Niyo: Michigan's Juwan Howard no stranger in recruiting game

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Juwan Howard is playing by different rules now. And Wednesday night, hours after being named Michigan’s head basketball coach, those rules were in effect as he began his new job by walking an unfamiliar tightrope.

Juwan Howard

College basketball is in a “dead period” for recruiting at the moment, a nine-day window where NCAA rules forbid coaches from making in-person contacts or evaluations of high school prospects. There are exceptions, however, and in Howard’s case it involved being a parent.

He showed up at the Noel P. Brown Sports Center on the campus of Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to watch his youngest son, Jett, a 15-year-old rising sophomore who is one of the top players in the Class of 2022, on the opening night of USA Basketball’s under-16 national team training camp.

Howard wasn’t allowed to do anything more than exchange a greeting with other prospects or their parents Wednesday. And he was only allowed to watch games involving his son, who is trying to make the 12-man roster for this summer’s FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Brazil. But the former Fab Five star’s presence certainly didn’t go unnoticed.

“Yeah, there’s some good buzz about Juwan Howard,” said Evan Daniels, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports who also was in attendance at the USA Basketball camp. “I mean, when he walked in the gym, everybody was, like, ‘Hey, there’s the new Michigan coach.’”

Yet the truth is, Howard’s hardly an unfamiliar face in the gym. And while questions about his readiness are running rampant as Howard takes the reins of a major Division I program despite having no previous college coaching experience, the notion that he’s a recruiting novice may be a bit misguided.

Howard has had two sons play Division I basketball — Joshua at Brown University, and Juwan Jr. at Detroit Mercy. Two more are on their way, as son Jace is a rising senior with scholarship offers from Dayton and San Diego State, while Jett already has offers from Florida and Vanderbilt. That explains why, in addition to all his time spent in the NBA —19 years as a player, and six more as an assistant on the Miami Heat bench — Howard has been a familiar face on the summer AAU circuit for some time now. A couple weeks ago, right about the time John Beilein was accepting the Cleveland Cavaliers’ job offer, Howard was watching Jett’s Miami-based Nightrydas Elite team at the Nike EYBL showcase in Indianapolis.

“So all that has given him an opportunity to see players,” Daniels said. “And for players to see him.”

Howard’s guide to NBA

And yes, those potential recruits surely have seen all the rest of it this week, as Howard’s former teammates — from Jalen Rose and Chris Webber to Dwyane Wade and LeBron James — took to the airwaves and social media, touting his candidacy first and then cheering Wednesday’s official hiring.

Howard’s return to the college game fits neatly into another narrative as well, following on the heels of other NBA alumni hires like Patrick Ewing at Georgetown and Penny Hardaway at Memphis. Other schools have gone this same route — for better (Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State) and for worse (Chris Mullin at St. John’s) — but what’s clear is the lines between the college and pro game are getting increasingly blurred, from the analytics-infused, small-ball systems all the way down to the birth certificates of the guys in uniform.

The NBA is expected to get rid of the one-and-done rule by 2022, and as Beilein himself noted Tuesday at his introductory press conference in Cleveland, “Pretty soon, they’re gonna be the same players we’ve been developing.” Already, it plays a significant role in the college recruiting game.

“When you talk to these kids, obviously their No. 1 goal is to get to the NBA,” Daniels said. “And for a lot of ’em, it’s to get there as quickly as possible. Guys like Juwan Howard, guys like Jerry Stackhouse, guys like Patrick Ewing, they all have a pretty significant knowledge of the league and what it takes. So yeah, that’s certainly an advantage.”

Howard was widely respected as both a teammate and an assistant in the NBA, thanks to an affable personality and an impressive work ethic. Those same traits are why some, including former Michigan standout Tim McCormick, who also works with the NBA Players Association, think he’ll be a “recruiting superstar” now that he’s back selling a Michigan brand he helped make famous — or infamous, critics will argue — as the founding member of the Fab Five.

But name recognition only gets you so far, and Howard knows it. That’s why he has been soliciting input from other coaches about what to expect — the process and the pitfalls — as he steps into this new role. As one former coach who’d spoken to Howard recently put it, “Trust me, he’s not walking into this blind.”

No, but he is walking into this late, though that fact — which severely limited Warde Manuel’s list of viable candidates — might be among the reasons he’s walking into it at all.

His coaching checklist

Regardless, first on Howard’s extensive to-do list is figuring out what his staff will look like. Beilein’s three assistants — Luke Yaklich, Saddi Washington and DeAndre Haynes — were left in the lurch by his abrupt departure, working on month-to-month contracts while trying to hold down the fort at the request of athletic director Warde Manuel. Yaklich, who interviewed for the head coaching job at UM, might have an offer waiting to join Shaka Smart’s staff at Texas. But keeping Washington in the fold would make a lot of sense for Howard, both for the sake of continuity and because of Washington’s long-standing local ties. Haynes might be a candidate to stay as well.

Howard also will look to add someone with previous head coaching experience at the collegiate level to his staff at Michigan. Something like what Stackhouse, another for NBA star who recently took the top job at Vanderbilt, did Thursday when he hired former Colorado coach Ricardo Patton as a senior advisor.

Jalen Wilson

The sooner, the better. Because the clock is ticking, and time is running out to salvage the 2019 recruiting class. Jalen Wilson, a top-50 recruit from Texas, requested and received a release from his letter of intent after Beilein’s departure. He’s now scheduled to visit Kansas and North Carolina, and while Wilson hasn’t ruled out a return to Michigan, “I think that ship has sailed," Daniels said.

That leaves only Cole Bajema, a four-star guard from Washington, for now. Another possibility, Franz Wagner, Moe’s younger brother, traveled from Germany for his official visit last week even though there was no head coach to meet with at the time. Also waiting — and wondering, perhaps — is Oakland graduate transfer Jaevin Cumberland, a shooting guard that Washington helped recruit out of high school.

Ditto the lone commitment in Michigan’s 2020 class, Zeb Jackson, a four-star guard out of Ohio, while another target in next year’s class, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, a top-50 recruit from New Jersey, was scheduled for a campus visit early next week, after this recruiting dead period ends. A handful of other 2020 recruits who received offers from Beilein now must figure out where things stand with Howard at the helm.

Michigan’s recruiting will take a different tack now that Beilein’s gone, and not just geographically. Beilein’s meticulous approach effectively eliminated some top-tier recruits, if only because he refused to extend offers until prospects had taken official visits and had finished their sophomore year in high school, among other criteria. And while no one knows yet what Michigan's offense will look like under Howard — or his defense, frankly — his track record of developing big men in the NBA likely will pique the interest of some prospects who previously would've looked elsewhere.

“There’s just a lot to play out, really,” Daniels said. “But getting a job like this late, you’re certainly gonna be playing catchup and having to familiarize yourself with the 2020 class and trying to build some relationships pretty quickly. …

“Recruiting is a relationship business more than anything. He can have all the notoriety in the world, but if you don’t have the real relationships then you’re not gonna get players. That’s the truth.”

Twitter: @johnniyo