BELLFLOWER, Calif. — Zac Nuttall admits he hasn't spent as much time with his girlfriend this summer as he'd like.
Anytime she asks him to ride roller coasters at Six Flags or sunbathe at the beach, the 17-year-old senior-to-be usually has to decline in favor of lifting weights, sweating through speed and agility drills or hoisting up hundreds of shots at the gym.
Nuttall, a guard at West Ranch High in Valencia, Calif., doesn't have the free time most of his classmates do this summer because he's preparing for maybe the most crucial stretch of his basketball career. At events in Long Beach, Boston, Anaheim and Las Vegas the next three weeks, he'll showcase his game in front of college coaches from across the nation in hopes of impressing them enough to earn his first Division I scholarship offers.
"July is what I work for," Nuttall said. "It would be disappointing not to go Division I because that has been my goal since freshman year. Sometimes I'll put too much pressure on myself, but I've talked to my parents and they remind me all I can do is go out there and give it my all. I'm under-the-radar. I've got nothing to lose."
Although Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and other highly ranked future college stars will hog most of the spotlight during the July evaluation period, it's actually lesser-known recruits like Nuttall who have the most on the line. A 25-point performance against a talent-laden opponent can catch the attention of coaches who previously hadn't shown interest. Conversely, too many forced shots and turnovers at such a critical time can cause schools that were once paying attention to back away.
To provide a window into the pressure facing recruits trying to take advantage of the only time each summer that the NCAA allows college coaches to evaluate prospects in person, Yahoo! Sports will track two players during the July evaluation period.
One is Sheldon Blackwell, a guard from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who has offers from a handful of mid-major programs but hopes to attract some higher-profile options. The other is Nuttall, the quintessential borderline Division I recruit.
Since most Division I coaches will have a pretty good idea who their top Class of 2013 targets are by the end of July, Nuttall believes this is likely his last chance to prove he can compete at college basketball's highest level. He has received interest from UC Irvine, Cal Poly, Yale and a handful of lower-division schools, but no coaches are ready to offer a scholarship without seeing how a kid generously listed at 6-foot-1, 167-pounds fares against bigger, stronger guards in July.
"Once teams see all the work he has put in to improve his game, I think he's going to get the D-I offers he needs," said Craig Stover, Nutall's AAU coach with BTI Select. "The key thing for him is being confident and being coachable. He's got to just play and do what we taught him."
Basketball was once more hobby than obsession for Nuttall, but that began to change when he joined BTI his freshman year. Bursts of sporadic success against older, stronger boys convinced him that playing college basketball was an attainable goal, leading him and his parents to spend almost as many hours at far-flung high school gyms the past three years as they have in their own home.
If Nuttall fails to achieve his dream of playing Division I basketball, it won't be a result of a lack of effort. Although his slender physique is hardly head-turning, he compensates by maximizing the physical tools he does have in workouts and games.
Zac Nuttall (photo by Kristy Nuttall)Nuttall practices year-round with both West Ranch and BTI Select. Three times a week, he also makes an hour-long drive from Valencia to Altadena for 90 minutes of plyometric training to improve his speed and explosiveness. And for the last year and a half, he has worked to revamp his shot with shooting coach Mike Penberthy, a former Los Angeles Lakers guard.
In addition to the sessions with coaches and trainers, Nuttall also works diligently by himself. Even though he studies enough to maintain a solid 3.4 GPA, he rarely allows a day to go by without lifting weights at home and practicing his shooting and ball handling skills at the gym.
"He's a harder worker than anyone I know, and I'm not just saying that because I'm his mom," Kristy Nuttall said. "He really does work seven days a week. He's all over the place every day. I would say he's putting 25, 30 hours a week easily. We told him a long ago he doesn't need to get a part-time job because this is his job."
It's too soon to determine if the hard work will result in a Division I scholarship, but there's no doubt Nuttall is a better basketball player because of it. What he lacks in size and strength he makes up for with quick hands on defense, a steady jump shot and an improved ability to attack the rim off the dribble.
He helped West Ranch win its first league championship and match its deepest playoff run last season. He averaged 14.0 points, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game for BTI Select during the April evaluation period. And he has added newfound burst and bounce thanks to his workouts, dunking with ease, getting to the rim and even nearly out-sprinting an Oregon State corner from his area who ran a 4.5-second 40 meters in high school.
"This kid was ridiculously fast, and Zac was right there stride for stride," said Niko Fontanilla, Nuttall's trainer at The Performance Edge. "You look at the guy, and he's not some 6-6 monster that you can tell has the ability to go D-I. He doesn't seem like he's much at all until you start to see him move, and then you realize, 'Holy crap, this kid is tenacious and he can go.'"
If Nuttall doesn't manage to earn a basketball scholarship, he'll still have the opportunity to get a college education. His parents have money to pay for him to go to a four-year school, though his mom admits basketball could open up options they can't afford.
A quality Division II or Division III program where Nuttall could get a good education is one option he'd consider. A year of prep school is another since it would give him another 12 months to get stronger and earn a scholarship offer.
Nonetheless, there's no question what his motivation will be the next three weeks each time he looks into the stands and sees dozens of coaches in the bleachers.
"I want to play D-I," Nuttall said. "D-I is the highest level possible. If I can get a good education at a D-II or a D-III, I won't hang my head, but going D-I is definitely something I'm shooting for."
On nights last winter when he'd already lifted weights, practiced for two hours and sank a few hundred extra shots at the gym, Nuttall didn't stop pursuing his goal even after he returned home and flipped on the TV. He'd select a game from his vast DVR library of college hoops, often rewinding moves he wanted to incorporate into his own game and emulating them on the living room carpet until he mastered them.
Watching high school friends play in college inspired Nuttall to work harder. This time next year, he hopes to be preparing to join them.