New Pitt head coach Jeff Capel comes to the Panthers with the reputation of being an elite-level recruiter.
That’s a good thing, because if there’s one area where Pitt has been deficient for the longest, recruiting is probably the one.
Capel’s previous coaching stops involved taking VCU from a no-name mid-major to one of the game’s premier stopping points. He recruited Blake Griffin to Oklahoma, a state he’d never set foot in before accepting the head coaching job, and then he went to Duke, where his presence re-energized the recruiting efforts under longtime head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and turned the Blue Devils from a regular contender to a dominant force in recruiting.
How much of an impact did Capel have at his previous two positions? Many players, coaches, national writers and others have shared their opinion of Capel as a recruiter in the days since his hire became official.
“Jeff Capel just has a presence about him,” ESPN’s Rece Davis said. “Players gravitate to him because of his accomplishments but also because it’s instantly apparent he has their best interests at heart. Pitt will be a tough and relentless team. He will get players and develop them well.”
“The term ‘ace recruiter’ gets thrown out a little too frequently in college hoops,” said the Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach. “But, it’s the absolute best way to describe Jeff Capel and why he’s been so integral to Duke’s success over the past decade. This is a terrific hire for Pitt, and I can’t imagine it will take long at all for the Panthers to return to the level they expect to compete at.”
“Jeff Capel played a major part in my college decision,” former Duke and current Milwaukee Bucks player Jabari Parker said. “He has been a big brother figure in my life during my time at Duke and in the NBA. I’m very happy for this new chapter in his life and am always going be supportive of Coach Capel because our relationship goes beyond basketball.”
Of course, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t really answer the question of how much of an impact Capel will be able to have on Pitt’s recruiting outcomes. But we do have data to tell us the answer.
The 247 Sports class rankings database goes back to 2003. Excluding the transition years, Duke’s class average without Capel came in at 18.8. With Capel? Their average finish is 2.5. In the same time frame, Oklahoma’s average finish in recruiting rankings without Capel is 49.6 With him, the Sooners came in right about 26th on average.
Recruiting class rankings are just one way to look at the talent coming into the program. There’s a good way to measure it coming out, as well. Before Capel’s return to Durham, Duke averaged 1.3 players drafted into the NBA per season. Since his return, it sits as 2.4 per year, and will almost undoubtedly rise when this year’s team hits the draft board.
Oklahoma averaged one player drafted every three seasons without Capel. With him, it was one a year, with Griffin taking home the top pick.
There’s plenty of evidence there to suggest that under Capel, both Duke and Oklahoma saw an increase in talented players that came into the program and an increase in the number of players leaving for the NBA Draft.
Pitt could use a good bit of both. Pitt’s 2017 class was ranked 51st by 247 Sports, despite being 10 players deep. The 2016 class, a holdover from Jamie Dixon era, came in at No. 112. Pitt was No. 80 in 2015 and No. 87 in 2014. The last five-star player Pitt landed was Steven Adams in 2012, and that was also the same time Pitt’s class finished ranked in the Top 25.
There’s probably a number of reasons for Pitt’s decline in fortunes in recruiting. Many pointed the finger at Dixon, but staff turnover and the move from the Big East to the ACC probably played just as big of a part in the downturn as he did. Dixon has done well in recruiting since he landed at TCU.
The bigger issues are conference affiliation and geography. Pittsburgh hasn’t produced top basketball talent in a long time, and Pitt’s status as an at-best middle-of-the-road team since joining the ACC has meant that they’ve had to fight to keep the talented players that have come up locally.
For every DeJuan Blair, Cameron Johnson, Ryan Luther and Michael Young, there has been a Robby Carmody (Notre Dame), Sagabe Konate (West Virginia), Maverick Rowan (NC State) and Geno Thorpe (Penn State).
Without a firm hold on local talent, Pitt needs recruiting pipelines to other, more talent-rich locales. The Panthers had one to New York, where Dixon recruited the likes of Keith Benjamin, Tyrell Biggs, Levance Fields, Ashton Gibbs, Carl Krauser, Ronald Ramon and Travon Woodall out of the metro over the span of a few years. Dixon also had solid, if regular success in areas like Philadelphia (Mike Cook, Nasir Robinsons, Bradley Wanamaker), Baltimore (Jamel Artis, Jermaine Dixon) and Washington, D.C. (James Robinson, Sam Young).
Those pipelines, though, started to dry up significantly during the end of Dixon’s tenure. Pitt’s 2014 class included locals Johnson and Luther as freshmen, Beaver Falls native Sheldon Jeter as a transfer, and junior college product Tyrone Haughton. In 2015, it was Georgia native Damon Wilson and five transfers. In 2016, Dixon plucked Corey Manigault out of the D.C. area, but Justice Kithcart came from North Carolina in addition to another junior college transfer.
Things didn’t get much better under Kevin Stallings when it came to establishing any potential pipelines, though he only had one class to work with. Of the seven freshmen in the 2017 class, Pitt had two Nigerians, two Canadians, Terrell Brown from Rhode Island, Khameron Davis from Colorado and Parker Stewart from Tennessee.
It’s unknown if any of Pitt’s former staff will stay on under Capel, but it seems likely that much of the work that lies ahead will have to start from scratch. Capel said that he doesn’t envision himself limited his efforts to one area, at least not at first.
“I mean, emphasis? I think the East Coast,” he said. “But me, I believe I can recruit anywhere. I believe I can recruit a kid from anywhere if I get to know him, know the parents, build the relationship. I think we have the resources and things here, if we can get a kid on campus, where they would see the things that we would talk to them about. So I’m not putting a limit on just the East Coast or any particular area. We’re going to go after the best players wherever they are.”
Then there’s the topic of high-level players. It’s just unrealistic to expect Pitt to be able to compete with Duke for recruits, Capel or not. But can Capel’s past success help Pitt out-compete some of the more comparable programs in the conference? He thinks so.
“We got in the door with guys that maybe were above us when I was at VCU,” Capel said. “We certainly got in the door with guys — people didn’t think we could when I was at Oklahoma. So I have no doubt we can do that here.
“There’s a brand here. Being a part of the ACC, there’s a tradition here. There are facilities here, resources here. You have a great city. You have a great academic institution. I don’t see why we can’t. We’re going to go after it.”