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Elite Basketball Recruits’ Interest in HBCU Still Real, Less Loud

HBCU coaches say elite high school basketball players remain receptive to joining their schools.

This time last year, it had been roughly six months since the killing of George Floyd and racial tensions remained high as an abundance of Black Lives Matter protests and marches brought out countless world leaders, celebrities and athletes to speak against racism, inequality and police brutality.

The trickle down, as it pertained to the college basketball recruiting space, was an influx of interest from elite high school stars in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

Top players who customarily post offers via social media from college basketball heavyweights like Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke, were trading in the blue blood offer announcements to feature offers from HBCU like Howard, Hampton and North Carolina A&T.

“It was a beautiful thing,” said elite 2022 combo guard Skyy Clark. “I committed to Kentucky because it was the perfect fit for me, but I loved to see the HBCU get the attention. It’s always been a question about why players don’t look at HBCU more, but last year we saw a lot of top guys putting out that they were interested in them.”

Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25, 2020, after being pinned beneath police officers, one of whom kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, as he was detained. Floyd repeatedly told the officers that he couldn’t breathe.

RELATED: Elite HS players fear NIL could put focus on fame over work

The officer who kneeled, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison last month.

A year and a half later, with less national headlines surrounding racial and social issues, the social media posts have halted to an extremely slow drip at best, which begs the question: Is HBCU interest still real among elite players or was it all just a knee-jerk reaction to the moment?

Howard coach Kenny Blakeney remains in contention for top HS players.

Howard coach Kenny Blakeney remains in contention for top HS players.

Howard men’s basketball coach Kenny Blakeney said it’s “still very real,” but that “the narrative is a lot less focused than it was last year.”

Blakeney made history last July when landed consensus top 15 player Makur Maker, giving the Bison the highest rated player in the modern recruiting era to commit to a HBCU.

Unfortunately, Maker never got to shine on the big stage.

He suffered an injury two games into last season then Howard was forced to cancel its season due to COVID-19 related issues.

Now, Maker is playing professionally with the Sydney Kings in the NBL in Australia. 

“There was such an intentional focus surrounding the horrible murder of Mr. George Floyd at the time,” Blakeney said. “It’s been over a year, and, as things do, it’s died down. As a result, players and their families wanting to have the association of HBCU and their recruitments has not been the same. It’s still there, it’s just not as loud.”

When Maker committed to Howard he said his goal was “to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow.” He specifically named Mikey Williams as one of the rising high school stars he wanted to influence “to join me on this journey."

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Williams, a junior, is the most popular high school athlete in the country with an Instagram following that eclipses 3.4 million and friends like Drake and Da Baby, as well as NBA superstars like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.

In July, Williams inked a deal with Excel Sports Management, becoming the first high school basketball star to sign with a major sports agency to pursue name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsements. 

Last month, he inked a multiyear deal with Puma, making him the first American high school basketball player to sign a sneaker deal with a global footwear company.

Williams’ mother, Charisse Williams, was a star softball player at prestigious HBCU Hampton University and in August his father, Mahlon Williams, said his son is “leaning toward” playing at a HBCU.

RELATED: NCCU coach LeVelle Moton nearly landed John Wall in HS

Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul is doing his part to keep HBCU at the forefront, consistently sporting HBCU paraphernalia before and after games. His Winston Salem State hoodie was a go-to look for him during the NBA Finals this summer.

Paul talked about the importance of promoting HBCU, and recently produced the docuseries “Why Not Us,” which followed HBCU powerhouse North Carolina Central.

Paul, who played two years at Wake Forest before going on to the NBA, is currently studying Communications at Winston-Salem State University.

Chris Paul is bringing the spotlight to HBCU.

Chris Paul is bringing the spotlight to HBCU.

“Just trying to make sure that they get that spotlight,” Paul said.

North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton contends that while the spotlight is currently illuminated it's not aligned with the trend; and therein lies the problem.

“These kids do what’s trendy, it’s the world we live in,” Moton said. “Whatever’s hot is the wave they ride. The bottom line is this: When it comes to decision time are they gonna turn down the aesthetics and glitz and glamour and go with the culture?"

If the gridiron is any indication, blue blood programs may need to be nervous.

On Wednesday, the first day of football's National Signing Day, five-star wide receiver Travis Hunter, the No. 1 player in the SI99 rankings, flipped from Florida State to play for Seminoles legend Deion Sanders at Jackson State.

Elijah Fisher, a junior who is widely regarded as a top 10 basketball player in the 2023 class, said he wants to normalize HBCU offers being a big deal.

“I got offered by Morgan State and it’s a big deal for me,” Fisher said. “I think it’s important to support the schools that predominantly have people that look like me there. I love that Morgan State is a HBCU.”

Typically, players in Fisher’s position opt for schools in Power 5 conferences to maximize resources and exposure, but Fisher said, “It may be time to change things.”

Blakeney's Bison recently made the top eight for elite junior forward Sean Stewart, and Ron Holland, arguably the top junior forward in the country, took a visit to Tennessee State in October.

"I like the idea of making history," Holland told SI. "That's what they're pushing, and it makes sense to me." 

Cade Cunningham never had the option.

Cunningham, who went No. 1 overall to the Detroit Pistons in this year's NBA Draft, grew an affinity for HBCU watching the famous Prairie View A&M-Grambling rivalry while growing up in Texas.

Still, when it came to his recruitment, Cunningham never received any interest, likely because of his stature as a top five player with top pick projections even in high school.

Cunningham, who eventually picked Oklahoma State, said he would’ve “seriously considered” HBCU had they reached out.

“I definitely support any younger guys that want to go to HBCU,” Cunningham said. “I think that would be a great step.”

Still, Blakeney said while ultimately landing elite prospects is the obvious goal, the attention top tier players bring by reciprocating interest in HBCU via social media “definitely helps.”

“I think any time that we can bring light to our HBCU, especially young men with social media followings reaching tens of thousands, that’s a good thing,” Blakeney said. “Just seeing what took place since Mr. Floyd’s murder, and seeing Makur come to Howard and grow and develop even as a one-and-done type player is a positive. He’s a guy who will have a chance to achieve his goals and dreams, and that’s the ultimate goal.”