Roughly 38 miles north of Bank of America Stadium, where Baker Mayfield and the Carolina Panthers hold serve on the gridiron, the glorious September sun beams through majestic, 80-year-old oak trees and blankets the 52-acre campus at Combine Academy.
The boarding school sits near the middle of Lincolnton, N.C., a city that oozes Southern charm, where chain restaurants are scarce, mom-and-pop shops thrive, and 10-foot-tall cornstalks provide an ethereal backdrop for the boundless porch swings.
The Zen vibe is a stark contrast to the organized chaos that’s ensuing inside of John Jordan Gymnasium near the back of Combine’s campus.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Lincolnton was the site of the Revolutionary War’s infamous Battle of Ramsour’s Mill, because on this warm September afternoon, wars are being waged on two fronts: among the Goats players during the intrasquad scrimmages at the open gym and on the sidelines where a handful of college coaches look on from the black tables lining the court’s west side in hopes of luring some of the country’s top prospects to their school.
The Goats have had a revolving door of coaches since the NCAA’s recruiting period commenced Sept. 9. Combine is a hot spot for coaches with its stable full of Division I prospects, including their big three of uncommitted top prospects: Trentyn Flowers, Silas Demary Jr. and Rakease Passmore.
The Goats finished No. 13 in the final SB Live/SI Power 25 national basketball rankings last season and are arguably deeper this season, but first-year coach Mike Wright can’t watch the current on-court product for one more minute.
Perhaps it’s nerves or subconscious overzealousness, but the lack of execution in the warmup drills and “bad habits” have officially ticked off Wright to the point of a halting action for a brief yet stern tongue-lashing.
“You’re getting out of character,” Wright says. “Get back in character. Quick.”
Wright posted five, 20-plus win seasons at Liberty Heights (Charlotte) before taking over to replace former North Carolina and NBA point guard Jeff McInnis this season.
Wright has been fielding calls from coaches all morning, coordinating schedules and moving times around to accommodate the inevitable travel mishaps.
Alabama is supposed to be courtside to see Demary and Flowers right now, but their flight got delayed, which means Wright must stay at the school until nighttime to give the staff ample time to see the prospects work out.
Wright’s perspective on the recruiting period is simply that two things can be simultaneously true: He can “love this stuff” and “it can be a lot.”
“It creates an opportunity for these kids, so I won’t complain,” Wright says. “I got the pass from my wife to just stay here for the coaches tonight, so, yeah, it can be a lot, too. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, though.”
Passmore clearly got Wright’s memo, draining back-to-back three-pointers, then showing off his 46-inch vertical leap with a vicious tomahawk slam that left the majority of the coaches wide-eyed.
The consensus from press row is that the 6'6" junior guard has been the best player on the floor thus far.
“I don’t know if he’s a better athlete or shooter now,” one college coach says. “In the summer it was his athleticism, but he’s been working on that jump shot, clearly.”
This summer, Passmore averaged 21 points a game for Garner Road (N.C.) in the Adidas 3SSB circuit. That production earned him offers from Auburn, N.C. State, Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M, among others, while Oregon, Iowa State and UCLA have upped their interest recently.
“Things went crazy this summer,” Passmore says. “My thing after the summer was to work on my jump shot more than anything. I’ve been doing 200 makes a day since then, and it’s paying off for me.”
It’s the coaches’ first in-person look at prospects since late July, when they were still scouring the country for talent. September is all about face time and the reinforcement of why they’re wanted and needed.
At this point, Demary, a senior point guard, is clear on which schools are prioritizing him. He’s fresh off a “great” official visit to N.C. State and has already taken an official to USC.
“I’d say it’s N.C. State, Wake Forest, Oklahoma, St. John’s, VCU and USC who are prioritizing me right now,” Demary says. “Some guys want the schools here on the first day of the recruiting period, but I don’t need that. I do notice which schools are sending their head coaches to see me. They can say anything, but when the head coach actually comes, it’s different. I don’t mind when he comes as long as he comes.”
Kendall Campbell’s focus for the recruiting period is much different. Once upon a time, Campbell boasted offers from Georgia, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and many other schools, but when he tore his ACL last summer the interest waned after missing his entire high school season at Milton (Ga.).
The versatile 6'8" forward reclassified from 2022 to ’23 to give himself another year to potentially recoup the love, and while the schools haven’t rescinded the offers, the prevailing message is that they want to see how he looks postsurgery.
“That’s fair,” Campbell says. “So I need the recruiting period. It’s more real for me. You never think that a serious injury can happen to you, but when basketball was taken from me for that time, something just clicked. I’m committed like I’ve never been before. This is my dream I’m talking about.”
Campbell’s passion is downright palpable, and his energy has caught the attention of the cohort of coaches.
“Love his motor,” one coach says to another.
“He’s back for sure,” another coach says. “He’s added some stuff to his game, too.”
This time last year, Silas was in Campbell’s position, hoping to grab the attention of high major coaches during the recruiting period. His path shifted over the summer, pumping in 15 points, six rebounds and five assists a game while running with Team Curry (N.C.). Then when he made the top 10 at the prestigious NBPA Top 100 Camp in June, Demary instantly transitioned from potential backup-plan prospect to a must-have recruit for Power 5 programs.
“The best thing you can do to stand out in the recruiting period is be yourself,” Demary says. “If the coach is here watching you, he already knows you can play. Just be the best version of the guy who he came to see. I don’t have that stress on me to get noticed by the coaches anymore, but I do have the stress of this decision on me.”
With two full years left in high school, Flowers is “super loose” at open gym. He opened the session running through shooting drills with an assistant coach before parking at the scorer’s table for the duration of the workout. The 6'8" wing is nursing an ankle injury from the summer, but “should” be cleared by mid-October.
“I hate sitting out,” Flowers says. “But I’ve gotta get back to 100%.”
Flowers arrived at Combine only two weeks ago after transferring from Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.), where he teamed up with Bronny James last season.
Flowers is the highest-rated player on the Goats’ roster with everyone from North Carolina to Duke, Alabama, Texas, Oregon and Kansas, among many others, all clocking his every move.
Most of the schools have stopped by or have informed him they’re coming to check in.
“It’s cool to see the coaches still come out to see me even though I’m not playing,” Flowers says. “But I don’t need that.”
Just then Flowers pauses, ponders briefly and retracts his last statement.
“Nah, I’d still like for you to come by and talk to me, actually,” Flowers says. “It’s like this: I won’t hold it against you if you don’t, but if you do, that’s my type of school and coach for sure.”
Coaches are well aware that Flowers's plans to cut his inordinate list of schools down to a more workable 13 on Oct. 13 and are maneuvering to put themselves in optimal position. Recently, Flowers told Sports Illustrated he wanted his new list to consist of schools that have offered him and has since picked up five.
“The coaches are coming a little harder now,” says Flowers, who will take official visits to Memphis on Oct. 6 and Georgia State on Oct. 28. “I want all offers, but Duke and Kentucky haven’t offered yet, unfortunately. I could see myself putting one of those schools on the list depending on the level of the interest, so I guess we’ll just see.”
Just then, Campbell drains a turnaround jump shot to end what’s supposed to be the last scrimmage of the session. The team huddles at midcourt for a quick recap, but Wright glances at his watch and realizes there’s time for one more game.
He motions to his assistant to run it back and calls out which teams will be featured in the finale.
Even in the preseason, Wright, a meticulous tactician of a coach, is in full postseason form, balancing the urge to critique every play and remembering the players are less than two weeks into workouts with three separate Combine teams currently represented on the floor.
“These aren’t just my national guys, so I have to be patient with some of them,” Wright says.
Still, before this final scrimmage kicks off, Wright pops out of his courtside chair and urges the team to play harder for the finale.
Demary pushes the issue offensively, recognizing matchup advantages and exploiting them with his speed and strength. He caps off the game on a layup through contact after leaving his defender at the top of the key on a blow-by dribble.
“Game,” Demary says.
Players line up single file and walk in front of the table shaking hands with each coach and thanking them for coming out. Coaches briefly meet with select players off to the side, sharing laughs and small critiques, but mostly just for face-to-face time.
When the coaches file out, the national team sticks around to run plays, while Flowers hoists shots and runs drills at the opposite end of the court.
Wright splits his time between tediously picking apart the running of the offense and working the phones with college coaches.
“It’s never-ending on these phones, man,” Wright says with a laugh. “It’s a good thing, though.”
In mere hours, Alabama will stop by to see Flowers to add to Demary’s “good headache” that is the recruitment process by offering him a scholarship, the dream scenario of the recruiting period. The 6'5" floor general plans to have a decision made before the start of the season in early November.
“It’s wild, because you do everything you can to be in this position where all these coaches are coming to your gym,” Demary says. “But you don’t realize how hard the actual decision is. I get anxious about it sometimes, but this is what I wanted when I wasn’t in this position during the recruiting period last year. This is what we all want. I try to always remember that.”
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