AAU success leading to offers
These guys get asked the same question so many times, it probably gets repetitive: Where are you going to play in college? What colleges are looking at you?
No bigger stage was set to show off basketball talents than the Adidas AAU Invitational the second week of July in Indianapolis.
For North Harrison senior-to-be Cory Smith and Corydon Central junior-to-be Bronson Kessinger, they had an opportunity to impress college coaches of all levels at the event. A packet of roughly 130 pages for college coaches and media lists of rosters and players’ names outlined at the event that drew teams ranging from 14-and-under to seniors-to-be.
‘This is the biggest tournament in the Midwest,’ Kessinger said after his team won a pool play game on July 11. ‘Last night, we had at least 50 coaches watching us, including Tom Crean (from Indiana University), John Groce from Illinois, Tom Izzo (from Michigan State University) and a bunch of other schools. There are a lot of players here ranked in the top 100 of ESPN’s rankings. There is a lot better competition here, but you try not to think about the coaches watching you play.’
Kessinger stands out among the competition on the AAU circuit, and not just because of his red hair. The ‘Flying Tomato’ showed great versatility in his team’s ‘ Spiece Indy Heat 2015 ‘ win over Gateway (Missouri). He had a few blocked shots on the defensive end then ran the floor handling the ball. On the offensive end, Kessinger did what Corydon Central fans were used to seeing: scoring around the rim. He also did a few things not so familiar, like knocking down his lone 3-point attempt.
‘At Corydon, I’m mostly playing down low, but with AAU I do a variety of things,’ Kessinger said. ‘I handle the ball more, shoot the outside shot, but also post up. I usually play small forward then move to power forward, too.’
Play on the floor opens up for guys like Kessinger and Smith on the AAU circuit. Ask any coach in the Mid-Southern Conference about preparing for the Panthers or Cougars, and, most likely, they are looking to stop Kessinger or Smith.
And why not? Smith has already eclipsed the 1,000-point mark in his career. The shooting guard averaged 18.7 points per game last year for the Cougars, knocking down 66 3-pointers.
Smith, of course, turned heads his sophomore year with six games scoring 30-plus points. One was a 40-point effort against Austin when he hit six triples, going 12 of 18 from the field.
Playing for SYF Players, based out of Indianapolis, Smith’s AAU coach Ramon Stallings said that the offense provided by the 5-11 guard is what helps his team and projects well with college coaches.
‘What Cory offers us is the ability to spread the court,’ Stallings said. ‘He’s a very skilled offensive player. Most kids at his age can shoot the ball well but can’t shoot it with the depth he has. He has NBA range.’
In the first pool play against at the Adidas Invitational, Smith made all seven shot attempts. Game two was just as strong, hitting 3 after 3 to keep his team within striking distance of the lead. He also had a few steals and dished on a fast break for a teammate’s dunk.
‘They like my shot and range, but they want to see me handle the ball more,’ Smith said of his feedback from college coaches. ‘One thing they look for, too, is ability to guard my position.’
Most of the positive feedback on Smith is his shooting ability.
‘At the next level, he gives the opportunity to provide a team with a good scoring punch,’ Stallings said. ‘He’ll be that spark-type guy. Not only can he shoot in the half-court set, but he shoots really well in transition. I would like to see him get better ball handling. He can go from an undersized shooting guard to a point guard who can shoot it if he keeps working on ball handling.’
Smith currently has offers to various Division II schools, along with JUCO. Cincinnati State is an early favorite of Smith’s, but there is more time to wow coaches.
Kessinger, on the other hand, has been a focus of coaches since his freshman year at Corydon Central.
As if playing in your first sectional game as a freshman in 2012 wasn’t enough pressure, Indiana’s Crean was seated along the baseline, taking in the game.
The Panthers went on to beat Charlestown, but all the talk was about Crean watching Kessinger.
‘I was at the free-throw line, shot the first one and I looked over to the left, and Crean was sitting right there,’ Kessinger recalled. ‘I couldn’t believe it. All weekend after that, friends were texting me saying that it was awesome.’
While Kessinger has had college coaches come to high school games and practices to work out the now 6-foot-8 forward, AAU events like the Adidas Invitational provides the opportunity for a lot of coaches to scout.
‘(Kessinger is) not getting double and triple teamed like he sees in high school,’ said his AAU coach Jim Reamer. ‘Some say kids develop bad habits (in AAU), but I think they develop different habits. Cody Zeller is going to experience that in the NBA. He’s no longer going to be the top of the scouting report like he was at IU. He’ll have more room to make plays. Like Bronson here, he has more freedom to step away and not be double teamed. He can work on his game from the 18-foot level.’
Offers for Kessinger are starting to roll in. The week of the Adidas Invitational, he received his first offer, from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Since then, the offers to play Division I basketball have jumped to a list of eight: Evansville, Illinois State, Indiana State, IPFW, IUPUI, Kennesaw State, North Carolina Greensboro and Western Kentucky University. Kessinger’s father, Tom, played collegiate football for WKU.
‘Once you get the first offer, the other ones come in easy behind them,’ the younger Kessinger said.
He said he doesn’t have a clear favorite but is still interacting with coaches who are interested.
‘He has some offers already,’ Reamer said. ‘Most of the Missouri Valley coaches are in on him, and we hear a lot from Big 10 and ACC schools. Boston College and Stanford are trying hard to get to see him.’
Reamer said some players get frustrated by the delay in offers, but not every school is managed like the high majors such as traditional powers Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky or Louisville.
‘There are a lot of other schools involved deeper, but most of these schools don’t have their 2014 classes set yet,’ Reamer said. ‘Bronson’s sell is always going to be his motor.’
While at Corydon Central, Kessinger averaged 16.1 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots per game as a sophomore.
In high school, Kessinger has mainly played on the block due to his obvious size advantage. On the AAU circuit, Kessinger plays more freely in the offense.
‘From a forward perspective, he has a great amount of versatility,’ Reamer said. ‘We’ve got a lot of freedom in our offense. He’s in a situation where we have to rely on him moving without the ball. The offense isn’t centered around one person.’
Kessinger is aware of his attributes as well.
‘The coaches I talk to like that I have versatility,’ he said. ‘Playing inside or out helps stretch a defense out to create mismatches. Here, if I get a big guy on me outside, I can drive by him, or, if I get a smaller guy on me, I can post him up.’
The goal in AAU is to win tournaments and gain exposure. Before the start of the Adidas Invitational, Brad Stevens announced he was leaving a successful run at Butler University to coach the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Butler has been and continues to be actively recruiting Kessinger, but it was his first experience of a coach switching gigs.
‘I had a feeling it might happen but didn’t think it would happen that soon,’ Kessinger said. ‘He went to the Celtics, so I’m fine with that. The coaching staff there is still recruiting me. The new head coach, Brandon Miller, he was actually my coach at the Elite camp, so I got to know him a little better.’
Smith said playing AAU not only helps his exposure to coaches, but also to speed up his game.
‘It’s a lot faster out here and a lot more bigger bodies down low when you drive,’ he said. ‘They let you play a lot. There’s not a lot of fouls called.’
There aren’t scouting reports of opponents like you see on the high school level. Not a lot of film to watch to see guys like Smith and Kessinger stand out.
‘I’ve coached high school ball for nine years and AAU ball for 10 years; the difference is you have a lot of film in high school,’ Stallings said. ‘There are opportunities to watch kids play and set up defenses to stop an individual or a team from what they want to do. AAU ball is more of, can you change on the fly? Can you adjust when need be? Cory helps us out in that aspect because you don’t often see 25-foot 3-pointers go in.’
Reamer said Kessinger has a great opportunity to continue to grow his game. Working on his ball-handling skills, along with his outside shot, will improve his stock, according to his coach.
‘His ability to hit that shot consistently is what is going to change his game the most,’ Reamer said. ‘He has to work on guarding different positions, too. A lot of times they don’t look at Bronson and say, ‘Oh, he’s a power forward.’ They look for his skills. Who can he guard? Is he quick enough to guard a three? Is he strong enough to guard a four? He’s been able to show he can do those things.’
Reamer also said players around Kessinger can earn attention of college scouts as well, either at the AAU level or at Corydon Central.
‘Sometimes I know teammates get envious of the attention their teammates get,’ he said. ‘It’s kind of flawed because coaches see them, too. They don’t close their eyes when a teammate gets the ball. They may not get involved in recruiting the kid, but they know coaches at another level they can suggest them to. It happens here at AAU, too.’
The last players from Harrison County to play Division I men’s basketball were Corydon Central graduate Kyle Savely (2004 graduate, played at IPFW from 2005-07) and South Central graduate Craig Schoen (2002 graduate, played at Lipscomb from 2002-03).
Smith and Kessinger spent June with their respective high school teams then, when the AAU season ends in a few weeks, they’ll return to school teams again.
‘I don’t want AAU to hurry, but I think we’re going to surprise people in high school this year,’ Kessinger said. ‘We want to get back to regional.’
‘We went up to Indianapolis to play some different schools and some better competition overall,’ Smith said about the month of June with North Harrison. ‘We were a little short-handed, like Joseph (Hinton) off playing golf (sectional), but we played well. I’m excited for the season to start.’
With Smith and Kessinger both playing in the Mid-Southern Conference and the same sectional, it’s sure to be a bright hoops season, drawing plenty of college attention.