Spring Grove's Eli Brooks has been on the radar of Division I college programs and the recruiting season heats up in July with several AAU showcase tournaments. Jim Seip, GameTimePA.com
Any high school athlete immersed in the college recruiting process is facing more pressure than his or her peers. Their athletic and academic future could take a turn with each performance or interview.
How they handle that pressure is unique to each individual.
Eli Brooks bounced around the Gallagher Center halls at Philadelphia University on Wednesday joking with teammates and chatting with coaches while waiting for his AAU team's turn to play.
This didn't look like a 17-year-old kid about to play in front of some of the nation's top college basketball coaches including Louisville's Rick Pitino.
Brooks' basketball future hangs in the balance with just a few AAU tournaments left for coaches to scout. On Wednesday there was a wall lined with coaches from Villanova, Iowa, Temple, St. Joseph's, North Carolina State and several more eager to get a glimpse of the smooth-shooting guard. And here Brooks was, calm and loose as if he was about to shoot around in his driveway.
If Brooks was nervous, it didn't show.
"It definitely goes through your mind but at the end of the day you just have to go out and play basketball," Brooks said of the pressure. "They're looking at you for a reason. So just keep doing what you're doing."
Brooks joked that he occasionally catches himself peeking over at what college coaches are in attendance when he first walks in the gym, but only for a second.
Maybe that was a factor in how he played early Wednesday at the Elevate Hoops Summer Icebreaker showcase. Momentarily, at least, Brooks reminded everyone that perhaps nerves can take over when he committed three fouls in the first six minutes for the Jersey Shore Warriors and had to sit the rest of the first half.
But the always-composed guard bounced back in the second, showing off that poise that coaches rave about. He showed off his ball-handling skills and basketball IQ, breaking a relentless full-court press consistently with smart passes and making sure his teammates were in the right position. He made free throws, threw down a dunk, set up several teammates with highlight-reel passes and scored 15 points just a few feet from where Pitino watched from the baseline.
"It's good to be good at multiple things in basketball," Brooks said. "If you don't do one thing particularly well (that day), you can do other things really well and I'm getting noticed by that...There are a lot of things that don't show up in stat lines that mean a lot to coaches."
Brooks' dad, James, who coaches him at Spring Grove, echoed his son's sentiments, adding that being balanced and staying positive even during a bad half or game can be crucial.
"I think it's 'What are you really made of?' Are you more than just one attribute?" James Brooks said. "If you're only a shooter, then if you don't shoot well that month, then you're out. But I think with Eli, he brings such a flavor to the game. It's his assists, his points, his defense, his rebounding, toughness. It's a lot for a coach to see in a game...I think the big thing is he just acts like himself and not do anything Eli Brooks doesn't do. He doesn't have to do anything special, just be himself."
Each performance is becoming more and more critical with just a few weeks left of the AAU season before Brooks returns to Spring Grove for his senior season. He already has roughly 15 Division I scholarship offers in hand including offers Kansas State and George Mason. He's also been on visits to Michigan, Villanova and Ohio State in recent weeks.
"I think there's more pressure on parents and coaches to try and let everything work out," Jersey Shore Warriors head coach Tony Sagona said. "I think the kids just go out and play and a great player like Eli just goes out and does his thing. Toward the end of July if they don't see the coaches calling, then they put more pressure on themselves. But in Eli's case, as he sees more of the top schools calling in, he's getting more relaxed because he has offers."
The feeling is more offers are to come over the next month or so. Brooks said he'd like to have a decision made by the fall and admits an offer from the school he grew up cheering for — Villanova — would be the most exciting offer. With that being said, a family atmosphere will ultimately be the deciding factor.
"You're going to be spending four years and possibly five with that core group of people," Eli Brooks said. "So you have to surround yourself with people you trust and look forward to being around every single day because those are going to be your brothers."
Josh Verlin, editor of City of Basketball Love — a website covering high school and college basketball recruiting in and around Philadelphia — noticed Brooks as a player to watch last spring. Verlin noted during a recent interview how much Brooks has improved.
"He's definitely a kid who knows what he's doing and he really improved every facet of his game," Verlin said. "He has great athleticism, surprising ups, he's a much better defender and a very good shooter. There's a lot to like about him."
Verlin has reported on and seen several of the region's top college recruits. He sees Brooks making the most impact at a high-end, mid-major program or with a low-end major conference team.
"Not that he couldn't play at the highest level down the road, but a lot of kids like to reach a bit and I think he'd be an instant impact player at a very good mid-major team," Verlin said. "Maybe he could be a really good Big Ten player by his junior year, it all depends on fit, but I can see him as a player at a top mid-major program who can contribute all four years."
By all accounts, Brooks hasn't been rattled by the big-name coaches or playing top recruits on the AAU circuit. He's handled all of the hype in typical Eli Brooks fashion — collected and relaxed off the court, tenacious on the court — that Spring Grove fans have grown to admire.
"Just seeing that these coaches you've watched on TV and admired over the years have seen what I see and what our community sees in that Eli is a special player and he has something to offer maybe for their teams is special," James Brooks said.
There's no doubt Brooks is special. But what makes him elite? What makes him stand out in a crowd of Division I talent?
Sagona has helped 400 of his former players go on to play college ball, including five who reached the NBA and he raves about the guard's athletic ability, shooting touch, eagerness to learn and the fact that all of his teammates love playing with him. What stands out the most may be Brooks' desire to improve every day and that's one of the reasons Sagona has no doubts he'll succeed at the next level.
"My shooting has gotten a lot better but I pride myself on defense," Brooks said. "Someone once told me when I first got recruited if you can only guard someone at let's say an NEC (Northeastern Conference) level, then you're only going to go to NEC (schools), but if you can guard the top players, you can go anywhere."