It’s shocking that it took until 2009 for the NCAA to ban the recruiting of eighth graders. Aside from the obvious ethical quandaries inherent in objectifying middle schoolers the same way one would evaluate a head of cattle, it can’t be good for the students themselves. So a case study is perhaps in order. Remember Demetrius Walker? He managed to be washed up at 16, and make a comeback at 18.
What happens when you can dunk at 8 years old, and you receive your first recruiting letter at 11? There’s nowhere to go but down. And what happens when it turns out you just had your growth spurt early, and all of your classmates start catching up to you? Demetrius Walker’s freshman year in high school was a huge disappointment, and you’re not alone in thinking that a ninth-grader being called a disappointment is all sorts of wrong.
Walker is the latest in a line of prospects who fall into the hype machine far too early, a list that includes O.J Mayo, Bill Walker and Schea Cotton. He’s doing everything he can to be lumped in with the first two, making their NBA debuts this year, and to avoid becoming identified with the last, the buzzword for failed prospects.
Walker’s freshman season in HS was lackluster at best, as he was forced to play forward, where he knew he would never be able to play in the pros. Nagging injuries kept him at less than 100%, and the losses mounted. And the pressure took its toll.
Said one Internet basketball report after Walker’s pedestrian seven-point performance in a game last December, “Whoever said he is the next LeBron (James, star of the Cleveland Cavaliers) needs to have their head examined.”
Walker’s nadir came when Fontana faced traditional New York City power Lincoln High on Jan. 21 in a game billed as a showdown between the nation’s two top-ranked freshmen: Walker and Lincoln’s Lance Stephenson. Still hobbled by his hamstring injury and fearful of being embarrassed on a national stage, Walker cried as he boarded the flight to New York and asked coaches not to play him.
One national magazine in July carried the headline, “Didn’t you used to be…?” along with a short story on Walker’s troubles that declared to readers, “what you’re hearing is a thud.” Opposing fans took similar potshots from the stands, forcing his mother to wear headphones to away games to shield herself from the vitriol.
“He read his press clippings and stopped working hard,” said Clark Francis, editor of HOOP SCOOP ONLINE, a national scouting service specializing in youth players. “The question is, how bad does Demetrius want it? I don’t think he has the burning desire to be great.”
The story seems like it’ll have a happier ending. Three high schools later, Walker has gone from the number 1 prospect in the country to number 80. But he’s committed to Arizona State for next year, where he’ll play the point, his natural position. Instead of being the next messiah, he’ll be just another talented basketball player. And that’s for the best.
Is it cruel to turn children into celebrities? Sure. But we get the press we deserve, and if there’s an industry devoted to covering pre-pubescent athletes, it’s only because there’s the demand for it. We’re always on the lookout for the next LeBron, the next Kobe, the next M.J. Because as fun as it is to hype up a player beyond all realistic expectations, only to see them justify it, it’s almost as satisfying to see them bust.
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