Recruit Khadeem Lattin trailblazes abroad, faces critics at home
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Khadeem Lattin was discovered on a court in Europe. His mother, former USC star Monica Lamb, was playing for a pro team in Orchies, France, in 1994, when she began struggling uncharacteristically with her fitness. "Something was wrong," she said. "I was only 30, and I always trained hard and took the sport seriously, but all of a sudden I couldn't stay in shape. The reason, I found out pretty soon, was that I was pregnant."
There are 426 pages of rules in the NCAA's Division I manual, but none prohibits a player from participating in European pro games while still in the womb. Lattin was born in Houston in April 1995 with his amateur status intact. And in September 2011, when the then 16-year-old, 6-foot-9 forward became the first ranked American recruit to forego a high school season to play non-professionally in Europe -- by enrolling at the Canarias Basketball Academy on Spain's Gran Canaria Island -- he wasn't just acting as a trailblazer for the concept of a Hoop Year Abroad. Lattin was returning to his roots. He spent parts of the first three years of his life in Italy and Spain, uttered his first words in Spanish, and then moved to Houston for good when Lamb joined the WNBA's Houston Comets in 1998.
Lattin, a mature, worldly prospect whom ESPN recruiting expert Dave Telep called the "Renaissance man" of the Class of 2014, set his mind on a European season after going on an Italian tour with his Houston Select AAU team last summer. "I love trying new things and taking risks," said Lattin, who was back in the U.S. and attending the NBA Players' Association Top 100 camp last week at University of Virginia. "I figured [Canarias] would be an experience that would take me to a new level in life and basketball."
Here's what he didn't figure: That detractors would be everywhere -- even within his own family. A normal high-schooler embarking on a year abroad might be praised for his curiosity or, at worst, subjected to the jealousy of less-fortunate peers. But the decisions of high-profile basketball recruits are scrutinized on a different level, and some thought Lattin was engaging in a self-detrimental experiment. It seems that it is one thing to lament that the European system is superior at skill development (a generally accepted fact among NBA scouts), and a whole different thing to actually reject American training in favor of going overseas.
Even though Lattin was maintaining his NCAA eligibility at an academy that has sent 41 Europeans to Division I and is run by a former Cal-State Fullerton assistant, Rob Orellana -- this wasn't remotely like
Most cutting of all was what he heard from his famous, paternal grandfather, Dave "Big Daddy" Lattin, who starred on Texas Western's trailblazing 1966 national championship team that was portrayed in the 2006 movie
"[Dave] saw no benefit in it," Khadeem said. "He has slang where he says, 'judge,' and he told me, 'It's just a real bad look, judge. I don't understand it, judge.'"
Dave, when reached by SI.com, said he believed in Khadeem's future as a prospect, but remained upset that his grandson had gone to Europe. "It was his mom's decision, and I don't think it was a good one," Dave said. "Those are kids [at Canarias] from all over the world who are trying to get over here to play, and she took him over there. I tried to talk her out of it, but it is what it is. I'm just hopeful that he can catch back up."
While Khadeem had final say on the move, it was Lamb's idea: She was fond of the 14 years she played in Europe, wanted to "well-round" her son, and worried that as a 6-9 underclassman in the U.S., Lattin would get stuck playing too much at center, which was unlikely to be his college position. They initially looked at Italian club teams, but finding no NCAA-friendly options, turned their sights to Canarias, which seemed like a perfect fit.
Lamb was refreshed to see 7-footers there, such as Florida State-bound Slovakian giant Boris Bojanovsky, being required to develop some of the same skills as guards. And its daily regimen would hardly be a vacation for Lattin. It typically began at 5 a.m., with a three-hour practice and workout, followed by a full day of academics at a British-style prep school, and then another practice in the evening -- all of which often pushed Lattin to his mental and physical limits.
"I don't want to say it was torture," he said, "but it was extremely militant. I was doing nothing but school and basketball, with no distractions. It's not that we were afraid I wouldn't progress [in America] -- it's just that this was more concentrated, like I unlocked a cheat code."
There was, however, the worry that he was out of sight, out of mind to influential evaluators in the U.S. Lattin's friends inquired about him (so much that his Twitter profile states,
"I woke up one day in Spain, went online to look at the rankings, and it was like they forgot about me," he said.
Therefore, when Lattin's AAU team, Houston Select, pitched him on rejoining them for spring events, he was more inclined to commit, taking a multi-week trip back to the U.S. -- much to Canarias' chagrin, since they were gearing up for playoffs in Spain. Orellana said he could tell that Lattin was "torn" between Canarias' skill-development plan for him and the AAU scene in the states, where Lattin's 2012 performances have been a mixed bag. ESPN downgraded him from four- to three-star status after a lackluster showing in the spring, but Telep said that Lattin played impressively enough at June's Pangos All-American and Nike Top 100 camps to warrant a re-evaluation. (An injury limited Lattin's playing time, and therefore ability to be evaluated, at the NBPA camp.)
Two of the big questions surrounding Lattin this summer are whether he'll opt to reclassify to the Class of 2013 -- he's in good enough academic standing to do so -- and if he'll opt to re-matriculate at a Houston high school for 2012-13. The odds are that he won't return for a second season in Spain. Lattin said he's leaning toward remaining in the U.S., and Lamb said she initially viewed Canarias as a one-year adventure, and doesn't want him to miss out on important parts of the American high school experience.
(There is also an unresolved issue with Canarias and the NCAA. SI.com learned that in an April memo to recruiters, the NCAA's interpretation staff, making a judgment based solely off of a lack of information on Canarias' website, declared Canarias a non-scholastic team despite its attachment to a prep school. That meant that while Canarias players were still recruitable, college coaches were not allowed to visit the academy's practices during the April evaluation period, limiting prospects' potential for exposure. That designation may not be permanent, though. Canarias has updated its website with details of its academic affiliation -- its model is very similar to that of Nevada's Findlay Prep or Florida's IMG Academy, both of which are in good standing -- and an NCAA spokesperson told SI.com that they were in the process of reviewing information on Canarias' status.)
If Lattin does stay in Houston, it will be difficult to answer the biggest question of all: Was Europe better for him than America? Neither he nor Lamb are willing to state that one system is superior, although Lattin says that the increased amount of court time at Canarias was an advantage -- as is the fact that after this experience abroad, he's unlikely to be fazed by going away to college. Lamb says that Lattin got stronger and expanded his offensive game. And local prep coaches haven't lost interest. As soon as Lattin returned to Houston and put his American SIM card back in his phone, coaches bombarded him with calls, begging him to attend their schools. Lattin said one coach told him, "I'll get you right" -- as if to suggest that something needed to be fixed.
In truth, Lattin was not in Spain long enough for anyone to render a verdict on how his game was affected. What his case may have proved is that no matter how worldly you are, and no matter how beat-up the reputation of American youth basketball is, if you're a high-profile product of the American system, cutting ties from it isn't easy. The system is just as likely to take offense as it is to hail you as a innovator. You might be praised for your newfound maturity -- as Lucas did of Lattin at the NBPA Camp -- all the while being diagnosed as someone who needed to get an experiment out of his system. "I think Khadeem is mature enough after this," Lucas said, "to realize that he has everything he needs right here at home."