Welcome to beautiful North Augusta! Or rather, “Welcome to beautiful North Augusta(?)” The town with one beautiful golf course and a bunch of run-down strip malls and stores with names like “Hair Max” is once again buzzing with the excitement of having the premier recruiting event in the NCAA, and the crowds are packed into the facility like crazy. Forgoing the traditional hotel route, we’ve opted rather to use the app AirBnB (think bed-and-breakfasts) for the week because we wanted to be sure to maximize our chances of being murdered in our sleep.
It’s a small building (about the size of your local YMCA) for an event of this caliber, but that doesn’t deter all the moving and shaking that comes with recruits impressing coaches, coaches looking important and assistant coaches scrambling to keep coaches happy. So far on site we’ve seen Pitino, Izzo, Jamie Dixon, Coach K and a host of other well-knowns, with more expected today.
My first task upon arrival was to catch a seat for the match-up of the Mac Irvin Fire and the Oakland Soldiers. The Soldiers are known for once being Lebron’s AAU team, while the Fire is known for boasting the most animated coaching staff in sports history. Every time anything happens for the fire, good or bad, four people jump up from the bench and just start screaming. Which one is the coach, you might wonder? Why, he’s the one wearing rainbow-colored metallic shoes. I would follow the Fire all day just for a glimpse of this kind of magic.
The Soldiers, you should know, also boast twin big men in Stephen Zimmerman and Ivan Raab, who both have offers from UK. Though the Soldiers lost (wins and losses, it should be noted, seem to count far less than personal achievement in places and tourneys like these), it was good to see both in action.
Cal was there for the opening, but Cal rarely stays put during recruiting events like the Peach Jam, moving from court to court in an effort to see everyone he can. Kenny Payne is on hand for the full game, on the other hand, looking like a giant trying to sit in a regular-people chair.
Raab and Zimmerman sharing the court is an intimidating sight. Zimmerman, at 6’11” from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, is the more intimidating height-wise, while Raab — from Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland (obscure bishops are the real winners at the Peach Jam) — has more of an athletic look for a big man.
Though the Soldiers lost to the Fire, which I’m sure you gather thrilled the histrionic Fire coaching staff, Raab and Zimmerman still showed glimpses of what they had. Speaking with a spectator who’d caught the pair earlier in the day (at another loss, in fact), neither performed particularly well in the earlier session but I think there were still some takeaways from their night session.
Zimmerman is surprisingly agile for a tall man and has a very Mike Dunleavy-esque vibe to him. Several times he snagged balls that your typical 6″-11″ might have let get by him. He seemed quiet on the court but looks like a fundamentally strong big guy. Neither Raab nor Zimmerman provided the lightning-strike moments that, say, Jaylen Brown displayed the night before for us in Atlanta, but Zimmerman did break out with a posterizing, stellar one-handed dunk over three guys late in the night which was enough to make the crowd sit up and take notice.
A side note: last year, Matt and I had a conversation with Ohio State assistant coach Greg Paulus, who shed a lot of light on the recruiting process for us when he told us that just as key in watching a recruit’s skills is watching his IQ as a team player in the down moments as well. It’s an interesting thought, one you might not immediately suspect, and I recalled that conversation during a moment in the game when a Soldier went down with a rolled ankle. While the action continued to the other end of the court, no one even looked the player’s way as he writhed and beat against the ground. Zimmerman was the only player or coach in the place who left his spot from the other end of the court to walk back, check on him and help him up.
Raab looked, to my unprofessional eye, to be less agile than Zimmerman but more fluid; outside of getting up for some strong rebounds off the glass, he doesn’t seem to have mastered the advantages of his height yet — and one could only imagine that with the right coach a guy like Raab could really come into his own. He’s more vocal on the court, more of a court general calling shots and communicating, but he doesn’t seem to have a great deal of tenacity yet. Like Zimmerman, he made few missteps — he just wasn’t all that explosive.
Not that he needs to be explosive. I should note that when you watch these games, you often see a lot of posturing, a lot of me-first attitude and a lot of “gotta impress” in these kids. Which is understandable, of course. After all, they’re performing for a group of people who very truly hold their fates in their hands. Sometimes a solid player — which I felt both Raab and Zimmerman appeared to be — without a visible ego or need to show off is valuable to see. I never got the idea that either player was trying to make it all about himself and it’s interesting to see two high-profile guys like this blend into the fabric of their team instead of trying to look like they’re “the show.” Never mind the fact that they are.
Afterward, it was off to the coach-filled Marriott bar where Cal held court with his staff privately over salads in a darker corner, Pitino engaged a table full of people and Frank Haith, one of our long-time favorite folks here at Peach Jam, stopped to talk to us for several minutes about the strength of Cal and his happiness in Tulsa. Good peeps, that Frank Haith. Good peeps.
Keep your internet tuned here for more action throughout the day — if we can get the internet to work at the facility, which we had trouble with yesterday — and I’ll try my best to bring you more layperson views on what’s going on in North Augusta. Not murdered yet; so things are looking up!