April 24, 2010
Jaylin Fleming might be the next LeBron James. But we won't know for a while -- he's only 10 years old.
The fifth grader at the Beasley Academic Center in suburban Chicago is already attracting interest from college scouts and coaches. Roger Hinds, the head trainer for the New York Knicks -- a pro team that could use a lot of help -- told the Chicago Tribune, "I've never actually seen a kid like this."
Which means he's watching.
University of Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber tells NPR's Scott Simon that 10 years old is particularly young to be attracting attention.
"We're always watching, but that's a little young, so he must be special," he says.
Still, Fleming is young enough to make Weber uncomfortable about the intensely competitive nature of the recruiting game. "I don't like it, to be honest," he says. "Kids need to be kids."
Weber says college coaches are getting involved with possible recruits at an ever-earlier age. "So if it means going to seventh- and eighth-grade games, we are starting to do that," he says.
But it wasn't always this way. "I've been involved in Division I basketball for 31 years now, and when I first started, we were worried about seniors in high school and that was it," he says.
"Now there's the early signing period. It went to juniors, then sophomores -- we've even had a commitment from a freshman in the last four years, so everything's accelerated."
No school wants to lose out on recruits. "I'm not sure it's good, but it is there," Weber says. "If you don't do it, it's going to hurt you."
The popularity of the NCAA tournament games, he says, has parents pushing their children into basketball. "They see their sons or daughters being the next superstars."
Those parents may post videos on YouTube touting "The Next Kobe Bryant," but at 10 or 11, how much can you really tell about a child's potential?
"You don't know if they're going to grow -- if they're going to mature," Weber says. And, he adds, college coaches don't know if the child will one day be able to compete academically as a student athlete.
"More and more people are trying to create or make their child to be this elite person that maybe they aren't -- they're not ready to be," he says.
And that pressure could burn kids out early, Weber warns.
"The biggest thing is, the older you get, the more basketball becomes a job," he says. "If they don't play it for the love of the game, I think it's going to be something that backfires and they're never going to make the progress they should make."