I am a trained political scientist. I try to structure my thoughts on social behavior using analytical frameworks borrowed from social science. One of the most powerful, and therefore most useful, is rational choice theory. Rational choice is a framework for understanding and often formally modeling social and economic behavior.
Here we apply the basic premises of rational choice theory to the conundrum that is local college basketball recruiting. Basically, I’m trying develop an explanatory model make sense of shit that makes no sense at all…
Let me give a quick and dirty explanation of how I apply rational choice theory in this instance. I assume that aggregate social behavior (who gets and does not get D1 offers) results from the behavior of individual D1 coaches, each of whom is making their individual decisions. Rational choice theory then assumes that D1 coaches have preferences among the available high school/JUCO and transfer prospects that allow them to state which option they prefer. These preferences are assumed to be complete (the D1 coach can always say which of two prospects they consider preferable or that neither is preferred to the other) and transitive (if player A is preferred over player B and player B is preferred over player C, then A is preferred over C). In my rational choice model, D1 coaches are assumed to take account of available information, probabilities of events, and potential costs and benefits in determining preferences, and to act consistently in choosing the self-determined best choice of action.
Basically, a rational choice model assumes D1 coaches get out and actually watch the prospects first hand, have an understanding of the options each kid has, realize what the prospect can add to his program and work in good faith to win games and improve his program.
The challenge then becomes explaining recruiting outcomes that don’t make no muthafuckin sense.
In the Philadelphia region, there have been some truly befuddling recruiting outcomes in recent years. Sam Sessoms, Ryan Daly and Jhamir Brickus are examples that force me to call the explanatory power of rational choice theory into question.
Sessoms was one of the best guards to come out of Philadelphia’s fiercely competitive schoolboy scene in recent years. Academics was not an issue for Sesssoms. He attended and did well at one of the elite private Main Line high schools. Moreover, he played on the prestigious Nike EYBL summer circuit. He played for the Team Final program that has consistently produced NBA players. During the winter, Sessoms absolutely scorched opponents during a dominant senior season that saw him easily eclipse the 2,000 point mark. Yet, he had exactly one (1) D1 scholarship offer from Binghamton University which plays in the low-major America East Conference.
Ryan Daly was named the MVP in the Philadelphia Catholic League as a senior. Daly was the MOST VALUABLE PLAYER in one of the top 3-4 HS leagues in the nation. He is a fearless and fierce competitor capable of scoring in bunches from all three levels and rebounding like a power forward. Like Sessoms, his academic profile was beyond reproach. Indeed, he would have been accepted at Ivy or Patriot League schools. Then there is his DNA… his father and grandfather were Philadelphia Catholic League stalwarts and played college ball for St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia’s vaunted Big 5. Yet, very late into his senior season, he was struggling find an adequate suitor for his considerable skills. Fortunately, Delaware’s Martin Inglesby swooped minutes after being given his first head coaching opportunity and gave Daly an opportunity to play in the mid-major Colonial Athletic Conference.
Fast forward to today… Jhamir Brickus has just exceeded the 2,000 point mark with about 20 or so games left in his scholastic career. He has Rip Hamilton in his rear view mirror and will soon lap John Allen to become Coatesville’s all-time leading scorer. He regularly gives highly respected opponents 40 or even 50 points in big games. See for example, the 52 piece family pack… with biscuits and extra gravy he dropped off on Chester in the PIAA playoffs last year. Brickus consistently dominates games from the backcourt with exceptional ball-handling and an uncanny knack for finishing at the rim through contact. Possessing exceptional vision, he is an elite passer. He has played a couple summers on the highly competitive Under Armour UAA circuit where he averaged double figures in points, 5 assists and less than 1 turnover per game… Please note… He averaged LESS than one turnover per game against some of the best competition available. Simply stated, Brickus is a bad, bad man… Yet, his has yet to reel in D1 offers commensurate with his exceptional abilities.
What da fuck? How do we make sense of these outcomes? In my search for answers, I’m leaning hard on the my understanding of rational choice theory… Truth be told… I’m really struggling to make this shit make sense…
The premise of rational choice theory is that the aggregate behavior (the total sum of D1 offers) reflects the sum of the choices made by individual D1 coaches. Each D1 coach, in turn, makes their choice based on their own preferences and the constraints (or choice set) they face.
The logic of the model holds that D1 coaches choose the action (or outcome) they most prefer. In the case where offers (or recruiting outcomes) can be evaluated in terms of costs and benefits, a rational coach chooses the prospect (or recruiting outcome) that provides the maximum net benefit, i.e., the maximum benefit minus cost.
The local D1 coaches (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia) would experience very little costs recruiting these kids. Some gas, a few tolls and a couple Popeye’s chicken sandwiches on top of letters, phone calls, texts and DMs. Viewed in the context of their respective recruiting budgets, pursuing these guys costs nada, zilch, nothing…
The potential rewards? Daly exceeded 1000 points in two years and Sessoms may exceed 1,200 by the end of his sophomore campaign. Beyond that, these guys are Philly guards… They bring a level of toughness to programs that add a value that can’t be quantified. It’s apparent and easy to see now.
Indeed, if Sessoms or Daly were to enter the transfer portal today, each would likely receive 40-50 scholarship offers within a week. Think about that shit… The same D1 coaches that passed on them as high school seniors would relentlessly call, text, DM and visit them begging for their services today.
This begs the obvious question: How did they miss? Why couldn’t they see this 24-36 months ago?
We have to continue to assume that D1 coaches want to win… We must assume they want to add very good players. Indeed, the fact Zane Martin (New Mexico) receive offers from coaches at high major programs like Clemson, Seton Hall, Gonzaga and New Mexico 24 months after they were completely ignored by the same guys means something is seriously askew.
These fuckin’ coaches ain’t behaving rationally… The model doesn’t explain this shit…
Some really smart social scientists have introduced the useful concept of bounded rationality to account for situations precisely like this. Bounded rationality is the idea that rationality is limited, when individuals make decisions, by the tractability of the decision problem, the cognitive limitations of the mind, and the time available to make the decision. Decision-makers, in this view, act as satisficers, seeking a satisfactory solution rather than an optimal one.
In other words, coaches are limited by factors beyond their control. Plainly stated, some just are not that smart. In the words of my good friend, Amauro Austin, “some D1 coaches just don’t know what the hell they are looking at.” This was clearly the case in the recruitment of Ryan Daly. Coach after coach lamented that he was not an “explosive athlete.” They openly cited his lack of foot speed and the fact that he played “below the rim” as factors explaining their lack of a scholarship offer.
I would openly question if I had contacted the right office. I had to remind these guys, I was not trying to reach the track coach. I was not arguing that Ryan should run the 100 or 200 meter dash… Nor, was I suggesting that he be recruited as a high jumper…
“Sorry, coach… my bad… I thought you were looking for good fuckin’ BASKETBALL players.”
Same with Sessoms… He was too small… Incredibly, some even wondered if he could play at the D1 level at all. This as he was punishing opponent after opponent, it seemed like they were all reading from the same script. He can’t really shoot from distance… He’s not a true point guard… blah… blah… blah…
Well… We seem to be headed down the same road with Brickus.
Here’s script on Jig… He doesn’t really play hard… He’s more of a small shooting guard… He doesn’t like to play defense… He’s too cool… He doesn’t play against anyone…
Once again, I find myself dealing with the “cognitive limitations” of a lot of D1 coaches.
I just want these guys to be actual rational actors… Unfortunately, more often than we care to admit, Amauro Austin’s assessment is dead on…
“Some D1 coaches just don’t know what the hell they are looking at.”