Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
With Briscoe on Brink of Announcing, Steve Lavin Has Everything on the Line; John Calipari Not So Much
Sometime after 6 p.m. Eastern tonight, Isaiah Briscoe will sit in an ESPN studio in Bristol, Conn., and announce where he plans to play college basketball.
Somewhere in New York City, St. John’s coach Steve Lavin — who is in the fifth year of a six-year deal — will have just about everything on the line.
Of the three schools the 6-foot-3 Roselle (N.J.) Catholic point guard is considering — St. John’s, Kentucky and UConn — no school has more invested — and more at stake — than St. John’s.
If Briscoe picks the Johnnies, “it means that within the shadow of New York City, he’ll probably be the highest-profile guy that they’ve gotten in their immediate recruiting area in a long, long time,” longtime New York recruiting expert Tom Konchalski told me over the phone Wednesday. “It gives them more recruiting credibility, No. 1. And he obviously is a very talented player.
“He’s much more of a critical recruit for St. John’s than for Kentucky. At Kentucky, he’s just another outstanding player, of which they have so many.”
(UConn, despite being the reigning NCAA champion, appears to be third in the mix and at this point it would be a complete stunner if Briscoe picked the Huskies.)
Lavin has been recruiting Briscoe for several years, zeroing in on him as the lynchpin of their 2015 recruiting class, while Kentucky coach John Calipari and his staff only began seriously recruiting Briscoe in August after he led the New Jersey Playaz to their first Peach Jam title in July.
It’s tough to overstate how important a recruit Briscoe could be for St. John’s.
First off, they have six seniors on a roster that is expected to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth, which would be Lavin’s first since he took St. John’s to the 2011 tournament with Norm Roberts’ players.
St. John’s could also lose sophomore point guard Rysheed Jordan and/or junior big man Chris Obekpa to the pros, necessitating a complete rebuild of the roster.
Lavin needs to recruit five or six quality players for next season — including three or four guards. Briscoe, although he would be just a freshman, could not only come in and play a critical role for St. John’s in 2015-16, he would also theoretically attract other elite players to follow him. St. John’s has targeted Long Island big man Cheick Diallo and Louisiana guard Brandon Sampson, both of whom will commit in the spring.
“He’s not really a point guard, but he’s a very good passer,” Konchalski said of Briscoe. “And you don’t want to take away his scoring because that’s probably what he does right now best of all. But of all the kids in the senior class, he might be the most tapped into social media, so hopefully he’ll be a good recruiter for them. He’ll attract other good players, not just because he’s talented, but because he’s a likable kid.”
Second, landing Briscoe — who won’t sign an NLI until the spring — would be a positive PR hit for St. John’s at a time when they desperately need it. In the last two weeks, the Johnnies have had not one, but two, frontcourt players declared academically ineligible in freshman Adonis De La Rosa and junior college transfer Keith Thomas, leaving Obekpa as their lone legitimate frontcourt option.
If Briscoe picks St. John’s, it would give Lavin and his staff tremendous positive momentum on the eve of the start of the college basketball season.
For Calipari and Kentucky, losing out on Briscoe wouldn’t be such a big deal.
After all, they only began recruiting him this summer and despite numerous recent visits by Calipari and assistant Barry “Slice” Rohrssen they haven’t invested too much over the long term.
Kentucky remains in the mix for guards Malik Newman and Antonio Blakeney — both of whom are expected to commit in the spring — and they will likely have freshman Tyler Ulis back manning the point next season anyway.
“A lot of people who have been down there and watched their practice feel that Tyler Ulis is as impressive a player as they have in their program right now,” Konchalski said of Kentucky.
Briscoe, who is projected by Draft Express.com as the No. 8 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, would be a cherry on top for Kentucky, but he is not a critical need.
If, however, Briscoe picks Kentucky it would be a devastating loss for St. John’s and a great get for the Wildcats.
It would mean Lavin lost out on a kid he’s been recruiting for several years to a school that only began recruiting him a couple of months ago.
It would mean that for the third time since 2010, New Jersey’s top player bolted the area for Kentucky.
In the spring of 2010, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist picked Kentucky over Villanova and Oregon out of St. Patrick High School.
In December 2012, 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns of St. Joe’s-Metuchen announced for Kentucky over Duke.
Kidd-Gilchrist is now in the NBA, and Towns could well join him next spring.
So if Briscoe follows this same path, it will be yet another example of Calipari coming into New Jersey and eating the lunch of all the local coaches trying to keep their talent home.
“If he picks Kentucky, he’s just another McDonald’s All-American who can help their program,” Konchalski said. “But look how many McDonald’s All-Americans they have in their program…so it’s not like he’s going to step in and he’s going to be given the ball right away. He’s going to have to wait his turn.
“He would obviously have a more immediate impact at St. John’s than he would at Kentucky. That doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for him. I think he’d be pushed more just to get on the floor at Kentucky….Just in terms of fighting for playing time, he’d be pushed much more at Kentucky than he would at St. John’s.”
We’ll all know the answer soon enough.
But this much is clear: Steve Lavin has just about everything riding on Briscoe’s decision.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.