Western Pennsylvania is one of the most fertile recruiting territories for football in the country. The same cannot be said for basketball, though. Local universities cannot rely on the WPIAL to provide either consistent top-tier talent or depth for their program. For a school like Duquesne, establishing connections in other territories is vital for the program’s success.
In his short tenure as Duquesne’s head coach, Keith Dambrot has shown that he will recruit areas like the Midwest and Atlantic Coast to secure the talent needed for resurrecting the Dukes’ basketball program. However, he will not restrict his focus to territories within the continental United States. One of his strongest relationships along the recruiting trail is Todd Washington, a highly regarded member of the Puerto Rican and Caribbean basketball communities. The two men met through revered sports psychologist Dr. Joe Carr (whom Pittsburgh Sports Now profiled in April), and have developed a friendship while simultaneously growing the ties between Coach Dambrot and Puerto Rican basketball prospects.
“I’ve known Coach [Dambrot] for, I think, eight or nine years now,” said Washington. “I met him through my godfather, Dr. Joe Carr … Doc has known Coach D since LeBron [James] was in high school, and I had been hearing about this coach in Akron that was just a really good person – that really cared about his players far beyond basketball. I had been hearing stories about him before I really even knew anything about the University of Akron … It’s a friendship of admiration and trust. In the truest definition, we’re friends. I respect him. He respects me. We care for one another. I mean, Coach D and [assistant coach Rick] McFadden are like family.”
Todd Washington – son of the Charlotte Hornets’ minority owner, Robert Washington – is one of the most influential members in Puerto Rican basketball. Since 2010, he has served as a senior advisor to the Puerto Rican Basketball Federation. He has arranged deals for the Puerto Rican national team with major apparel brands like Nike. And perhaps most notably, Washington is the founder of the Puerto Rico Playmakers, a Puerto Rican A.A.U. program. What started in 2007 as a more traditional A.A.U. team, the Puerto Rican Playmakers have become a program that provides its players with far more than on-court training.
“We decided, as a model, when we placed all of the kids in the 2016 and 2017 classes in prep schools around the United States – I was funding the program myself, and Nike was sponsoring us as one of their elite programs – we recognized that it was far more important than playing a couple of A.A.U. tournaments, or running around the United States playing in these event. [We recognized] we would train young kids during the year, and then we would place them in prep schools and focus on the education component.
“In 2013, we changed the model and said, ‘We’re actually going to get out of focusing on this cycle of traveling all around the United States, because there are a ton of programs that do that.’ But how many programs really help kids, on and off the court, become leaders and champions? We felt that model was the model of the future, and that we would focus our resources, and time and energy, in training kids here when they’re young. We train kids starting as young as nine-years-old, and then really work with them during the school year four-days to five-days a week. We do skill training, and strength, and conditioning. And then when our guys that are in the States come back over breaks and during the summer, we work with them both on-the-court and off-the-court.
“This thing has got to be bigger than basketball, right? It’s got to be about developing men of character and integrity, and developing winners, and people that are going to go on after basketball. Let’s be frank: you’ve got a better job at winning the lottery than you do getting to the NBA … Where will you be five, ten, fifteen-years down the road, and what sort of person are you? That’s the Dr. Carr model. That’s the R.A.R.E. model that we’ve subscribed to since we started the program.”
Over the years, Washington has helped place Caribbean natives into elite-level preparatory programs within the United States, including Blue Ridge School, Episcopal High School in Virginia, Huntington Prep School, Montrose Christian School, South Kent School and St. Benedict’s Preparatory School. From there, his players develop the skills on and off the court to play college basketball in the U.S.
“We’ve placed over 20-something-plus kids directly into prep schools, and probably 15-to-20 more from around the Caribbean into prep schools and colleges … We want to focus on a holistic approach to development. We want to use the game as an opportunity to teach kids about integrity and character. We want to use the game to help kids further their education at the prep school level, and then get them into college. And then hopefully once we’ve done that, we’ve done our job and we can move to the next batch (of kids).”
Washington’s presence in the Caribbean basketball community is expected to grow in the upcoming years. He is currently working with an outside group to develop a Caribbean-wide scouting service, enhancing his influence outside of Puerto Rican borders. His continued efforts will benefit both the kids receiving an opportunity to play top-level basketball in the U.S., and the coaches for which the kids play – such as Keith Dambrot.
Washington has seen a pair of Puerto Rican natives play for Coach Dambrot in recent years in Alex Abreu and Carmelo Betancourt. Both players were guards from Puerto Rico, a nation that produces a high volume of guards. Washington felt comfortable watching Abreu and Betancourt choose Akron, since he believes Coach Dambrot is well-qualified to recruit and coach Caribbean talent.
“Well, one: he has, in the past, been very successful with small guards,” said Washington. “Two: a lot of coaches today are caught up in rankings as the sole reason why they recruit a player, versus the individual and how that individual fits into the overall team system. For us, [Coach Dambrot] is a person we believe in – he and his entire coaching staff. They’re upfront. They’re honest. They tell you things, oftentimes, things you don’t want to hear. Maybe a guy is not performing, or maybe a guy’s gotten himself into trouble. They’re unique in their loyalty to try and help players both on and off the court … We’ve just always found that Coach D is at a balance. He’s been incredibly successful on the court, and then off the court, he cares about his people. In this day and age, that’s totally unique.”
If Coach Dambrot has his way, he will soon add to the list of Puerto Rican players he has coached. Dambrot is currently targeting two Class-of-2017 Puerto Rican products Washington has placed at American prep schools: point guard Josh Colon and forward Nick Washington.
Colon, who Washington helped place at Blue Ridge High School in Virginia, is a 5-foot-9-inch, 165-pound point guard that Washington calls “one of the top two or three point guards in Puerto Rico for his age.”
“We’ve had Josh in our program since the third grade,” he said. “We have a program here in Puerto Rico called Prep School Placement, where we help identify situations for kids to go to from Puerto Rico … He’s what we call a ‘tough-as-nails’ player. He doesn’t break. He’s a fighter. He comes from a two-parent, stable home – very humble people. Great, hard-working people, so they’ve instilled a work ethic in him. And he’s a champion. A winner. So he’s got all the qualities even though he’s short. That shouldn’t be the factor that people judge him on, his size. But it should be the success he’s had at the highest level in high school basketball.”
Colon visited Duquesne in April, and while the point guard has yet to receive an offer from the Dukes, he remains very interested in the program.
Coach Dambrot’s other Puerto Rican target in the Class-of-2017 is Todd’s son, Nick Washington. The 6-foot-8-inch, 220-pound forward has spent the last three seasons at South Kent School, a top-level preparatory program located in Connecticut, and received an offer from the Dukes in early April.
“He is a late-bloomer with, I think, tremendous upside,” Todd said, regarding his son. “Now that the work ethic has matched his blessings, he’s the true definition of a stretch forward. He’s played the four and five in the [New England Preparatory School Athletic Council] Triple-A, which is the top high school prep conference in the country. Every night, he’s playing against high-major fours and fives. He’s a ferocious rebounder and he’s a great teammate.”
Nick, described as an “under-recruited guy” by his father, has not received the same recruiting exposure as players groomed in the United States’ A.A.U. circuit. However, he holds significant international experience on the Puerto Rican 17-and-under national squad. Nick competed in the 2014 17-and-under World Championships for Puerto Rico, and will start for them this summer at the F.I.B.A. World Championships in Egypt.
According to Todd, Nick has yet to receive his official clearance by the NCAA to play college basketball, although the Washington family is confident that the process will play out. Until he receives his clearance, Nick will refrain from offering a commitment. Duquesne is very high on Nick’s list of potential schools, but he is also considering the University of California, Santa Barbara and Georgetown. When it does come time for Nick to offer a commitment, Todd Washington was clear that he would be comfortable seeing his son choose Duquesne, a school he believes is committed to winning.
“You’ve got to not only have a great coach, you’ve got to have a commitment by the school … [At Duquesne], you’ve got an athletic director who I met in person, who is fully engaged to the program. You’ve got an academic coordinator – that we met with – fully committed to keeping guys on track to get their degree. You’ve got compliance people that are fully committed. You’ve got a university president that’s giving the resources to improve the facilities.”
While on his son’s April visit to Duquesne, Todd conversed with the parent of another recruit being targeted by the Dukes. The two talked at length about Duquesne as a potential destination for their sons. With confidence, Todd told the other parent, “Hey man, this is a winning situation. Great conference. Great school. Great city. And now you’ve got the resources that you can bundle with the coach to win.”
It is Washington’s belief that if Coach Dambrot managed to make 20-win seasons a regular occurrence at Akron, then he is “going to get it done” at Duquesne. And although Washington is upfront about his bias when it comes to Coach Dambrot, he divulged what he believes is possible at Duquesne under his friend’s guidance.
“I’m biased, because I’ve witnessed the success he’s had,” Washington admits. “We tell our kids all the time in school: the numbers don’t lie, and analytics are important. Leave aside my personal bias because I care about the human being – I’ve got a lot of love for Coach D, we’re like family – Duquesne’s going to do some amazing things because all of the pieces are in place. So then what has to happen is the kids have to outwork everybody, because this ultimately gets down to performance. The university can do everything they’re supposed to do, and I’m highly confident they will. At least on my visit, I was taken aback. I knew nothing about Duquesne. I’d never been to Pittsburgh … I’m expecting big things. I don’t want to make predictions, because I think you set yourself up for failure when you make predictions externally – outside the family. But they’re going to get really good kids. Coach [Dambrot] and the entire coaching staff from top to bottom, from the grad assistants all the way up to the head coach, are as qualified and as dedicated as any coaches I’ve ever been around. As long as the kids listen to Doc [Carr], and to the staff, and to the administrators, they’re going to have success there. He didn’t leave Akron, where he’s set for life, because he didn’t believe he could turn around Duquesne. When we heard about it, we were like, ‘He’s got to really believe that he can get it done.’”
He added, “It’s a special place, and I think they’re going to do some amazing things there.”
Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands are not a secret when it comes to producing basketball recruits. Many noteworthy players with varying levels of success, including some of the best basketball players of all time, were born in the Caribbean. Despite the talent that has been discovered in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands, though, Washington asserts that the area does not receive the recruiting attention it deserves.
“That’s an understatement,” said Todd, when asked if the Caribbean is an under-recruited territory. “Let’s talk history for a second: two of the greatest centers in the world were born in the Caribbean in Tim Duncan and Patrick Ewing. You go all the way back to Coach Calipari starting at UMass; he had three Puerto Rican guards on that team, two of them started – Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso. You look at guys like Angel Rodriguez, who played at Kansas State and the University of Miami. One of our guys, Gary Brown-Ramirez, played at West Virginia and Arlington Country Day (Preparatory School). He didn’t even have one scholarship, and everybody was saying he wasn’t good enough; he wasn’t even a D-2 player. He went in and had a decorated four-year career (at WVU). So, the talent – not just here, but you look at the Dominican Republic, you look at Jamaica, and you go all the way down the Caribbean – is completely under-recruited.”
The well-recognized, elite-level players from the Caribbean, like former Kentucky Wildcat and current N.B.A. superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, will likely never select Duquesne over the nation’s top programs. However, as Todd Washington develops and places more Caribbean natives in the United States, Coach Dambrot will make sure to identify the under-recruited players capable of leading Duquesne to 20-win seasons. And according to Washington, the Dukes’ new coach is the kind of man under which he would like to see those recruits play.
“He’s the type of guy you want to put your son with, because you know your son is going to be with someone you trust,” said Todd. “[Coach Dambrot] is going to be someone that you can rely on. He’s going to teach him right from wrong, and all the things – as a father – you want to see your son progress into as a man.”