Why 6 High-Level Basketball Recruits Chose Small Colleges

A few weeks ago, Detroit dismantled St. John’s on national television. While this may have surprised a few people, it came as no surprise to hardcore basketball recruiting fans. Ray McCallum denied offers from the likes of Duke and Kansas to play for his father at Detroit. While it is unlikely that McCallum’s decision would have been for Detroit had his father not been the coach, his decision brought up an interesting question: should high-major recruits turn down big offers to play for lower-level schools?

We have seen players like Stephen Curry and Jimmer Fredette make it to the league from lower-level schools in recent years (although BYU isn’t all that low), but they weren’t recruited by high-major schools.

It is always interesting to see high-major level recruits turn down offers to help build a lower-level program up. For McCallum Jr., this strategy has had its ups and downs as the Titans, once considered contenders to win the Horizon League, are only 8-10 overall.

There is always a risk involved in choosing a lower-level school. The expectations will be high from the start. The recruit will be expected to be a leader from the start. For some kids coming straight out of high school, it could seem impossible to turn a program around.

We decided to look at recent recruits who have succeeded and failed in this in order to come up with a conclusion about whether it’s a good idea or not.


Klay Thompson – Klay Thompson had offers from Michigan and Notre Dame coming out of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in California. He was considered one of the top small forwards in the class of 2008, yet he chose to go Washington State. While it was a Pac-10 school, they were not exactly a Michigan or Notre Dame. Thompson, however, chose the Cougars because he knew that was a place where he could play right away. He ended up averaging 19.6 points per game as a sophomore and 21.6 points per game as a junior. After his junior year, he left for the NBA and was picked 11th by the Golden State Warriors.

Kyle Casey – Never in a million years would anyone have guessed that Harvard would be able to build a program that would bring in high-major level players. Tommy Amaker and Jeremy Lin helped build the program to what it is today but Kyle Casey helped take it to another level on the recruiting scene. Lin was under-recruited in high school but still had interest from Stanford, Vanderbilt and Providence. In the end, he decided to go to Harvard. He proved that a player of his caliber could be comfortable and play right away at Harvard. This helped them attract high-level recruits such as Agunwa Okolie and Mike Hall, both of whom will play for Harvard next year.

Seth Curry – Unlike his older brother, Seth Curry had high-major interest in high school. Virginia Tech was in hot pursuit of his services. Curry decided on Liberty instead. At Liberty, Curry was the go-to guy right away and averaged 20.2 points per game. By dominating in the Big South his freshman year, Curry gave himself the exposure needed to play at a higher level in college basketball. After his freshman year, he transferred to Duke. By turning down Virginia Tech and being patient, Curry helped land himself a starting spot at Duke.

Anthony Booker – Anthony Booker was a top-100 power forward in the class of 2008 but chose to team up with Kevin Dillard to start a movement at Southern Illinois. Booker’s production at Southern Illinois was wildly inconsistent, which prompted him to transfer to Iowa State. At Iowa State, he is currently averaging a mere 4.0 points and 2.5 rebounds per game.

Aaric Murray – Murray had two great years at La Salle averaging 13.7 points per game. So how is this a lack-of-success story? Well, after his two years at La Salle, Murray decided to transfer to West Virginia, a school that had offered him in high school. This situation is different from Curry’s because he wasted two years in college playing for a lower-level school when he could have been playing for a higher-level team. And now, he will have to sit out a year before playing again. That is a lot of time wasted. Had Murray chosen West Virginia or another high-major school, perhaps he would have already been drafted. Now that he will be older, Murray will be less appealing to NBA teams. It also doesn’t help that Murray has already gotten off to the wrong start at West Virginia. Recently, reports came out that he was arrested for possession of narcotics.

Jabari Brown – Brown played in two games at Oregon and suddenly decided that it was not the place for him. Reports came out that said Brown was not happy with his role on the team, which prompted him to leave the team. Brown was a top-25 player in high school last year. He could have gone basically anywhere he wanted to but he chose Oregon because he thought he would be the featured player right away. Brown is now transferring to Missouri where he will have to sit out a year before he can touch the floor.

Turning down high-major offers to build up a lower-level school is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. It takes a certain type of player to do it. It takes a leader and it takes someone who is willing to put the team first.

In all three failure cases, none of the three showed any type of leadership qualities. On the other hand, all three of the success stories showed leadership. Kyle Casey chose Harvard because he knew he could help them turn the program around, and he has. Thompson and Curry both helped their respective teams have success while they were there.

Being a trailblazer and helping a program turn itself around is not for everyone. Some players should go to the already-established programs because they are not capable as players to do so. In my opinion, however, players who can help turn around a program by themselves are the players that scouts should keep an eye on. Not only does it take a special type of player, but it takes a special type of person too.

Would you rather go to a smaller school and be a star, or a bigger school and be a role player?

Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucashapiro.

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