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Great Read On The Recruiting Pipeline Pearl Has Developed


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Inside the pipeline fueling Pearl's program

Nathan King • AuburnSports
Staff

It started with Isaac Okoro.

Bruce Pearl wasn’t surrounded by other big-name coaches. He wasn’t watching the best players in the country. He wasn’t in a high-profile gym, at a massive event or even watching an overly relevant age group.

But Pearl had already convinced himself he needed Okoro — and he needed him badly.

Alone, the Auburn head coach sat along the baseline, watching a game on the EYBL circuit in Augusta, Ga. Okoro had just finished up his freshman year at McEachern High School. It was the 15-and-under league. Pearl wanted to make an impression on his guy early.

“Those were at old high schools somewhere, so a coach had to make an effort to go watch,” said Mike Thompson, the head coach at McEachern. “And there weren’t many coaches there, but Bruce was there.”

Okoro (35) during his McEachern playing days.
 
Okoro (35) during his McEachern playing days. (Getty Images)

Thompson had developed a previous relationship with Pearl from when the coach was recruiting guard Trae Golden to play at Tennessee — an endeavor Pearl eventually succeeded in, however, he left for Auburn a year after Golden arrived in Knoxville.

The next time Pearl returned to see a McEachern player, Thompson, who has been the head coach for the Indians for 12 years, could tell how much Pearl desired to be the first one in on Okoro’s talent.

“I thought, ‘Wow, he’s getting an early start on Isaac.’ That was the first time,” Thompson told AuburnSports.com. “You have to have a little bit of a foresight into what the kid might become for you to invest that much in him to come and watch him just about every time that he played.

"From then on, he was always at events we played at, taking a huge interest in Isaac and Sharife.”

Pearl was hooked, moving forward with his recruiting staff always with Powder Springs, Ga., in mind, always making sure one eye was on Okoro, and, shortly after, point guard phenom and future McDonald's All-American Sharife Cooper.

The interest in those two — both of whom played all four years of their high school ball for Thompson — started to branch to associated teams and players, regardless of how long or short a prospect may have been involved with McEachern’s program. All of a sudden, Pearl has a pipeline running, fueling his Auburn roster in recent years with talented prospects from both McEachern High School and the nearby Athletes of Tomorrow EYBL squad that has heavy McEachern flavor come summertime. Okoro will be staying in the NBA draft process, but Auburn is still set to boast McEachern alums next season in Cooper and big men Babatunde “Stretch” Akingbola and Dylan Cardwell. One of their buddies from the EYBL side of the pipeline, wing scorer Devan Cambridge, will be a sophomore.

“It just makes you feel good to see kids like that get an opportunity and a chance to play,” Thompson said. “For me, getting to see them play together is even better.”

It obviously wasn’t a given they’d all move on to Pearl’s program. There were always others gracing the same gyms as Thompson and Pearl. Coaches could watch Okoro play once and realize the explosive forward had superstar potential.

The other suitors began to flock to AOT games and to McEachern as sophomore year turned to junior year for the small forward. But Okoro never forgot about Pearl, who, along with his staff, kept following Okoro throughout his McEachern career, whether it was games not far away in Georgia or Team USA tournaments in Argentina.

“He’s a pretty loyal dude,” Thompson said of Okoro, “so just those kinds of things, and the fact they were the first on him, and they continually showed an interest in him, is why he selected Auburn to begin with.”

Though Okoro was the first prospect from McEachern and AOT that Auburn longed to sign, the sheer talent emitting from a young Cooper’s ball-handling abilities and strength at the rim would begin to dazzle coaches soon enough.

Like Thompson alluded to when Pearl first started making the rounds around his Indians team and AOT, Cooper started to become just as much a priority as Okoro. When both became elite prospects, they both ultimately chose Auburn because of the loyalty factor; Pearl believed in them when they were budding underclassmen, as Auburn was Cooper’s first offer and Okoro’s second.

Sharife Cooper during a visit as a high school freshman in August 2016, when Bruce Pearl extended him his offer.
 
 
 
 
Sharife Cooper during a visit as a high school freshman in August 2016, when Bruce Pearl extended him his offer. (Jeffrey Lee / AuburnSports.com)

Ultimately, Thompson said, conversations about Pearl’s program — and the general prospect of playing together at the next level — bled over into discussions at practices and games that he was in earshot for.

“I think Sharife and Isaac being really close, I think that had a lot to do with it,” Thompson said. “When they were in our locker room, with Stretch and Isaac and Sharife and Dylan — and even Jared Jones (a 3-star power forward who ultimately committed to Northwestern over Auburn, Wake Forest, Georgia and others), they often had conversations about playing together in college. It’s something they wanted to try to do, and early on they talked about that.

“... With Stretch and Sharife and Isaac, then Dylan later, it was easy to see why they could all end up at the same place.”

AOT was the other side of the coin for all those would-be Tigers. Grassroots summer hoops programs are more prevalent than ever across the high school basketball scene in America. Players are now wired to be constantly playing against high-level competition, even when the high school season has concluded.

Cooper’s father, Omar Cooper, who now runs LifeStyle sports agency and has been a basketball mentor to Okoro from a young age, founded AOT, which has proven to be another outlet for Sharife Cooper to gather his friends and produce at a high level on the hardwood.

It was also another outlet for Cooper and Okoro to discuss playing together in college with other players.

“There’s no question that was big for them,” Thompson said of his players being coached by Omar Cooper on Team AOT. “In today’s game, kids want to play with other kids that they like playing with and they know they like playing with. They want to play with good players.

“And when you get, you know, in the summer stuff that’s so competitive now, when you’re on an elite team and you’re with other good players, there’s always discussions about kids playing together.”

Players and parents alike want that transition to be seamless from high school ball in the fall to the grassroots circuits in the summer. Sharife Cooper, Okoro, Akingbola and Cardwell all played for both McEachern and AOT (Cardwell never saw the floor because the Georgia High School Association ruled him ineligible following a transfer from Oak Hill Academy), and Cambridge came over from Hillcrest Prep in Arizona to play with AOT for a summer.

“As you found out the last few years, parents are not above trying to get their kids all to the same place to try to play together in high school,” Thompson said. “You’ve got LeBron James out there actively recruiting to try to get kids to come to play with his son. It just happens all over the country. I think when those kids get together in the summer — they spend a lot of time together, they play together, they travel together, so, naturally, they’re going to become friends, and those bonds are going to grow.

“I think it’s just the nature of the game right now.”

Naturally, seeing as his father runs the show in the summer and that he was Thompson’s four-year floor general in the fall, Cooper fitted himself into the role of ringleader for the McEachern, AOT and Auburn connection.

That especially picked up once Cooper finally committed to Auburn last year. Once the ink dried and he was a Tiger, Cooper was able to verbalize to other elite prospects about why they should join him and also wear the orange and blue.

When Cardwell committed to Auburn last week, though he never played a minute for McEachern on the floor, the 4-star center said his relationship with Cooper, Akingbola and others played a massive role in his wanting to play for Auburn from the beginning.

“I’m glad it worked out that we’re at the same school which was the right fit for both of us,” Cardwell said in a personal blog post for Sports Illustrated following his commitment. “I know that we’ll have an advantage from a chemistry perspective because we already had it. Me sitting back and watching [Cooper] for a year let me learn his game even more.”

Cooper’s natural ability to lead in a locker room and spearhead a movement is a trait Thompson has seen blossom over the years, and it’s something he knows the point guard has possessed for a long time and will continue to utilize at Auburn.

“To describe that ability that he has to have other players follow him — it’s just like when you see a really good athlete out there and you say, you know, he’s got that ‘it’ factor,” Thompson said of Cooper. “He’s got whatever it is, whatever is that quality that separates him. He’s a winner. Some guys have it and some guys don’t. And he has it. That’s something he’s had ever since he was a ninth grader with me — other kids listened to him. It’s not new to me. He and Isaac could get together and make a decision, and the team was on board with it. That’s just kind of the way our thing has run since they’ve been there.

Cooper (2) finishes his high school career as one of the most decorated players in Peach State history.
 
 
 
 
Cooper (2) finishes his high school career as one of the most decorated players in Peach State history. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

“I think the relationships those kids built — both summertime and during the high school season — you think about doing both of those together and they spent an awful lot of time together. That’s a huge amount of time. There’s a comfort level involved in that. They feel comfortable with each other. And when you’re comfortable, sometimes you play better.”

As if watching Okoro become an NBA lottery pick before the SEC’s eyes last season wasn’t fun enough for Thompson, had he returned to Auburn for his sophomore campaign, he, Cooper, Cambridge, and one of either Akingbola or Cardwell would have been probable starters for Pearl — three McEachern grads and four AOT teammates in the starting lineup.

That obviously won't be with Okoro set to become a millionaire when he's drafted this summer. But Cooper, Cambridge, Akingbola and Cardwell's collegiate careers are only just beginning. There are still plenty more McEachern and AOT stories to be written on the Plains.

“They’re hard workers — all of them,” Thompson said. “And they taught me a lot. I had some good kids come through my program and I thought, ‘Those kids are working hard.’ Obviously I didn’t know what I was talking about because when I saw Sharife and Isaac and Stretch and Dylan — the way they approach things and the way they work at things — they raised my level of expectation for basketball players."

 

 

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  • ellitor changed the title to Great Read On The Recruiting Pipeline Pearl Has Developed




Great article.   Thanks for sharing it and I love the underlying work ethic.  That work ethic usually pays dividends long term.  I sure hope we can hold onto some of these players to capitalize on such.

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The McEachern pipeline has been kind to us the last couple cycles. I have hopes that the familiarity these guys have with each other through playing together in HS means we can avoid some of the early season bumps a lot of young teams experience. 

Does anyone know if there are future D1 prospects coming out of the school over the next couple seasons? I wasn't sure if this school typically puts out guys of Okoros and Shariff skill level or not.

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17 minutes ago, gravejd said:

Does anyone know if there are future D1 prospects coming out of the school over the next couple seasons?

High 4* SG Chance Moore in 2021 but as thing are & are expected to develop the 2021 class for AU is expected to be very small with a total of 1-2 in the class. For 2022 there are too few rankings out right now to really have an idea.

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