As the final chapter in the basketball career of one of Michigan's players came to an end Monday, the path was cleared for another player to possibly begin his.
With the news of Austin Hatch's transition to a medical exemption scholarship, one final spot in the Wolverines' 2015 class is now available. If they have their way, Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler standout Jaylen Brown would likely be the one to make use of it.
Brown is the nation's top player, according to Scout.com. Standing 6-7 and weighing in at 215 pounds, he boasts an impressive combination of skill and high-flying athleticism. His God-given talent alone would be enough to make him highly coveted, but his drive to be the best is a trait that has truly set him apart.
"I got him at (age) 12," said Brown's trainer, Desmond Eastmond. "He was a little bit above the curve. He was about 6-feet, could handle the ball, (and) he was fairly athletic. When he got to seventh and eighth grade he started to sprout out a little bit and got taller. The skill aspect, he always had the guard capabilities. He just had to work on his body and his work ethic. His mom made a great decision moving him over to Wheeler High School, where he got a chance to learn from Coach (Doug) Lipscomb. He continued his growth and understanding of the game to the point where he is now."
Eastmond continued: "The scouting report is he can score like Melo -- anywhere on the floor. He's a 6-7 wing player that can get his own buckets off the bounce. He doesn't need a pick and roll. He can beat his man off the bounce and is strong enough to finish, but he has a great feel and understanding of the game. He knows how to make his teammates better. On his championship (squad) in Georgia not one kid on his team is a top 100 kid."
Scouts learned how serious Brown is about continuing to improve his game when last summer he put competing on the AAU circuit on the backburner so he could focus more on his development.
"I didn't really go to as many AAU tournaments and things like that," Brown told Scout.com. "I just worked on my game and worked on my body. That was better for me than playing 1,000 or however many AAU games that you play nowadays. I just went to three tournaments. In those three tournaments I displayed what I could do, and I had the opportunity to turn some heads."
And turn heads he did.
When the dust settled he had laid claim to the top spot in Scout.com's 2015 rankings. Neither he nor those charged with evaluating him believe he is a finished product, but most agree that he possesses the arsenal necessary to immediately impact a team and be on his way to the NBA after one season if he so chooses.
Size, strength, athleticism
"Jalen is one of my favorite players that I've ever scouted," Scout.com national recruiting analyst Brian Snow said. "He goes 110 percent every time he steps on the basketball court. He has got great athleticism, he rebounds really well for a wing, he defends his butt off, and he has really improved as a scorer. His outside shot, while not great, you have to respect his ability to shoot. He is good going to the rim, especially going right. He needs to work on his left hand, but going right he is an absolute monster. If he can put it all together with his competitiveness and his aptitude for the game, he's someone that is going to have a great future playing basketball."
Added Scout.com director of recruiting Evan Daniels: "I think what sticks out about Jaylen is his size, his position, his strength, his athleticism. He is a very good rebounder from the wing position. He's an improving shooter and he's taking better shots. I think the next step is really improving his ball handling and extending the range."
Another notable element in Brown's impressive game is his will. On the court the only passive thing about him is his breathing. This Peach State star has the alpha personality coaches salivate over. He wants the ball in his hands at winning time, and has the basketball I.Q. to make the right play when it counts. And he is definitely clutch.
Early last month Brown put a resounding capper on his high school career by nailing two free throws with 0.5 seconds left to give Wheeler a 59-58 victory over Pebblebrook in Georgia's Class 6A championship game. That steely showing was further confirmation that the talented youngster can pretty much do it all on the floor.
Clearly his talent isn't in question. Where he will put it on display at the college level is.
After collecting offers from high-major programs from coast to coast, Brown narrowed his list to Georgia, Georgia Tech, UCLA, Kansas, California, Kentucky, North Carolina and Michigan. On Monday, Georgia, Georgia Tech and UCLA were eliminated.
Finding consensus on where things stand beyond that, though, has proven difficult because Brown's recruitment defies convention. Compared to most prospects he is conspicuously quiet about his process, and he places little importance on some of the factors that make or break a school's standing with other recruits. For instance, Brown hasn't been keen on speaking frequently with college coaches. To him, rapport-building complicates the process unnecessarily.
"I don't really need to talk to you about how I'm doing," Brown told Scout.com. "I already know what your school offers. I've been on a visit. I know you want to build a relationship, but I'm not sure if I'm going to your school, so I don't want to build that relationship yet. If we are building a relationship and I go somewhere else, it's a waste of time and a waste of everyone's energy. So I'd rather pick your school and then build a relationship."
Ties to Michigan
When it comes to the criteria that Brown does find important, the Wolverines appear to acquit themselves quite well. Many often assume one of those to be his background running with an Adidas AAU team, since Michigan shares that affiliation. Eastmond insists, however, that there were other considerations that were of equal or greater importance when he recommended John Beilein's program last year.
"We were going over style of play, coaches, development, and maximizing his talent," Eastmond said. "I said, 'Have you taken a look at Michigan? Their system is unbelievable with the way (Beilein) spaces the floor and his pick and roll. Look at Hardaway, LeVert, Stauskas and Glenn Robinson. None of those kids were top 100. Two lottery picks and one (second)-rounder. Fast forward and you've got to put yourself in their shoes with your game. There ain't no telling what (Beilein) could do with you.'"
Add to that the family Brown has in the Great Lakes State – a connection unknown to Eastmond prior to that conversation – and Brown's curiosity about the Maize and Blue was sufficiently piqued.
"I believe his uncle made a call to the university and spoke to one of the coaches because he has an uncle who is an alumnus," said Eastmond. "Once his uncle made the call the coaches started talking to him."
A fortuitous bounce to be sure, and the sudden good fortune didn't end there. Brown's mother is a Muskegon native (and Michigan State alum) and many from her side of the family still reside on the west side of the state. What's more, he has a cousin that attends Michigan and is a member of the Maize Rage.
The Wolverines looked to capitalize on those ties during Brown's official visit last month. According to Eastmond it was truly a family affair with mom, uncle, and grandma all in attendance. The likelihood of that resonating with Brown was clear long before he set foot on campus.
"(In) Michigan I have a lot of family," Brown told Scout.com. "I'm based in Michigan so I could deflect a lot of stuff because my family is there, so Michigan is definitely going to be in the front runner of things."
Based on Brown's opinion of the importance of player development, there's a good chance Michigan's position was firmed up upon closer analysis of its recent track record.
"Talking to Coach Beilein, he's like an offensive genius," Brown told Scout. "The way he gets these guys that aren't really ranked high to be lottery picks in the draft is amazing. It's definitely something that drew my attention."
Said Brown in another interview: "I want to develop. People say I'm ready to go (to the NBA) this year. People say I'll be ready next year. To do what I want to do, I think it'll take me at least two years. I don't want to come into a situation like the NBA and have to develop for two or three years. When I come in I want to be a superstar. Coming in I want to be on superstar status. It's going to take development and it's going to take hard work. I know I can make the business move and be a top-five, top-10 or top-15 draft pick if I just had a solid year in college and left. I love the game too much to chase after the money. I know your health is not secure, but I love the game. I just want to develop and be the best player I can be. When I'm ready, I'm ready."
Decision expected soon
Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan has been running the point in Brown's recruitment.
"Val is cool," said Eastmond. "He is young and energetic. He knows the game. He is pretty much telling (Brown) what he needs to hear as far as how they would use him. The same thing that we discussed: 'Put you in Tim Hardaway's shoes, you will be pretty much a top-five pick just in the way that Coach (Beilein) will be able to use you.'"
One last appealing characteristic for Michigan is its reputation as a top academic institution. Brown has often placed the Wolverines on a scholastic pedestal with other top suitors Cal, North Carolina, and before being dropped Monday, UCLA.
All that has led to prevalent speculation that even among Brown's whittled-down contenders, Michigan is in an enviable position. Talk about other schools hold that distinction has varied wildly. Last week from ESPN's Paul Biancardi reported sources informed him Michigan and Cal were on top. Others maintain Kansas' longstanding pursuit, impressive visit (during which Brown compared Lawrence to his mom's hometown of Muskegon), and the Adidas affiliation put the Jayhawks in prime contention.
According to Snow, however, neither program presents the biggest roadblock to Michigan landing its highest profile recruit since Mitch McGary.
"I'm officially more confident than ever that the two teams at the top right now are Michigan and Kentucky," Snow said. "I'm not dumb enough to count out Kansas. We'll see. I don't see Cal happening. I tend to think that Michigan and Kentucky are the two schools that have the best chance at this moment in time. The good thing with Jaylen is he's going to keep everybody guessing. It'll be interesting to see how it works out."
So too do the coaches that are currently giving chase. They're now at the stage where they've begun picturing the explosive youngster in their respective uniforms. For Michigan, Brown would bring a basket-attacking aggression to the wing position the likes of which haven't been seen in Ann Arbor for quite some time.
"I think he would fit into the Glenn Robinson role," said Snow. "I think he's better than what Glenn was, but he'd fit into that role where he would play some four, play some three, and be the tough athletic kid. He can rebound and he can defend the position.
"When you surround him with shooters where guys can't provide help, that's a tough dude to guard right there."
That said, what's clear is with the schools Brown is considering, he is going to be surrounded by great talent no matter where he goes. And if Kentucky really is Michigan's chief competition, his opinion of John Calipari's program won't be easy to overcome.
"Kentucky is probably the best basketball program in America," Brown told Scout late last month. "I took a lot of visits and nobody's basketball program was as good as Kentucky, just with their facilities and how they operate. It's just so professional. Kentucky, I just have so much respect for that program."
Time will tell whether he has more for the Wildcats than any of his other suitors still on the list.
Brown hasn't given an exact date for a decision, but he did previously mention early entries to the NBA draft as a possible factor in his decision. The deadline for underclassmen to declare (April 26) has since passed, so a decision could come any day now.
The final day of the late signing period is May 20.
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. He is a regular contributor to The Detroit News.