McDonald’s All-Americans still the gold standard in college hoops recruiting

At any one point, there are more than half a million teenage boys playing for their high school teams in America, according to numbers compiled by the NCAA. Of those, approximately 18,000 will go on to play college hoops —€” that’s 3.3 percent of high school players.

Division I, though? There are fewer than 5,000 scholarship spots on the 351 teams in Division I basketball. And some of those will go to players who are coming to the United States from an international background. So take away at least a few hundred of those scholarships.  

Why am I bringing this up? To explain why the basketball recruiting industry is such a huge business that’s fraught with the difficulty of projection and competition, as tons of players compete for only a few spots. And to explain why there’s really only one gold standard in this wild-west world of recruiting.

It also happens to explain why we insist on putting so damn many labels on high school kids. Name your label: He’s a top-100 recruit. He’s a five-star recruit (like Danuel House, who signed with Houston in 2012 but has since transferred to Texas A&M). Or he’s a four-star recruit (like Willie Cauley-Stein, who signed with Kentucky that same year and is now a national player of the year candidate.) A high school freshman is tall and talented, but he has a "low ceiling."

I was once at a summer recruiting event where an insider pointed out a high school kid dribbling up the court. This kid used to be the top-ranked sixth-grader in the country, the insider told me. Then he fell off the radar and struggled. Now he was climbing back up the rankings.

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Dear Lord.

This is so obviously silly, the idea of national rankings for sixth-graders, but it extrapolates to the entire wild world of college recruiting, where adults put enormous expectations on the shoulders of kids who haven’t hit adolescence.

That recruiting world? It’s a dizzying world — for college coaches of all levels, for players, for parents, for basketball journalists, because it’s all based on subjectivity and projections. It’s also a fascinating subculture of American sports. Because recruiting is such a guessing game.

I recently looked up the 2012 recruiting rankings on a reputable web site. Nik Stauskas, a Canadian who signed with Michigan, was ranked as the No. 75 recruit in college basketball. That was one spot ahead of Stephen Domingo, a California native who signed with Georgetown. Two years later, Stauskas was selected as a lottery pick in the NBA draft, while Domingo transferred home to Cal after two seasons of paltry playing time at Georgetown.

It’s such a hit-and-miss world, where so many of these titles we put on kids end up being pretty meaningless. MVP from some summer showcase? Yeah, there are dozens of those. But there’s one title that rises above all the rest in the hierarchical world of college basketball recruiting, the one title that carries more cachet than any and means more than all: McDonald’s All-American.

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Think about it: You never hear that Kentucky and Duke have a certain number of five-star recruits playing for them this season. Instead, you hear that they each have nine McDonald’s All-Americans on their rosters. Because that means something. And that, of course, is the biggest reason why they might be the best two teams in the country this season.

"The champions, the NBA All-Stars, the greatest players we see, the one thing they seem to have in common is they play in the McDonald’s All-American game," said Douglas Freeland, the director of the McDonald’s All-American Games.

Look, I get that this is starting to sound like some sort of McDonald’s infomercial. Like "I’m Lovin’ It" for college hoops, or however you want to troll me. Next, you might think how I’m about to tell you how nice it is that this game benefits Ronald McDonald House Charities. But all of the good stuff I’ll tell you about the McDonald’s All-American Games is true — there is exactly one gold standard for an elite high school basketball player, and it’s the Golden Arches.

This week, McDonald’s announced the more than 800 nominees for the 2015 McDonald’s All-American Games, which will be held April 1 in Chicago’s United Center —€” not coincidentally, a few days before the Final Four in nearby Indianapolis. "Games" because it’s for men and for women. The one where the money and the interest is, of course, is with the men.

Look at the list of nominees and you’ll see the high school kids who’ll be stars in college basketball over the next few years: Jaylen Brown, a senior from Georgia who is considering schools like Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA. Henry Ellenson, a small-town Wisconsin kid who recently signed with Marquette. Diamond Stone, a big man from Milwaukee who is one of the most sought-after bigs in the country.

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I asked Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who has signed likely McDonald’s All-American Jalen Brunson of Illinois, how much the title of McDonald’s All-American means to these kids.

"It’s something that a lot of players aspire to; you hear it a lot when they’re coming up in recruiting," Wright said. "When you get them, it’s always something that we try to assess in how being a McDonald’s All-American affects each individual player. Some see it as an end goal, and maybe they don’t get better. Some see it as a badge of honor, and they use it to improve themselves."

That, of course, is the big point here: That the McDonald’s All-American game should not be an end goal, but a marker on the way to a much bigger goal.

Freeland told me about the special moments when the players get to walk out on the floor at the United Center, the place where Michael Jordan won championships with the Chicago Bulls. The first McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago was in 2011. It was a standing-room-only crowd. Every game has sold out since. It’s a taste of what these players will experience at the next level — and, hopefully, the level after that.

"That Michael Jordan statue out front doesn’t hurt either," Freeland said. He paused, then said with a smile: "Another alumni!"

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.