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Will more players follow Vonleh and re-classify back into their original class?

October 5, 2012 Columns No Comments
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Last week began with some big news in the world of recruiting as Noah Vonleh opted to move back into the Class of 2013 after re-classifying into the class of 2014 a year earlier. Vonleh becomes the latest of several players to make that move, but it’s entirely possible he won’t be the last by a long shot – and it may be the case that this trend signals something else.

New England is where re-classifying has become a popular thing to do in basketball, in large part because of NEPSAC, the most competitive prep school league in the country. Many players have gone from a public school to a private school that competes in NEPSAC, often with the idea of improving their recruitment, and they repeat the most recent academic year before the switch. Repeating the year makes sense; many NEPSAC schools are better academically than the public school the player attended beforehand. One NEPSAC coach said that even non-athletes who don’t begin their high school education at the school usually repeat for exactly that reason.

The rationale of improving one’s recruitment has two basketball parts. One is that they will play an extra year at the high school level, meaning an extra year of development. The other is that they will be seen more during the school season by college coaches, even if only because coaches come to see a teammate. There is also an academic component, although less so now than before, in that many players have needed a fifth year to be able to qualify academically for college. While it has worked out for some players, the jury is out on just how well it has for many.

While repeating a year to prolong a high school career has become all the rage, there has been a wave of elite players going back into their original class. The first noteworthy player to do so was Connecticut junior Shabazz Napier back in 2010, as he was slated for the class of 2011. There was Khem Birch, who went back into the class of 2011, and classmates Alex Murphy and Andre Drummond did the same thing later. Nerlens Noel and Wayne Selden, teammates both with BABC and at Tilton, both did so, with Selden now a senior this year. Vonleh is now the latest.

Asked about the decision, Vonleh simply said he feels ready for college next year. He feels ready from a basketball standpoint, ready from an academic standpoint and ready to move on with his life as he first envisioned it when he entered high school – entering college in four years. And there’s no doubt he’s ready. The work ethic is there, the talent is there, and he’s ready academically and socially as he’s a bright and engaging young man.

Is this a trend we’ll continue to see? Perhaps, but with a caveat. Plenty of young players will continue to go to prep schools, or at least consider doing so, and repeat a year if they go. Already, some of the best public school players in New England are considering prep school down the road and whether the pros outweigh the cons. Anticipating this, prep school coaches are often checking out players who might one day want to attend their school.

But one thing of note with all of the players who have gone back into their original class, such as Vonleh, is that they were all elite prospects. Napier probably had the least reputation of the aforementioned players, and he was a high-major prospect who has gone on to start since he was a freshman. In each case, an extra year of high school was not going to make a difference in their recruitment, and in most cases it was highly unlikely to make a big difference in the early part of their college career. While Napier didn’t blossom until he got to Lawrence Academy, it wasn’t the extra year that made the difference.

One reason this may happen more is the NCAA. It had already limited the incentive for a fifth year from an academic standpoint by allowing players to get just one core course in their fifth year of school. Starting with the high school class of 2016, a player must have 10 of the 16 core classes complete after six semesters of high school, so there is no incentive to repeat an earlier year instead of doing a true post-graduate year. In short, by a player’s senior year, he will most likely not need the fifth year to qualify as was the case before – either he will be well on his way to qualifying or will not have a chance and a fifth year would not have much practical benefit. So some players may transfer to a prep school and repeat a year initially, but later realize they don’t need the extra year from any standpoint and move back into their original class.

As a result, the only thing repeating a year really affects is the age group a player can play in on the travel circuit, depending on the player’s birthday. A player might compete in the same age group for two years without necessarily playing up in the first year. For example, he might compete on a 16-under team after his sophomore year, then do it again after repeating his sophomore year a year later. But doing that doesn’t change the NCAA’s clock. The same player will need 10 core courses to be complete after repeating his sophomore year in this example scenario, and there’s no way around that.

We likely have not seen the last instance of a player moving back into his original high school class. There will continue to be elite players who don’t need a fifth year of high school, and NCAA regulations play a role in it as well. It’s not likely to be a very common occurrence, unless players who aren’t elite prospects start doing it to regain some semblance of normalcy to their lives by starting college four years after they begin high school, like most of their peers.

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