The day D.J. Russell captured the attention of Chris Caputo, the Miami assistant wasn’t even there to recruit him.
Caputo and coaches from eight other top programs attended practice at Arlington Country Day High School in Jacksonville last April to watch highly touted Class of 2014 guard Bradone Francis play. Russell did so well guarding a player three years older than him that day that Caputo told AAU coach Emory Walton that Miami intended to offer the 6-foot-6 eighth grader a scholarship.
“When Emory told me, I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” D.J.’s father Dwayne Russell said. “I didn’t believe it but he kept telling me they offered.”
The scholarship offer turned into a full-fledged commitment during a conference call Tuesday afternoon when D.J. told Miami coach Jim Larranaga he wants to play for the Hurricanes. That means D.J. has chosen a college before many of his peers even decide which high school to attend this fall.
Dwayne Russell knows the family will face scrutiny for allowing D.J. to select a college four years before he can enroll there, but the elder Russell believes his son will remain loyal to Miami. D.J. grew up a Hurricanes fan, he feels very comfortable with Caputo and Larranaga and he believes the style Miami plays is a good fit for his slashing skill set.
“D.J. is committed to the coaching staff and the school,” his father said. “As long as Coach Larranaga is there and Coach Caputo is there and everything is going good for the university, that’s where he is going to be. We’re loyal folks. We believe in loyalty. I don’t care if he blows up and everyone wants to jump on his bandwagon. They should have gotten in on the ground floor like Miami did.”
If D.J. ever dons a Miami jersey in 2017, he’ll be in the minority among prospects who have committed so early.
College coaches offer scholarships to kids as young as eighth or ninth grade because being the first to show interest can be a selling point during recruiting, but most players who commit so young change their mind during high school. Sometimes it’s because what they want in a college changes. Other times it’s because of coaching turnover. And still other times it’s because they simply don’t develop into the caliber of player the coaches involved once envisioned.
Taylor King, a coveted prospect who initially chose UCLA as an eighth grader in 2004, reneged when Ben Howland recruited other players at his position and instead played for Duke, Villanova and Division II Concordia University. Michael Avery, an eighth grader who committed to Kentucky in 2008 before he’d selected a high school, backed out of his decision when Billy Gillispie was fired the following year and wound up at Division II Sonoma State. Ryan Boatright, who initially chose USC in eighth grade, changed his mind after Tim Floyd’s firing in 2009 and is now a junior at UConn.
Walton, D.J.’s AAU coach with the Atlanta Celtics, doesn’t expect the young small forward to become another cautionary tale.
“From day one, D.J. talked about Miami and that he really loved Miami,” Walton said. “I don’t think it’s too early. I think it can be a blessing. You look at kids who didn’t go through a big recruiting process, and those kids have been successful longterm because everyone isn’t telling you how good you are for a four-year stretch. Where he’s going to college is taken care of. Now it’s on D.J. to work hard and get better.”
Assuming D.J. continues to develop his game, it appears he could be a real asset to Miami in four years.
Walton describes D.J. as a versatile scorer who can take smaller wings into the post and beat players his size off the dribble. His ball handling and outside shot are still developing because he played down low a lot growing up, but Walton expects D.J. to turn both those facets of his game into strengths during the next four years.
There will be a lot of pressure on D.J. the next few years since he’ll be known as the kid who committed to Miami before his first day of high school, but his father has faith in his son.
“I know it’s going to be heavily scrutinized, but D.J. knows what he wants to do in his heart and we’re on board with it,” Dwayne Russell said. “That’s my son. I love him. His mom loves him. That’s what he wants, and we’re going to help him get there."