Elite Players Feel Cheated After COVID-19 Pandemic Forces Cancellations to Spring Tournaments

Jason Jordan

As a casual fan of college basketball recruiting, chances are you’ve never heard of Millbrook (Raleigh, N.C.) wing Eric Van Der Heijden.

He’s not a five-star prospect on the McDonald’s All American shoo-in shortlist, he doesn’t have millions of YouTube views on his highlight clips and his Instagram following is just south of 2,000.

All realities Van Der Heijden was perfectly fine to own since his masterplan was to change all of that this spring and summer while running with Team Wall (N.C.).

“Coming into the spring, I know that everyone says they’re going to blow up,” Van Der Heijden said. “But I’ve put in the work and it was all there for me I feel. Now, it’s not happening. I get why, but I feel cheated.”

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Van Der Heijden’s sentiments are shared by elite recruits around the country who were on the cusp of receiving high major offers after being evaluated during the high school season.

Last week, Nike, adidas and Under Armour announced the cancellation of the first two sessions of their spring/summer circuits due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA banned all in-person recruiting for college coaches until at least April 15.

The shoe circuit sessions were scheduled for April 17 and April 24, both stops were evaluation periods for college coaches.

“While we understand how disappointing this is for the athletes, their families, and our EYBL programs, in everything we do, we must prioritize the health and safety of our employees, athletes and consumers,” Nike said in a statement “One of the hallmarks of the EYBL is elite competition being evaluated by the top college coaches. We are working diligently to ensure that this season will provide additional evaluation opportunities for our athletes.”

While players understand the necessity of the cancellations and put a premium on safety they're coping with the reality of being without the game they love for a period of time.

“It’s so frustrating for guys like us,” Pace Academy (Atlanta) point guard Madison Durr said. “We put in all this work and do everything we’re supposed to do to set the table for the spring, and it gets taken away. It’s even more frustrating because it’s no one’s fault. That’s hard to deal with.”

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Van Der Heijden already had offers from schools like Boston College, Ole Miss, UNC Wilmington and George Washington and was receiving been heavy interest from schools like North Carolina, Virginia, Auburn, Notre Dame, Houston, Clemson and Tennessee, among many others; all with different variations of the same message: See you in the spring.

Don’t mistake that for a normal “coach speak” message either, not for a 6-foot-9 wing with a 7-1 wingspan who doubles as a three-point marksman from NBA range and efficient slashing and mid-range abilities.

Van Der Heijden was a mainstay at home games for a handful of those teams all season; with even a solid spring, conventional wisdom says most schools would’ve offered.

“That was my hope,” Van Der Heijden said. “I felt like the conversations were going that way.”

Van Der Heijden said after an 82-53 drubbing to No. 1 Montverde (Fla.) Academy in December, he realized the gap between he and Montverde’s host of five-star prospects and put in the work over the last three months to fill it.

“I know that I’m ready to compete against the best,” Van Der Heijden said. “Now, I don’t have the platform.”

Leesville Road (Raleigh, N.C.) point guard Carter Whitt certainly wasn’t hurting for offers coming into the spring with more than 17 offers from schools like Virginia Tech, Boston College, Indiana, N.C. State and Ohio State.

Paolo Bancerho 1
Top five junior Paolo Banchero wants his peers to get the opportuity to play in front of coaches.Jon Lopez

For Whitt, equal to potentially picking up more offers, was adding his fifth star as a recruit.

“I feel like everyone plays with a little bit of a chip because they feel like people shouldn’t be ranked ahead of them,” Whitt said. “I want to show that I can be that dude. I’m a four-star recruit and I want to get that fifth star but, most importantly, I want to prove that I can win games. I came to the EYBL because that’s where everyone was at. I had a couple names of guys that I was really looking forward to matching up against.”

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John Moore can relate to the frustration.

His son, Chance, missed all of last spring and summer with a knee injury and struggled to find his way on a new team at McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.) this high school season after averaging 27 points a game the previous high school season at Holy Innocents’ (Atlanta).

This summer, Chance, a 6-6 shooting guard, was set to run with the Alabama Fusion on the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League dead-set on raising his stock with schools like Georgia, LSU, Georgia Tech and Xavier in constant contact.

“I see how much work he puts into the game,” John said of Chance. “I see him up at 5 a.m. workouts and I know how badly he wants it. I was hopeful that he’d have the opportunity to rewrite his story, but that doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen.”

As a consensus top five player in the 2021 class, O’Dea (Seattle) forward Paolo Banchero doesn’t have to worry about making a name or earning high major offers.

Still, he said “it sucks” for players hoping to achieve that stature and pointed out Jaden McDaniels’ rise last summer.

McDaniels, now a freshman at Washington, began last spring as marginal prospect and dominated his way to becoming a consensus top 10 player in the 2019 class.

Four years ago, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Collin Sexton came into the EYBL unranked, but after leading the league in scoring he finished ranked in the top 10 and eventually was selected No. 8 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft after his freshman season at Alabama.

“Every year you have a couple guys that come out of nowhere and get every offer and jump into the top 5, top 10 and top 20,” Banchero said. “As a competitor, I want everyone to get that chance. It's all beyond our control, but it hurts lesser-known guys because they get less opportunities to show what they can do.”

McEachern point guard Sharife Cooper knows firsthand about seizing the opportunity the spring/summer season presents.

Two years ago, he skyrocketed up the rankings after dominating on the EYBL with AOT (Ga.) then led the prestigious Nike Peach Jam in scoring and assists.

In January, Cooper, an Auburn signee, was named to the McDonald’s All American Game, which was cancelled last week due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Opportunities like the EYBL don’t come around all the time,” Cooper said. “It’s the only time when every coach in the country is in the gym watching. I want everyone to stay safe, but I’m hoping they’ll play in the summer. Who knows, maybe the next star is out there, but he’s not getting the opportunity to be great so we may never know who he is.”

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