Dion Waiters: Only 15 - with an offer from Syracuse

Posted: September 02, 2007

Dion Waiters is 15 years old.

He is not quite a sophomore, has only recently settled on his third high school, and has yet to compete in a varsity basketball game.

But he still is being hailed as a blue-chip, can't-miss prospect.

Apparently, that was enough for Syracuse to offer Waiters, a 6-foot-21/2, 200-pound guard, an athletic scholarship this summer. And not surprisingly, the South Philadelphia native accepted, giving the Orangemen an oral commitment just one week later.

All it took was a visit to Syracuse's elite camp in July and a chance to showcase his singular skills, and Waiters - previously denied entry to Neumann-Goretti and at the time without a high school - had his college future seemingly set.

"I just went up there to play," he said. "I wasn't expecting it."

If that sounds a little extreme, consider the following: In June, point guard Ryan Boatwright of Aurora, Ill., became the second eighth grader in two years to give Southern Cal a commitment.

A month earlier, freshman-to-be Matt Carlino received an offer from Arizona State. But that was two years after the Scottsdale, Ariz., resident had received an offer from Arizona.

"It's ludicrous," said Tom Konchalski, editor of High School Basketball Insider and a longtime East Coast scout. "In the case of some kids - not Boatwright - it makes some sense because they're in-state and have always wanted to play for that school. But this has gotten out of hand."

With competition among coaches for top recruits at an all-time high, the quest to find the Next Big Thing begins earlier and earlier. And so, offers are tendered to prepubescent middle schoolers, and commitments are secured even if neither is technically binding.

Ultimately, one has to wonder whether higher education has anything to do with these high-profile commitments and whether a 14-year-old can really ponder whether he's academically suited to a school.

"It's entirely a basketball decision," Konchalski said.

According to the recruiting Web site Scout.com, 12 of the top 80 prospects from the Class of 2010 have given a college program his pledge, including Waiters and Dwayne Polee Jr., a 6-6 forward from Westchester, Calif., supposedly USC-bound.

"At this point, we're all trying to get kids as early as possible," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "You have to act. You are at the mercy of what the culture and climate is. . . . We all are."

For player and coach, it's fairly easy to see the benefit of committing. For the player, even if the offer is rescinded, he has at least gained some notoriety. And if he's exceeded the worth of the offer, he can back out of a commitment.

In Waiters' case, "it was a no-brainer," said Aaron Abbott, coach of Waiters' AAU Team Final club. "It will give him something to work hard for and a goal to try and reach."

After Waiters wasn't accepted at Neumann-Goretti, a South Philadelphia Catholic school with a high-profile basketball program, he wound up at Bartram in Southwest Philadelphia. But academic and discipline issues kept him off the team, and two days before Waiters was to be allowed to play, he got into a fight on school grounds and was suspended.

"It was my fault," he said. "It was grades, and I got in trouble. . . . I was going to stay [at Bartram], but my mom [Monique Brown] said she didn't like the environment for me. So I transferred to Southern."

Waiters didn't play at Southern, either, and sat out his freshman year while friend and Team Final teammate Tony Chennault started as a freshman at Neumann-Goretti. Waiters, meanwhile, continued playing AAU into the summer until he traveled to Syracuse.

Waiters hooked up with Syracuse because of his cousin, Antonio "Scoop" Jardine, a freshman guard and Neumann-Goretti alum. He made the trek north with Jardine a year ago, and by the time he arrived this summer, his stock had increased. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was obviously impressed enough to offer a scholarship.

Waiters was coy when discussing how the offer-and-acceptance exchange was enacted and whether other schools were in the running.

"There were a couple of others, but I didn't really know which ones," he said. "I heard Florida and a few other names."

Increasingly, schools are holding junior elite camps for pre-high schoolers and rising underclassmen as a way of gaining an edge. The camps also allow coaches rare access.

"They want to get the kids on campus," Konchalski said. "This way, [a prospect] can have contact with the coach because he's initiating the contact by visiting the school."

For a college, it's almost a win-win situation.

You either bag a top recruit before another program sinks its claws into him or you create a buzz off free publicity. Often, it's the second-tier programs, like USC, that go out on an early limb.

"In a perfect world, we'd wait until the spring signing date, when these kids are high school seniors," Trojans coach Tim Floyd said in an Associated Press story. "But that's just not the world that we live in in college basketball. Am I supposed to wait until Duke or Kentucky offer and then it's OK?"

In June, Villanova coach Jay Wright received his first commitment from the Class of 2009 in Roman Catholic guard Maalik Wayns. Per NCAA rules, Wright can't reference specific recruits, but the coach who's moved his program closer to the upper echelon believes the trend isn't necessarily a bad one.

"Most of the kids who commit early are can't-miss kinds of players. They aren't the borderline type," Wright said. "So if a 10th grader can pick the college he's going to, he can spend the next two years following the team, watching how they play, and also enjoy his high school career."

Still, there are potential landmines. What if, when the time comes for a national letter of intent to be signed, the player hasn't progressed to a coach's liking and a scholarship offer is rescinded?

"This illustrates the folly of taking commitments too early," Konchalski said. "There are too many things that can happen in between. Both the kid and coaches just end up looking foolish."

Four years ago, forward Taylor King of Santa Ana, Calif., committed to UCLA as a 14-year-old. Two years later, he changed his mind and is now enrolled at Duke.

"He said it was a dream of his to play for UCLA for all 15 years of his life," Konchalski said. "But somehow he ended up at Duke."

"The power is still in the student-athlete's hands," said Wright.

Chennault knows as much. A 6-0 point guard rated comparably to Waiters, the Olney resident has opted to wait before making a commitment, even though he owns a scholarship offer from his current favorite, Villanova.

"I like Jay Wright," Chennault said. "But I don't want to rush into anything if I'm not sure. My mom [Crystal Morton] always told me that I should let things play out."

For Waiters, with his high school future in the air, it was AAU basketball that kept him sharp and in the public eye enough to warrant an invitation to Syracuse.

"It says that summer basketball can get you exposure," Wright said. "But that's a chance. You still need high school basketball."

Indeed, Waiters said he has accepted a scholarship at South Kent School, a $34,500-a-year prep school in Connecticut known for shepherding top basketball talent to Division I schools.

So if he can adjust to living away from home, and shoulder the workload at the prestigious all-boys school, Waiters will finally play his first game of high school hoops this fall.

"I can't wait," he said.

And then college?

"I'll be at Syracuse in three years," he said.

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane

at 215-854-4745

or jmclane@phillynews.com.

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