Trae Young was used to drawing big crowds at Norman North High School, but on this February day in 2017, the hundreds that had gathered to watch him weren’t there to see him nail insane shots or send impressive passes flying. Instead they watched as he fiddled with a microphone—not yet used to the press-conference-esque setup the high school had staged for its scrawny, 6’2 star’s big announcement—with a gold chain peeking out of his zip-up sweatshirt, ready for the most highly-anticipated announcement of his basketball career to date.
When the moment finally came for Young to announce his college commitment, the room erupted—loud enough that one Norman North teacher remembers immediately reaching for the remote to dial the volume down on the live stream being broadcast in classrooms, offices and homes alike throughout the city that she, and countless other community members, were using to watch Young unveil his future team. The prized recruit had pulled a red Oklahoma hat from under the table at which he sat, spurning offers from traditional powers Kansas and Kentucky to play college ball in his hometown of Norman.
The city’s own hoops hero—an undersized five-star point guard and top-25 recruit in the class of 2017—was staying to play for his home state Sooners.
It had been done before, with players like Penny Hardaway committing to his hometown Memphis Tigers (then known as Memphis State), where he now coaches, in the early 1990s, but the appeal of staying close to home fell out of favor with the emergence of the one-and-done era. When the league made high schoolers ineligible for the draft in 2006, requiring them to be at least a year removed from graduation before being able to declare, many players were propelled to join the most talented teams and play for the most prestigious programs to maximize exposure and experience in minimal time. In his decision, Young had disregarded what had become the college basketball status quo.
“It was crazy,” Young tells Sports Illustrated. “I knew Norman was my city—I grew up there, I’d lived there since I was five—but that’s when I really knew that it was supposed to be my school too.”
The Oklahoma native isn’t the only blue-chipper who decided to stay close to home. More than a year later, Romeo Langford sat—with his own offer from Kansas, as well as another from North Carolina—on a podium at New Albany High School, less than two hours from Indiana’s Assembly Hall, when he committed to his home state Hoosiers in 2018. Darius Garland, Tennessee’s own Mr. Basketball, said he “loved the thought of staying home and going to Vanderbilt” in front of a packed auditorium at Brentwood Academy the same year. Garland, the No. 14 ranked recruit, per 247Sports, and Langford, No. 7, followed in Young’s footsteps, snubbing the traditional blue blood powerhouse programs (Garland also had offers from Kentucky and UCLA, among others) to play for his local school.
The 2019 class took things to another level. For the first time since Derrick Favors picked Georgia Tech in 2009, the country's top recruit—this time James Wiseman—committed to his hometown school, electing to go less than two miles down the road from his high school in joining Hardaway-led Memphis. Three other top-10 recruits stayed in-state as well: Georgia’s Anthony Edwards (No. 2), Washington's Jaden McDaniels (No. 8) and Arizona’s Nico Mannion (No. 9), with multiple other top-30 prospects also staying local. In the process, their decisions have altered the NCAA landscape, increasing competition and shifting the balance of college basketball power.
And while the announcements have also upgraded—Wiseman made his decision to play for his hometown Tigers in a packed Memphis East auditorium while live on national television on ESPN’s SportsCenter, CBS Sports traveled to Atlanta, Ga., to broadcast Edwards’s decision to travel just 70 miles east to play for Tom Crean in Athens—the reactions, of course, remain the same as when Young warmed the hearts of Oklahomans two years prior on a local livestream.
“We are changing the culture of college ball a lot,” Edwards, the highest-ranked prospect to ever play for the Bulldogs and the program's first five-star commit since Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2011, says. “A lot more top kids in the country are going to hopefully feel like they can commit to their hometown schools once they see how we end up doing, just like we did after we saw Trae [Young] and Romeo [Langford] and those guys.”
Reverberations of the announcement Young made that foggy February day at Norman North still echo to this day. Watching the now-second year point guard get drafted No. 5 in the NBA after one season with the Sooners, then start for the Hawks as a rookie, reaffirmed—and, for some, inspired—the decisions the other like-minded local prospects made, Edwards included.
In each of the last three years, increasingly higher caliber recruits have opted to play for the program they grew up with, as opposed to the program they grew up idolizing. But it wasn’t always this way.
“My dad always loved the thought of me going to a blueblood school,” Young says. “He played at Texas Tech. For him, the guys who played in the NBA were the ones who went to the blues. So, I waited a long time to commit. I was still considering that aspect of it because I knew I wanted to go pro. But I wanted to take on the challenge of going against the grain and doing something different.”
Much of the confidence to commit to a less-historically prestigious program is a product of environment. For today’s hometown heroes, the exposure promised by playing for Duke or Kentucky no longer feels as pertinent. Instead, they know thousands will still watch their highlights on YouTube or Instagram, even if their games don’t fill a primetime television slot.
“Social media has been huge in helping the world understand who these kids are, what they can do and what their game is,” Tennessee’s own Hardaway, the coach who landed Wiseman to lead his 2019 Memphis class, says. “An NBA scout, a future coach, anyone can go and see these kids play online. There’s not as much of a need for them to feel like they have to go to a school that will get them national attention.”
The same social media attention that puts college players on the professional radar starts in high school, when hundreds of mixtapes from accounts named things like “Ballislife” and “ModernHoops” make their way around the internet.
“A lot of the players coming up get so blown up in high school now that it starts there,” Young says. “Look at Zion [Williamson] or even James [Wiseman]. Most of the top recruits end up being the top draft prospects, those are the same guys all over highlight reels. It’s more just about maintaining that hype and level of play. Now you can blow up before you even get to college and go star at a not-as-big-basketball school and it can actually benefit you. Guys who play at bluebloods now can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.”
Young saw Oklahoma, which went from the Final Four to an 11-win season in the months before he committed, as an opportunity to help re-elevate the Sooners' status as well as his own. He could begin to build something in his city while getting guaranteed playing time in a competitive Big 12 conference. Big fish, little pond. Bluebloods present the potential for the opposite problem: Lots of prized recruits in one incoming class can put top prospects into a little fish in a big pond sort-of situation.
Take Marques Bolden, the top-ranked center in the class of 2016: The 6’11” Texas high school star joined three other five-stars in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class at Duke, but as a freshman, the once-projected lottery pick played just 6.5 minutes per game through 24 appearances. Bolden ultimately spent three seasons with the Blue Devils before declaring for the NBA draft, two years after many had expected when he committed to Duke. Bolden then went undrafted.
A pair of five-star prospects in Kentucky’s 2017 signing class struggled with similar situations: point guard Quade Green and center Nick Richards, who slotted in as the No. 26 and No. 18 ranked recruits, respectively. With fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander running the floor and Hamidou Diallo, the highest-rated recruit in Calipari’s No. 2 ranked class that year, at the two, Green didn’t start. His impact muted by the star power that surrounded him, Green stayed for his sophomore season after Gilgeous-Alexander went No. 11 in the draft that spring. But his minutes fell the next season as a new wave of talented youngsters took the floor for the Wildcats, prompting his eventual midseason transfer to Washington after just nine games.
Richards, who had to compete for playing time in the frontcourt with the likes of Kevin Knox, Wenyen Gabriel and PJ Washington, saw just 14.7 minutes per game his freshman campaign. He too stayed for a second season, but his minutes average dropped to 12.1 after the Wildcats added five-star EJ Montgomery and transfer Reid Travis. Richards waded into the NBA draft waters after his sophomore showing before deciding to return to Kentucky this spring for a third season.
Playing on a stacked college team often means becoming a fourth, fifth or even sixth option. A class like the loaded 2017 Kentucky crew, with eight enrollees (six of whom were five-stars) is bound to have bench players. And while Young might’ve paved over the path that inspires today’s prospects to consider not joining already-loaded rosters, he wasn’t the first one to walk it—top recruits have opted against bluebloods before. The level of comfort that today’s recruits feel with the choice to stay home, however, didn’t always exist, and it had especially dwindled as the world watched one-and-dones dominate at the country’s most prestigious programs.
“It definitely wasn’t a fashionable choice when I picked [Memphis] back in the day,” Hardaway says. “I was the No. 1 ranked player in the country, and I chose to stay home with a team that wasn’t winning national championships or making Final Fours. I wanted to make a difference, to be that extra piece that could get us to that next level.”
Hardaway, whose number was retired by the Tigers after averaging 20.0 points across his two seasons at home, returned last year to rebuild the Memphis basketball program. Eight months later, he brought Wiseman on board to help him land what would become 2019’s top-ranked recruiting class. Hardaway had coached Wiseman in high school at Memphis East, leveraging both his connection to the class’s most promising prospect and his own experience staying home in his recruitment of the seven-foot star.
“I think it’s the same from James’s point of view: it wasn’t fashionable for him to stay home but he knew he could do it and still be successful,” Hardaway acknowledges. “He wanted to be part of something big here at home.”
Memphis in particular is a program that has historically prospered when the top local players stay home: Larry Finch in the 1970s; Keith Lee and Andre Turner in the 1980s; Hardaway, the most notable of the bunch, and Lorenzen Wright in the 1990s. So while the decisions today's youngsters are making might be uncommon, they’re not entirely new. They’re trending back toward what eventual NBA greats like Hardaway once did, a trend that’s trajectory plummeted with the arrival of one-and-dones on the college basketball scene. None of the 2019 class’s top three will play for the old money: this year’s top two will play for their hometown teams (Wiseman and Edwards) and the third, Isaiah Stewart, although not a Washington native, was influenced by the idea of playing alongside one—Federal Way (Wash.) High School's McDaniels—who he knew was also leaning toward playing for the Huskies.
The appeal is about investing in the place that invested in you, about helping to build something at home and being close to family and fans, Edwards explains, but it’s also about draft stock security—something that he, along with Young and Hardaway, sees as easier to ensure in an era where eight of this year’s NBA draft lottery picks only played one lone season in college but still had all the hype of a long-time player. Contending for a national title, making a deep March Madness run or securing Bill Self's endorsement isn’t necessary anymore.
For hometown heroes, the same end result can now be accomplished by simply benefitting from being the big fish. They’ve already earned enough exposure by the time they step on the college scene to carry them all the way to Barclays Center.
“The message these kids are sending today says it’s not definite that you need to go to a large basketball school to make it to the NBA,” Hardaway says. “They’ve all already set the tone for themselves from going to USA Basketball to playing in different camps to having their national rankings so public. They don’t feel like a college has to make them for them to know where they’re going.”
Edwards, for example, doesn’t want Georgia to make him. Instead, he wants to be part of laying the foundation for what the Bulldogs are building.
“Blues are used to having players that are one-and-dones but I didn’t want to do that and just play with people I knew could go to the league,” Edwards says. “I wanted to lead the team and be part of bringing them back on their feet. I know Georgia doesn’t have the status or whatever but we’re going to build something there. And you don’t need the status so to speak when you’ve got social media and SportsCenter and highlights and stuff.”
In the age of one-and-done, it’s not easy to establish an elite program and then maintain that level. That’s where hometown recruits come in. With a natural connection to the school, coaches can secure commitments from prized recruits who otherwise may not have considered playing for them, elevating their team’s status instantaneously.
The thought of building something as a player likely projected as a lottery pick come next draft is almost antithetical. The appeal of helping to build a program is a sentiment shared by all of the players in this story, yet none expect, or expected, to stay at their respective schools for more than a single season. But contributing what they can, while they can, to their hometown team, even if only for a matter of months, matters. Connection becomes the central component in a coach’s recruitment of a homegrown prospect—that, and the alluring promise of a rise to prominence for both the individual and the program.
By successfully securing commitments from their city’s own born-and-bred talent, coaches begin building. Even by securing the commitment of someone like Wiseman for a single season, Hardaway was able to lure other prospects, like Boogie Ellis—the No. 37 ranked recruit who had originally committed to Duke—to Memphis. The talent in the incoming class also serves as a selling point for Hardaway. Wiseman will help him woo future stars to play for the Tigers, even after he turns pro.
Beyond the impact these prospect’s decisions have on a particular program is the effect on the entire NCAA landscape. Local kids playing for their local teams diversifies talent among additional programs, subsequently shifting the balance of power that was once exclusively held by the tried and true blues.
“It widens the range of players and the amount of talent around each conference,” Young says. “James Wiseman could’ve gone wherever he wanted, instead he’s helping Memphis compete. It does huge things for the college scene. Those are going to be the guys who tear it up and change the climate.”
Hardaway handily dethroned Duke from the No. 1 recruiting class slot for the first time since 2015 with what he was able to accomplish after Wiseman committed. Memphis gave Coach K’s perennial powerhouse a new competitor on the recruiting scene and on the court.
“College hoops are way more competitive, and more fun, when talent gets split up among more schools,” Langford says.