A few weeks ago in a gym in Jonesboro, Georgia, a McDonald's All-American decided where he'd play college basketball. A circumstance like that had not been relevant to the Virginia Tech men's basketball program for the last three decades. Yet on May 24, M.J. Walker propelled the Hokies into the national recruiting spotlight.
A sign with a maroon "VT" sat between logos for UCLA, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, and Florida State. Tech was among the finalists for one of the best remaining players in the country. Those interested in reading tea leaves were optimistic. The shooting guard took a late visit to Blacksburg, and the Hokies has recently announced the departure of Seth LeDay, theoretically freeing up a scholarship for a newcomer.
But alas, it was not to be. Walker chose Leonard Hamilton and Florida State, as the Hokies came up short in their quest for another highly touted talent. Before we go in on what this means for Buzz Williams and company, let's look at the process to get here.
Walker did what any smart second-tier prospect should do. He waited. Much to the chagrin of everyone courting him, Walker sat and weighed his options longer than almost any other top-100 recruit.
Though it frustrated onlookers, it was also shrewd. Player movement in college basketball extends well past national signing day in mid-May. The withdrawal deadline for underclassmen to remove themselves from the NBA Draft was May 24th, a week later than final day for high schoolers to sign a National Letter of Intent (May 17).
If you're a player who thinks you'll make it to the NBA, you want to go somewhere that'll give you playing time early. Why risk signing, only to have another pro prospect return to school? Walker has said on multiple occasions that he wants to play point guard, and after taking his visit to UCLA, Bruins playmaker Aaron Holiday announced his plan to return for his junior year in Los Angeles.
Had Walker committed to play out west, he would've either moved off-ball or been stuck behind Holiday on the bench, neither being an ideal situation for his freshman season. So he chose FSU, a team who lost its starting backcourt to the draft, and a coach in Hamilton who doesn't hesitate giving young guys big minutes.
As much as it hurts a Tech fan to admit, it seems like a solid decision on Walker's part. And while it's never ideal to miss out on a guy of that caliber, this process highlighted a few big-picture things when it comes to the Hokies and recruiting.
Buzz and company came out of nowhere to become the rumoured leaders for Walker's services this spring. It was a surprise, primarily because Tech is in the exact opposite situation of the two schools described above. The backcourt in Blacksburg wasn't ravaged by departures, to the NBA or otherwise. In fact, it improved from a year ago.
Despite losing Seth Allen, the Hokies return Justin Robinson, Justin Bibbs, Devin Wilson, Ahmed Hill, Chris Clarke, and Ty Outlaw. If everything goes according to plan they'll also have Tyrie Jackson, who had eligibility issues and redshirted last season.
Williams and his staff also signed one of the best classes in program history, grabbing a pair of four-star guards in Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Wabissa Bede (as well as forward P.J. Horne). An M.J. Walker addition would have just been the cherry on an already delicious sundae.
And looking even further forward, Tech has a commitment from 6'3" shooting guard Jarren McAllister in 2018 and twin guards Kobe and Keyshaun Langley in 2019. Not only is the position stacked in 2017, it's lined with reinforcements for years to come.
Which makes Walker's consideration of the Hokies all the more interesting. Even with the self-confidence that comes along with a top prep ranking, why would he want to join an already crowded position group?
Much of it highlights Buzz's ability as a recruiter, and the way he can sell his vision to kids and parents alike. But there's also an interesting development taking place in the sport as a whole, something which benefits Williams.
Basketball has evolved over the last 10 years. In 2007 the San Antonio Spurs won the title with Tim Duncan playing next to a second center.
(Yes, I'm of the opinion that Duncan was a center, not a power forward, from the moment he got in the league. The dude guarded Shaq and played with his back to the basket. Just because he was drafted to the same team as David Robinson doesn't make him any less of a center. Sorry I'm so weirdly passionate about this.)
Just two years later, the Orlando Magic made the finals by surrounding Dwight Howard with four shooters. The Miami Heat unlocked their full potential by playing Chris Bosh as a "stretch five" (center who can shoot) and LeBron James at power forward.
Flash forward to 2017, and a new wave of coaches and talent evaluators have changed the way the league both drafts and plays. The sport is getting smaller, faster, and more skilled. In Boston, Brad Stevens is lauded for his lineup creativity, and often plays Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Isaiah Thomas together. The weird thing about it? All three are 6'4" or shorter.
The NBA is no longer scared of guys they can't put a positional finger on, opening professional avenues to those who didn't necessarily have one before. The more a college coach is willing to use his players creatively — even if it means playing them "out of position" — the more they can succeed as both amateurs and professionals.
We all acknowledge that Buzz is weird., but some of his oddities are what makes him so interesting as a coach. Williams often experiments with his lineups, sometimes out of necessity, but also out of curiosity. Last year he routinely played two point guards at once, yet still ran offense through other playmakers.
Though Robinson and Allen were on the floor, Williams allowed Chris Clarke, Ahmed Hill, and even Zach LeDay to handle the ball. And if Walker had chosen the Hokies, you can bet that Buzz would've found a way to have him consistently involved too.
And throughout his career, Williams' best players have been ones without a pro position. Wesley Matthews wasn't explosive enough to play shooting guard, but not big enough to play small forward. He's in the middle of a 4 year, $70 million dollar contract with the Dallas Mavericks.
Jae Crowder fell out of the first round despite being the Big East Player of the Year in 2012. Why? He was a 6'6" power forward who did everything you'd want from someone 6'9" (sound familiar?). He's now a key member of the Celtics, cashing in one of the best contracts in the league.
And of course, Jimmy Butler nearly fell out of the first round because he wasn't athletic enough to be an explosive small forward. He made third team All-NBA, meaning he's considered one of the 15 best basketball players of 2017.
All three of those guys are huge selling points for Buzz, especially now with the open mindedness of scouts and general managers. They don't see prospects as "tweeners" but as versatile basketball players who can fill multiple roles. So if a coach like Williams can highlight your skills, regardless of your shape and size, there's a higher chance you won't be overlooked come draft time.
Though it seems like a fairly obvious point, finding those coaches is tougher than it may seem. In an era of one-and-done freshmen jumping to the pros, a school's brand often comes from its head coach. And those most entrenched are often ones unwilling to change their ways.
Mike Krzyzewski tried to get versatile, until his Duke team struggled with the ball in Grayson Allen's hands. Bill Self wanted a parade through the whole state of Kansas for playing small-ball last year. Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, and even the notoriously player friendly John Calipari are all stubborn enough to not embrace full on versatility year-to-year.
That's not even mentioning the system guys like Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Shaka Smart, Tony Bennett, and the guy at Wisconsin who's not Bo Ryan (but is totally Bo Ryan). They're more famous for their style of play and steadfast defensive philosophies, and force incoming recruits to fit to them rather than vice versa.
When it comes to recruiting, it still behooves the top prospects to go to a Duke or Kentucky, rather than somewhere off the beaten path. When Ben Simmons missed the NCAA Tournament at LSU, people killed him. The way he was covered, you'd have thought he committed war crimes.
But Simmons was destined for the league, no matter where he signed out of high school. The next tier of talent is the one with a choice. Do guys like M.J. Walker hope to latch on with a premier program, where playing time and fit could come into question? Or do they pick somewhere less prestigious and hope they're put in a position to succeed early?
Take Simmons' class of 2015. P.J. Dozier, Carlton Bragg, Jawun Evans, and Deyonta Davis were all ranked in the same range that Walker was in 2017. Bragg and Davis opted for Kansas and Michigan State respectively. Bragg played two years in Lawrence before transferring to Arizona State. Davis turned pro last March, despite playing just 18 minutes a game for the Spartans. He was drafted 31st overall.
Dozier and Evans, however, decided to go elsewhere. The former picked South Carolina, and Frank Martin used him everywhere. Dozier often played point guard and became the type of multi-positional defender that interests scouts. He used the Gamecocks' run in the NCAA Tournament to turn pro, and looks like a high-second round pick. Evans chose Oklahoma State, and excelled under new coach Brad Underwood's lightning fast offense. The sophomore also declared for the draft, and looks like a late-first round pick.
It's a small sample, but it highlights the importance of the decision for guys like Walker. And more so, the opportunity coaches like Buzz have to bring in talent.
Yes, Walker spurned the Hokies. But the thinking behind why he'd consider coming to Tech in the first place makes for an optimistic look at the future. Williams and his staff won't get less creative, they'll evolve with the sport. And if they can continue to show their willingness to put their players in the best place to succeed both now and later, they're better positioned to land guys of this caliber.
The first point is obvious. Not only did Walker say no to Tech, but he linked up with an ACC opponent instead. Yes, Hokie fans are used to losing recruits to Florida State, but they're usually football players from Virginia Beach (sorry, had to). But the Noles' addition is more crucial now than in many other years.
Outside of the usual suspects (Duke, UNC, Louisville) the middle of the conference is wide open. Notre Dame returns Bonzie Colson, and Miami adds five-star guard Lonnie Walker, but the rest of the league faces questions.
Even with Walker, the Seminoles have to replace a lot. Syracuse struggled in '16-17 and lost Tyler Lydon and Andrew White III on top of it. UVA's at a bit of a crossroad, and only returns six scholarship players who've appeared in a college game. The Hokies could find themselves competing for the fourth or fifth seed should things break right, and losing a talented player to another team in the running for that territory is damaging in the short term.
But it's the bigger picture where this could pose a true concern.
Williams' goals for his time in Blacksburg have been clear from day one. Get good players, win more games. It's that simple. Yes, there are plenty of coaching clinics, family time, and motivational tweets to fill in the gaps, but he's never shied away from his devout desire to win.
He's also the only person to hold the program accountable. I met my dad for lunch the day after Walker's decision. Though we were both bummed, our general thinking was that Buzz was playing with house money. A trip to the NCAA Tournament combined with a great incoming class? Just three years removed from being the laughingstock of the ACC? We couldn't ask for much more.
But that's not the way Williams operates. He's not here for your March Madness participation trophies, nor for your reduced expectations. He doesn't want to use Tech's former listlessness as a crutch, nor as a way to keep their goals more attainable. He wants to win.
And the biggest obstacle between Virginia Tech and consistent trips to the dance is bringing players to Blacksburg. It was Williams' biggest challenge the moment he took the job, and it remains so today.
Outside of 2016 (where they were limited by scholarship numbers), the staff has drastically improved recruiting. According to 247Sports, they've had the fifth best class in the conference in 2014, 2015 and 2017. But nearly every big get has come with some sort of asterisk.
Hill followed Buzz from Marquette. Bibbs had already signed up to play for James Johnson, and stuck around. Clarke only committed after first picking Tennessee, and getting out of dodge before then-coach Donnie Tyndall was sanctioned by the NCAA. Tech got on Robinson early, but at the time of his commitment, he didn't have a ton of big offers.
This isn't trying to slander anyone on the roster. The Hokies look great now, and their future seems even greater. But if Buzz wants to keep improving to meet his goals, he'll need to land the next tier of prospects. Alexander-Walker is a great get, and Tech beat out a couple of big schools to get him (Maryland, USC, Baylor), but Walker is another class entirely.
Not only is he highly ranked, he was highly sought after. He had conversations with Kansas, took a visit to UCLA, and flirted with Thad Matta and Josh Pastner. Even if the youngster doesn't turn out to be as good as his rankings suggest — there's some concern about his physical dominance over other high school players that he won't have over college athletes — he's the type of signee that can change the perception of a program.
And no, Virginia Tech missing out on him isn't the end of the world for Buzzketball. But bringing in someone like Walker is the next step of the process. And if Buzz begins to consistently get close, but not land these guys, he could soon find a ceiling on his program that he can't do anything about.