'(James) Blackmon (pictured) gets the vote here as the No. 1 shooter in the senior class,' said Scout.com recruiting analyst Rob Harrington. (Scout.com)
Michigan’s 2014 basketball recruiting is nearly complete after recently adding two commitments to a class that already included three-star center prospect Ricky Doyle (Fort Myers, Fla., Bishop Verot). Four-star small forward Kameron Chatman (Portland, Ore., Columbia Christian) and three-star power forward D.J. Wilson (Sacramento, Calif., Capital Christian) are the latest to join the fold, and now the focus has clearly shifted to closing things out with a talented wing.
Many recruiting observers have long believed that Moss Point, Miss., shooting guard Devin Booker is the leading candidate for that spot, but that may no longer be true. Even though the four-star prospect is keeping his leanings close to the vest, numerous pundits suggest that Michigan, Michigan State and Missouri are all chasing the presumed favorite for his services, Kentucky. John Beilein’s program is still definitively in the mix – especially on the heels of a strong official visit to Ann Arbor last weekend – but the Maize and Blue may now be held in higher regard by another four-star shooting guard -- Marion, Ind., standout James Blackmon Jr.
Michigan is one of a handful of schools that grew from non-factors to major players in the race for Blackmon’s services virtually overnight. That’s because Scout.com’s No. 69 prospect spent the better part of three years committed to Indiana before rescinding that pledge on Aug. 8 of this year.
"We just had nothing to compare Indiana to," Blackmon's father, James Sr., explained to Scout.com. "After talking things over as a family we decided we needed something to compare Indiana to, so we reopened the recruitment."
The Wolverines didn’t waste much time taking advantage of that opening due in large part to the premium Beilein’s offense places on Blackmon’s primary attribute.
“James Blackmon is an elite shooter,” said Scout.com recruiting analyst Brian Snow. “He’s probably the best shooter in the class. He’s one of those kids that when he catches it, he can flat out catch and shoot if he gets the time and space. You can just put three on the scorebook because it’s in.”
“Blackmon gets the vote here as the No. 1 shooter in the senior class,” added Scout.com recruiting analyst Rob Harrington. “His jump shot is so devastatingly effective it doesn't merit the words to describe it. There's nothing he needs to improve (with his shot). He just needs to continue working on getting open and creating opportunities to get as many clean looks as possible. That's all there is to it.”
Better complementing that outstanding marksmanship has been cited as the key to Blackmon raising his game to an even higher level. More specifically, talent scouts point out the need to improve his off-the-dribble game. The 6-3, 180-pounder has already made significant strides in that department, as evidenced by his performance at the USA Basketball tryouts in Colorado Springs last weekend.
“There may not have been a better player during Saturday’s morning session, and Blackmon definitely continued his impressive play in the evening,” Scout.com recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said. “Blackmon had his shot working at a very high level on Saturday, to the point where if he put a shot up you just assumed it was going to fall. (And) he was drilling floaters, making him even more difficult to guard.”
Much of that growth has been spurred along by his father and high school coach, James Blackmon Sr. Once a standout at Marion High himself, the elder Blackmon went on to play college basketball at Kentucky. He has used his experiences to help mold his sons into standout players themselves, all the while making a conscious effort to not be overbearing.
“Definitely from a father standpoint I have to stand back sometimes,” Mr. Blackmon said. “I found myself one time really on James, really riding him. Then I took a look at the stat sheet where I saw he had 38 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and two turnovers. I said, ‘Wait a minute -- I need to get on somebody else because this kid is playing well.’
“I want the best. I’m looking at him not only for the high school standpoint, but I’m looking at him at the other level. So if I see certain tendencies I immediately want to address them. If I allow him to get away with certain things I would lose my team. I definitely make sure that if he is not pushing himself, then he has got to hear about it. At the same time, he has already established a work habit where sometimes the other kids are trying to match his intensity. If I can keep pushing him, and the other kids keep trying to match his intensity, that helps our team as a whole.”
That domino effect would bode well for a team whose No. 1 ranking has a put a target on its back. Young Blackmon’s primary athletic focus is to help his club fulfill its quest to win a state championship, which is one of the reasons why he would like to have his college decision out of the way before the first game tips. He hit the road in earnest in August to visit Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State. Then during the month of September he travelled to Ann Arbor twice -- first for an unofficial visit for the football game versus Central Michigan, and then a few weekends later for his official.
“He had a good time,” Mr. Blackmon reported. “He went out (with the players), but when guys come back they don’t really talk about the things that they did, but I could tell that he had a really good time. We had a chance to watch their practice. The guys as far as the learning process -- they were really in tune. The system, the way (Beilein) breaks the defense down when he has his offensive sets -- it is hard (to stop). It is a fun type of system, but being able at the same time going to compete. You can see your team getting better when guys out there are enthusiastic about the drills. As far as their shots, they were able to get good shots up. James walked away thinking, ‘This is something I can enjoy and I can fit into. That’s a good thing.’”
Too good to pass up? That was certainly the speculation last week when Blackmon Jr. tweeted: “The Decision (is) coming soon” as the Michigan coaching staff was en route to his home for a visit. Though it was another positive interaction with the Maize and Blue, he wasn’t yet ready to make his choice. That’s despite the obvious scholarship crunch in Ann Arbor. Similar circumstances with his other suitors have proven no more compelling.
“(The scholarship scenarios) are definitely clear to us,” stated Mr. Blackmon. “That’s something for the universities to convey their concerns (about). Our concern is trying to pick a situation that is comfortable for us. There are times when they have to make their decision with what is best for the university, but at the same time, we can’t make a decision based on the amount of scholarships or whatever.”
All that’s left for Blackmon now is a return visit to Kentucky Oct. 18 and potential trip to Kansas (though no date has been mentioned). From there he plans to make his decision in time to sign a letter of intent during the early signing period (Nov.13-20). The Hoosier State star hasn’t listed any favorites among his finalists, but as is the case with Booker, many pundits believe that Kentucky is in strong position. Furthermore, some believe that a scenario in which the Wolverines and Wildcats split the two talented youngsters to be a distinct possibility.
“Blackmon and Booker and not exactly alike,” Snow explained. “They’re very similar as players, and you can make a reasonable argument that one’s better than the other, depending on what type of player you’re looking for. But they’re similar enough that as a coach I don’t think you’d want to take both of them. If you’re a player, you don’t want to go to the same spot as someone else who plays just like you and plays your position. It’s just not logical. So I think if player A goes to Kentucky, that will cross Kentucky off player B’s list. If player A goes to Michigan, that will cross it off player B’s list. The fact that they’re each considering heavily three of the same schools, and maybe only have four real options, it’s going to be very interesting to see who commits where and what kind of ripple effect that does have.”
Time will tell whether it truly is a two-horse race or not. For now all Blackmon Jr. will share about the respective schools are his thoughts on the rapport he has established with each coaching staff.
“I like (Kentucky) Coach (John) Calipari and how he gets guys to the next level, but he also told me that it would be one of the toughest things I would ever do because there would be a target on my back,” Blackmon Jr. told Scout.com. “I like challenges, so that stuck out to me -- and playing on the biggest stage, that would be good.
“(The recent visit to Michigan) was real good. I love the coaching staff there. They are real down to earth. They basically told me what my role would be there. They made it real clear. That’s always an option for me. I’m just going to look into it even more and decide.”
It stands to reason that the chance to follow in his father’s footsteps would be among the many criteria that will factor into his decision. However, Blackmon Sr. insists that that is not the case.
“He has got to make that decision,” Mr. Blackmon said firmly. “We’re not looking at it from that standpoint. I’m proud of what he has accomplished. All three of my boys enjoy playing and every day they try to get better. Now I’m just going to support him whatever direction (he goes in). I’m going to try and do the best I can to help answer all the questions that he has. That’s going to be his decision. When it is all said and done, he is actually going to be there. He has got to be comfortable with whatever direction that leads. We’re going to figure that out.”
When decision time finally does roll around, Blackmon Jr.’s ultimate choice will come down to a few prominent factors.
“Definitely him being comfortable with the coach,” explained Mr. Blackmon. “You want to be able to identify with the coach. You definitely want to understand the system. If he can be comfortable within the system, with the style of play and can relate to the coach, I think that is the best start right there for us. From an academic standpoint that is very important -- that type of environment. We consider those things and where he wants to be, his comfort, and being guided in the right direction. If he is comfortable with those things then I’m very easy to please because those are important to me too.”
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears weekly at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.