radar prospect with the breakout performance, or which college coaches were watching a certain player. And 11 months later, two of those storylines still resonate: The lack of coaches in attendance, and Nijel Pack's commitment to Miami.
The two aren't unrelated. While the grassroots event still attracted hundreds of college coaches, it was also noticed that many were still on their own campuses, hosting transfer targets.
"At that time, we're recruiting 2023s. When the portal opens up, it changes a lot of things," NC State coach Kevin Keatts, who was in attendance at the Nike EYBL session, said about the spring travel. "You have to look at what's important. Do I have a chance at someone who's played somewhere [in college] or am I going to stay here and watch future recruits?"
Last spring, Pack was the top player remaining in the transfer portal, and committed to Miami over Ohio State and Purdue the weekend of the grassroots event. Shortly after his commitment went public, it was announced he had also agreed to an $800,000 NIL deal with John Ruiz and LifeWallet.
Marquette coach Shaka Smart remembers the buzz that immediately went around the coaches' sections in the facility when both pieces of news hit social media.
"That changed transfer recruiting forever," he said.
The transfer portal is now a season unto itself, one that runs concurrently with the NCAA tournament and the coaching carousel, and then extends another several weeks into April, May and sometimes even further. It's become the primary way for many teams to build, or at least finetune, their roster, with only a handful of high-major programs choosing not to sign a single transfer last offseason.
With around 1,800 players entering the transfer portal in each of the past two academic years, the emphasis on signing impact freshmen has diminished. The numbers bear that out in convincing fashion.
Of the top 100 recruits in the class of 2022, according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, only 17 are averaging double figures in scoring this season. Eleven of those 17 were top-25 prospects. Of the top 100 transfers in ESPN's transfer rankings last spring, a whopping 62 are averaging double figures.
The numbers are similar for 2021: Twenty-one top-100 recruits, 13 top-25 recruits, 53 of 100 transfers.
Before the one-time transfer waiver passed in 2021 and the portal numbers spiked dramatically, the stats were still not great for freshmen:
In 2020, 21 top-100 recruits (14 top-25) averaged double-figure scoring, compared to 38 of the top-100 transfers. In 2019, it was 27 (13 top-25) and 39, respectively. Even going as far back as 2012 and 2013, only 23 top-100 freshmen averaged double figures in scoring in each season.
For reference, in 2007, the first year of ESPN's recruiting database, 38 top-100 recruits -- including 17 top-25 prospects -- averaged double figures.
There are an increasing number of college alternatives for high school seniors, with the introduction of the G League Ignite and Overtime Elite in addition to the overseas options. This doesn't impact an enormous number of prospects, but players like Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite) and the Thompson twins (Overtime Elite) would undoubtedly be making a noteworthy impact at the college level. Also, not every coach is banking on immediate production -- but as we'll see later, it's harder than ever to build for two or three years down the line.
While the number of top-25 impact prospects has remained fairly static, there's an obvious decrease in the past 15 years of top-100 impact freshmen. Since April 2021, the number of impact transfers is rising significantly.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway: Only around seven players ranked between Nos. 26 and 100 in each of the past three classes averaged double figures as freshmen, while impact transfers can be found far down the rankings.
Essentially, if you're not getting a top-25 recruit, the better bet for an immediate impact in recent years is almost always a transfer. You might not find a lottery pick in the portal, but the floor is considerably higher.
"You're not going to have many freshmen in high-major basketball playing more than 15 minutes a game," Providence coach Ed Cooley said. He won the Big East regular-season title last season starting three transfers and has the Friars back in the NCAA tournament starting five transfers.
"The average age is probably 20, 21 years old in the Power 6 basketball leagues," Cooley said. "Bluebloods are still able to get the elite freshmen, but they're playing against teams with old guys."
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Keatts, who surrounded returning projected first-round NBA draft pick Terquavion Smith with four first-year transfers and has the Wolfpack poised for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2018, added, "If you're not getting top 20 players or McDonald's All Americans, you need older guys."
When Jerome Tang took over a Kansas State team that finished ninth in the Big 12 last season, he wanted to turn things around quickly -- so he went into the portal and came out with seven players, six of whom are making an impact this season, to go with the two returning starters who transferred into the program in the previous season.
"I had to get guys that could help you win games in the Big 12," Tang said. "I also wanted to balance the roster. So we have grad transfers, we have guys that have a couple years of eligibility, we have a junior college kid, a couple guys that have played only one year of college basketball ... If you have to play three freshmen, whether they're five-stars or not, it's hard to win in our league."
The advantages exist, both on an individual level and from a team perspective. There are 17 freshmen starters on teams in this week's AP top 25, 11 of them five-star recruits. Compare this to 51 transfer starters, with 21 of the 25 ranked teams starting at least one.Blake Hinson puts Pitt ahead for good
Pitt completes the comeback win over Miami thanks to tip-in shot from Blake Hinson.
Pitt coach Jeff Capel ended the 2021-22 season squarely in the hot seat and lost multiple starters to the portal. He needed to reload, fast. So he brought in three transfers, all of whom are starting, and the Panthers are atop the ACC standings entering the final weekend of 2022-23.
"When you have guys that have experience, especially in the backcourt, that can give you an advantage," Capel said. "But the experience has to be about the right things. It can't just be older guys, it has to be older guys where the parts fit and the people fit."
For many coaches, having multiple transfers also shortens the learning curve. It's easier to hit the ground running with players who come with previous college basketball experience.
"It allows your team to grow a lot faster, having guys that understand the concept of what college basketball is about," Keatts said. "The biggest jump you get early on is from a defensive standpoint, they already know where to be. They're in the right places. They get the scouting report part of it."
Tang added, "It's different in that you only have to teach terminology and concepts. You don't have to teach them the effort level they have to play with. That part has been coached to them. They've been in college practices. They understand they have to show up early and get shots up, have a routine. You're not building everybody on the roster."
Recruiting transfers isn't a new trend. Fred Hoiberg had success at Iowa State from 2011 to 2015 recruiting primarily transfers, back when there was still a stigma surrounding the idea. Eric Musselman went transfer-heavy at Nevada in 2016, and is still among the best transfer recruiters in the country at Arkansas.
"I think the plan was, how can we be as good as we can, as quick as we can, with sustainability?" Musselman told ESPN in 2019.
When the one-time transfer waiver passed, the initial thought for many mid- and low-major coaches was that it was going to be the death of Cinderella. High-major programs would poach any good players from smaller programs.
Yet, while plenty of programs have lost high-level talent to bigger schools, mid-major programs have adapted. For one, players from those bigger programs inevitably leave and transfer down. For another, signing transfers is one way to keep high-majors from poaching -- assuming the NCAA doesn't continue to grant waivers to two-time transfers.Youngstown State Penguins vs. Robert Morris Colonials: Full Highlights
Youngstown State Penguins vs. Robert Morris Colonials: Full Highlights
"I think it helped save a lot of the mid-majors," said Youngstown State coach Jerrod Calhoun, who guided the Penguins to a Horizon League title while starting five transfers. "Many of us were very, very concerned when the rule passed. We thought, these guys are going to come to our level, we'll have them for a year or two and they'll leave. But good coaches and good programs, you have to be able to adapt. I'm an advocate of the portal. It's been a big benefit for low-to-mids. We can go and get Division II players, we got an NAIA player, we can get transfer-downs. There's a million ways to utilize the portal."
Another factor has been the introduction of the extra COVID year for all student-athletes, a rule that still has two years to run. Most coaches think the transfer vs. freshman trend could reverse somewhat when the rule ends. Until then, the age gap is still a huge advantage for transfer-heavy teams.
Bryant coach Jared Grasso has mined the transfer market since his days under Tim Cluess at Iona, when the Gaels were one of the few teams doing so. He's continued to look primarily at the portal, particularly players transferring down from high-majors or the bigger mid-majors. It helped the Bulldogs win the NEC tournament last season and get to the NCAA tournament.
"Guys are realizing the difference between a 23-year-old and an 18-year-old," he said. "Look at our league, all the better teams have several transfers, several first-year transfers. We had three first-year transfers win Player of the Week. Four of Vermont's five starters are transfers. It's age and maturity. Those guys are more prepared. We can get the trickle-down of guys transferring down or laterally or up from D2. You have the opportunity to stay old and stay good a lot easier with bringing in older guys."
One low-major coach told ESPN that when he's on the road recruiting high school prospects, he likes to stop in at high-major practices -- not to talk to players, but rather to coaches and get a feel for which players might be leaving at the end of the season and whether they're worth pursuing in the portal.
"It's no different than me going to a prep school practice," he said.
Finding the right transfer for one's team is an inexact science. It's easy to get tricked by gaudy statistics that won't necessarily translate to a different level or take a commitment from the first transfer that shows interest.
Purdue coach Matt Painter said he trusts his and his staff's process of recruiting high school players over the course of two or three years, instead of the rushed recruitment of a transfer that lasts two or three weeks. Especially in the long run.
"Where I'm at, we can continue to sign quality players that we can continue to grow with," he said. "You have to keep perspective. It's hard to be good as a 19-year-old."
Even coaches who have had success with transfers know there are risks. Capel said he knew the people and coaches connected to each of the three transfers he signed last spring. Keatts and Cooley both maintain that looking at how a player at a lower level might translate is imperative.
"You have to find fits, and fits may change year to year," Keatts said. "When you think about the guys that hit the portal, it's not like you didn't see them in high school too. And you also get to see how they play against certain programs. We got to see how D.J. Burns Jr. played against every high-major opponent."
Cooley added, "It's really hard to take a low- to mid-major kid and expect them to do yeoman's work at the high-major level. Not that they can't, but if you're looking for lead-role guys, I want guys accustomed to playing against 6-foot-11 [big men] and 6-4, 230-pound athletes everyday. They've practiced against them everyday. They understand the length, the strength, the speed, the physicality."
Recruiting transfers doesn't guarantee success, and not loading up on transfers doesn't automatically put you behind the eight ball. Only one of the 10 starters in last season's national championship game was a transfer. Three teams in this week's top five -- Houston, UCLA and Purdue -- don't start any.
Purdue is instead starting two freshmen in the backcourt, a leap of faith from Painter considering point guard Braden Smith suffered multiple foot injuries during his final year in high school. But after missing on Pack, the Boilermakers only added Utah transfer David Jenkins Jr. as a role player, and handed the keys to the offense to Smith.Zach Edey muscles in for a layup
Braden Smith makes beautiful pass for a basket
"I think you can grow into sustaining success and that's what excellence is, sustained success," Painter said. "Guys can jump in and have success, but that's a short-term deal. I want more of a long-term deal. I want to only go that [transfer] route if I'm handcuffed and I have to.
"Everyone wants to play shortstop and lead off in the portal, but we've got a lot of guys playing right field and batting 9th [in there]."
After Marquette's 19-13 finish last season, the Golden Eagles saw two starters depart and another player hit the portal. Instead of reloading via transfers, Smart knew to trust his returning core of six freshmen, despite not knowing if they would make the necessary improvements required to compete in the Big East. Eleven months later, Marquette has won the Big East regular-season title after being picked ninth in the league in the preseason.
"We felt they could all take a jump as players and as people. Everybody looks at it differently," he said. "There's a lot of different ways to have success, but we felt that that was our best chance at it. Over the years, we've learned in the offseason it's easy to prioritize talent. When you get into the season, talent really, really matters, but there's a bunch of intangible talents that nobody focuses on in the offseason, that all of a sudden become really, really important during the season."
Both Painter and Smart acknowledged it's easier to be patient in roster-building when a coach has job security, and can see the process through, even through the speed bumps.
"I think people are doing it and they don't want to do it," Painter said, "but they feel like they have to do it."
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There are also scenarios in which adding so many transfers can have a negative impact, and lead to issues with chemistry or minutes. Wyoming reached the NCAA tournament last season, added three Pac-12 transfers in the offseason -- and is now in last place in the Mountain West. There were other factors, of course, like injuries and inconsistency, but all three transfers left the program last month after fewer than 20 games in the program.
Rodney Terry knows all too well the pluses and minuses of a transfer-heavy roster. The interim Texas head coach was part of Chris Beard's staff last season when the Longhorns brought in arguably the most talented transfer class ever. They didn't live up to preseason top-five expectations then. Now, they're competing for the Big 12 regular-season title with a more balanced roster made up of transfers, returnees and freshmen.
"Coming in initially, bringing in a whole team full of transfer guys, it's going to take over a semester to get those guys familiar playing with each other," Terry said. "You're fighting time the entire season. We didn't play our best basketball until the very end of conference play. The recipe is a little tough ... Everyone wants to stay older, but I think it's good to have young talent coming into your program as well.
"Any time you're able to be in a program for two years, three years, you understand the culture, you understand the expectations," he added. "You're able to have a comfort level yourself, you're able to help younger players coming in."
Because college coaches are prioritizing transfers and watching high schoolers less often during the April evaluation period, there's more of an emphasis on the July evaluation period. High school prospects aren't waiting around to accept scholarship offers anymore, either: Whereas a dozen top-100 recruits used to wait until the spring to make a decision, only three ESPN 100 prospects are still available this year. And they don't want to be caught without a program once the portal opens up.
"There's about 2,000 names ready to enter the fray," Keatts said, referring to the looming portal explosion in the next few weeks.
While the portal isn't a long-term strategy to some coaches, college basketball's transition to a more player-centric model with the one-time transfer waiver and the advent of NIL has made looking too far down the road a difficult proposition.
First-year coaches -- and antsy athletic directors -- can look at Tang and Iowa State's T.J Otzelberger as examples of coaches who took over struggling programs and flipped them immediately. Getting four or five years to slowly build a program isn't as common. Plus, coaches only have to look to programs who've had freshmen that they planned to develop transfer out after not getting enough playing time.
"You've gotta win now. You just don't know who you're going to keep, what's going to happen," Grasso said. "If you bring in freshmen but they might not play, are they going to stick around? It's such a hard thing when you talk about building a program. "You can't worry about next year. It's a one-year deal."
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