There is a growing belief around Western Pennsylvania that high school basketball talent in the area is on the rise. With more Division I level recruits surfacing each year, there certainly appears to be some changes afoot. To confirm if this perception is indeed reality, Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke to Steve Davis of The Scoring Factory, one of the top basketball developmental organizations in Western Pennsylvania, to gain a professional opinion on the subject.
“I would say ‘definitely,’ and there’s a lot of reasons why,” said Davis, Director of Development at The Scoring Factory. “I’ll take you back to when I was a kid and just growing up in this area … Growing up, it was playground basketball, it was rec basketball, you played for your school team, so there wasn’t too much in terms of organization. There wasn’t too much in terms of ‘this is how you play the game of basketball, this is the right way to dribble, this is the right way to shoot, the right way to play offense and to play defense.’
“Fast forward to now: in this generation, you walk around, you drive around, you look at the playgrounds and they’re pretty much empty. You may see some organized activities, but there are very few pickup games going on. There are very few kids out there bouncing the ball and just going at it.”
The emergence of developmental organizations like The Scoring Factory has taken kids from the ungoverned play of streets and playgrounds, and placed them in structured gym environments under professional direction. Founded in 2009 by Pete Strobl, The Scoring Factory features coaches with experience playing Division I basketball, as well as professional basketball worldwide. Not only are more kids performing under the supervision of coaches, they are performing under the supervision of coaches who know the skills required to compete at higher levels of competition.
Steve Davis is well qualified to speak on the past inadequacies of Western Pennsylvania’s youth basketball scene. The native of Brookline wasn’t introduced to organized skill development until his senior year of high school, when he met Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, a star point guard at Blackhawk High School that went on to play at Ohio State. Fuss-Cheatham would “take over” the gym with his father, running drills, breaking down the intricacies of techniques and working on skill development in a way that few others from the area did at the time. What was a rarity in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s, though, is much more prevalent twenty years later.
“You have people like that all over the city now,” Steve said, recalling the Fuss-Cheathams. “What we have at The Scoring Factory is a big part of that, but there are so many other people doing these types of things now. It’s a natural progression. It’s a grass roots movement from second grade all the way up through high school.”
Those who played pickup basketball in their youth know just how competitive a simple game at the park can become; the desire to outperform others in athletic competition has existed in Western Pennsylvania since the inception of sports. But now, young basketball players are afforded the opportunity to focus that competitive drive against other trained individuals striving towards the same goals, and they can do so under the guidance of knowledgeable coaches.
“There’s always somebody out there better than you. That’s the beauty of sports: there’s always somebody out there better than you. Being able to be in that environment where you can help people but people can help you, cream just rises to the top, and everyone gets better, and grows and learns from one another … Before there was all playground basketball; there were not adults around to correct. It was just go out and have fun, and come home when the street lights come on.”
Improvements in organized basketball have undoubtedly facilitated change in Western Pennslvania’s basketball community, but as Davis witnesses first hand at The Scoring Factory, the players deserve their share of credit for growing the field, too.
“It’s really remarkable to see how these guys work on their own, but also come together and push each other in a group workout,” he said. “These kids watch each other. They follow each other on social media. If one puts up thirty, the other one wants to put up forty. It’s just an overall community now on so many levels. They’re working out with one another, they’re competing with one another, they’re playing with each other in the summertime. Sometimes they’re playing against each other. It only helps the area. It only helps further grow Western Pennsylvania on the overall map of basketball.”
At The Scoring Factory, Steve also observes the impressive learning capacity of children when it comes to sports. The organization routinely pushes its athletes in workouts, and coaches are constantly impressed by the results.
“It’s really amazing to see how these young kids can pick up on some of those details; they’re like little sponges. When I first got involved with youth basketball, I never would have considered throwing some of the things that we throw at these kids, because it was overwhelming to me when I was in high school. But now we have a third or fourth grader that we’re trying this stuff with. They’re so intuitive when it comes to learning at that age.”
Perhaps the primary reason Western Pennsylvanians are noticing the rise in talent is the recent stream of high-level Division I recruits meriting attention in the area. In this year’s Class of 2018, Robby Carmody of Mars High School is an elite level recruit who has signed a National Letter of Intent to play college basketball at Notre Dame. Although currently spending a season at Christ School, a prep school in North Carolina, Brandon Stone of Southmoreland High School is a coveted Division I recruit in the Class of 2019. Pitt, Penn State and Duquesne are all currently vying for Stone’s signature. And in the Class of 2020, Butler High School’s Ethan Morton projects as a national top-50 recruit, per Rivals.com. This outflow of high profile recruits, according to Davis, could very well continue into the future, too.
“I don’t see why it couldn’t,” he asserted. “I mean the talent, in terms of athleticism, has always been there, and now these kids are investing in the skill development. And that’s really what separates them. You can go around and you can find athletes, but can you find people that understand the game?
“That’s really what college coaches are looking for. They’re going to still work on their skill set, they’re going to still work on their development, but they want to know: ‘Does this kid understand the game? How much time and effort am I going to have to put in to, number one, making sure the kid is doing the things that they’re supposed to be doing, but how well can they react? How well can they understand game situations?’”
With more developmental organizations in the area, Western Pennsylvania’s athletes now hold a much higher chance of learning the game and developing a high “basketball I.Q.” For Steve, no player exemplifies the importance of basketball I.Q. quite like T.J. McConnell of the Philadelphia 76ers, a former point guard for Chartiers Valley High School.
“You look at T.J. McConnell, who the first time I saw him he was in ninth grade, he came off the bench and you saw the confidence. He just came into the game and started launching threes, and started taking the ball to the hoop. I mean, he wasn’t at that time a Division I athlete; he worked on that. But the I.Q. was there.”
In addition to a rise in top level talent, the overall depth of talent in the area is also climbing. On a recently compiled list of WPIAL alumni playing Division I men’s basketball, there were shown to be over thirty players competing at the Division I level. Many Western Pennsylvanians are likely aware of the players competing at high profile universities, such as the University of North Carolina’s Cam Johnson, a graduate of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. On the other hand, players like Kason Harrell, a junior guard at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, may fly under the radar. Harrell, an alumni of Hempfield Area High School and a product of The Scoring Factory, scored 28 points for IPFW in their recent upset over the Indiana Hoosiers (the Hoosiers, of course, are led by head coach Archie Miller of Beaver Falls). While not every player from Western, PA may receive equal recognition, Davis believes that there exist many fans who are not be surprised by the volume of Division I talent.
“I think the people that pay attention to the game definitely appreciate it, and definitely realize it, and definitely support these players. But overall, we are a big professional sports town … I notice the people that really enjoy the game, the people that know the game, they rant and rave about these players. They love to support them, follow them, go out and see their games.”
The depth in overall talent is not just a product of an increase in young athletes participating in organized basketball; it is also a direct result of how those young athletes approach the game year round.
“I think what we’re seeing is definitely the numbers are growing, but even so much as the numbers, you’re seeing more of a dedication to getting better at the game,” Steve said. “We have kids that still play multiple sports, and we always encourage kids – until they get later on into high school – to definitely go out there and try other things, and don’t just focus on one sport … They still find time to come in on the weekends and during the offseason to put in their reps. I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve seen as an organization.
“Kids understand you have to put in the time, and it has to be consistent if you want to be a good player. Or a great player. In the past, you played your sport in-season and went to the next sport, and went to the next sport. The kids that really want basketball as part of their skill set, they’re really ingrained more than ever in putting in the work consistently.”
With the pieces in place for basketball’s continued growth in the area, one significant question remains: can basketball compete with football for the top athletes in Western Pennsylvania, an area that is practically synonymous with football? While basketball holds a rich tradition in the area with names like John Calipari, the Miller family and the McConnell family serving as a few of the esteemed figures from Western Pennsylvania, football tends to draw the top athletes. Perhaps no player better epitomizes this trend than Terrelle Pryor, one of the most heralded athletes to ever emerge from the region. As a blue-chip recruit in both football and basketball, Pryor committed to play hoops at Pitt during his sophomore year at Jeanette High School. However, he later rescinded that commitment, electing to play quarterback at Ohio State instead. Pryor’s decision ultimately worked out well, as he currently plays wide receiver for the NFL’s Washington Redskins. His decision to switch the sport which he would pursue in college, though, did little for basketball’s overall perception in Western, PA.
In a recent article on The Guardian, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asserted that the NBA has replaced the NFL as the league of the future in the United States. Abdul-Jabbar cited chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other long term physical side effects as a primary cause for the forecasted shift in America’s top sport. In a football territory like Western Pennsylvania, it is fair to question whether awareness surrounding football-related brain trauma has led, and will lead, more young athletes to gravitate towards basketball at a young age. Steve Davis recognizes the injurious nature of football, but believes that players who choose basketball over football do so as a result of the NBA’s positive measures, and not because of the NFL’s long term consequences.
“I think what you’re seeing more is just that global movement that started back in ’92 with the Dream Team. Basketball’s picked up so much momentum on the global scale; it’s such a big business now with the way the NBA is investing in just the development. … There’s really a concerted effort to continue to move basketball forward.”
Only time will tell if more local athletes will focus on basketball in high school and beyond. After many years, though, the players who do select basketball can trust that Western Pennsylvania will provide a level of training on par with any other local sport. The opportunities to learn are there, and they are there all over the region.
“The easiest way to sum it up is it’s access,” said Davis. “You can go on our website. You can look at all the programs. We’ve got stuff going on throughout the week at different locations. When we get up into the spring time, we’re going to be running satellite locations. We’ve worked with high schools all over this area … And that’s just from a Scoring Factory perspective.”
He added, “There’s stuff like that going on all over Pittsburgh now.”