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Joshua Christopher’s Decision And Its Relation To The Past And Future Of HBCU

Josh Christopher is one of the top talents from the 2020 high school class of hoopers. He’s included Howard—an HBCU—on his final recruiting list of five options. Could Christopher become the next great to make it to the NBA via an HBCU?

Joshua Christopher/Howard Bison

Just a few days ago The Athletic published an interview with Josh Christopher (all quotes used here are credited to The Athletic and its David Aldridge). Just in case you don’t know him, he’s one of the best talents coming out of the 2020 high school class of basketball players. Christopher is currently ranked as the 11th-best kid in 247Sports Composite board and has yet to commit—he plans on leave his decision on the table at least until spring.

That last bit, along with his words in said interview and what he’s done lately brought my attention to something not talked about much anywhere. Christopher, from Lakewood, CA, opted to burn one of his five official recruiting visits by going to Howard’s campus all the way east in Washington, D.C. If you’re a little lost in the vastness of America’s land, well, there are just north of 2,500 miles separating Lakewood and D.C. No joke, let’s say.

How come a borderline top-10 prospect is flying all the way from his hometown to visit a program like Howard, which hasn’t appeared in the NCAA tournament since 1992, let alone won it? Before getting to Christopher words, we should make a quick note on Howard.

Howard University is a private, historically black university (HBCU). Not going to get into more than that for now. Heading into 2019, there are just 14 HBCU playing in NCAA’s D-I, Howard among them. The difference in everything between those colleges and the rest of the field is staggering in most cases, no matter what you look at or put up for comparison. So any truly talented athlete choosing them over other options that could put them in better positions is something that simply doesn’t happen these days.

What those schools have to them, though, is a rich history. Or as Christopher put it, “culture”. That got me wondering how HBCUs have done in getting talent since I have data covering high school players’ decisions. Obviously, I knew what I was in for from the very first second. Howard is one of the most recognized colleges among all HBCUs and still hasn’t appeared in a tournament for more than 25 years, which doesn’t scream recruiting success.

To make the exploration, I got to my database containing yearly information from high school classes and players since 2003—yes, the year a certain LeBron ditched the collegiate ranks to make it straight to the NBA. I kept my list of HBCU colleges down to the 14 currently playing in the NCAA D-I, and I looked for players who chose to play for them since 2003.

Could Christopher really pick Howard over the other finalists in his list? Will he really turn his back to UCLA, Michigan, Missouri, and Arizona State and play for the Bisons? Let’s take a look at what history has to say about it.

How many prospects have chosen to attend an HBCU since 2003?

There are 11,761 players in the data set I’m using—which comes from 247Sports Composite yearly prospect rankings—that picked a college from the year 2003 to that of 2019. There were up to a thousand names ranked in each class during the early days, buck present-day classes are cut-out at around 400 of them.

Of those 11,761, here are those who have gone to one of the 14 HBCU D-I schools in that span:

HBCU Recruits - 2003 to 2019

HBCU Total Recruits Best Player Rank
HBCU Total Recruits Best Player Rank
Alabama State 21 278
Alcorn State 18 146
Coppin State 12 325
Delaware State 7 629
Grambling State 16 456
Hampton 20 173
Howard 21 255
Jackson State 25 101
Mississippi Valley State 18 438
Morgan State 14 252
Norfolk State 10 269
Prairie View A&M 32 169
Tennessee State 30 100
Texas Southern 25 239
Total 269 274

The overall number of HBCU recruits in comparison to all available is more than tiny. Those 269 kids going to those 14 colleges combined just amount to two percent of the recruiting decisions made from 2003 to 2019. Missouri—one of Christopher’s final options—alone, in the same span, has recruited 62 players (including a no. 2-ranked recruit in his class). The four universities to make Christopher’s final list, combined, have recruited 235 players since 2003 with a few no. 2 players. The gap is just impossible to bridge.

Which HBCU has gotten the most talented high schoolers?

The table above this section showed you which HBCU got the best nationally ranked player out of the 14 studied colleges, but not who’s got the best track record. Before getting to that, though, and as I said earlier, it was clear that I was not going to find any gem hidden in the data with regards to top-tier prospects picking any HBCU schools, not in this century at least.

HBCU Recruiting Timeline, Best and Average Recruit Ranks

HBCU First Recruit Last Recruit Best Player Rk Avg Player Rk
HBCU First Recruit Last Recruit Best Player Rk Avg Player Rk
Hampton 2003 2017 173 536
Tennessee State 2003 2013 100 584
Jackson State 2003 2011 101 587
Alcorn State 2005 2013 146 590
Prairie View A&M 2003 2014 169 622
Texas Southern 2003 2013 239 634
Coppin State 2004 2009 325 669
Howard 2004 2017 255 685
Norfolk State 2004 2013 269 744
Morgan State 2003 2013 252 749
Alabama State 2003 2015 278 750
Grambling State 2006 2013 456 785
Mississippi Valley State 2005 2013 438 796
Delaware State 2006 2008 629 900
2003 2017 100 688

It was expected that the first year any of those colleges put their hands on a ranked prospect was going to be 2003—the oldest in the data set. But I must admit I was a little surprised to find two universities (Hampton and Howard) getting players from up to the 2017 recruiting classes. No other college had done it since Alabama State since 2015, so it was quite a nice thing to find in the data. Could Christopher be the next in line to put Howard at the top of the most-recently-successful recruiting HBCUs by moving to Washington?

  • Hampton recruited Chris Orlina (no. 323) in 2017, and the kid announced his decision on Twitter, making it official. Or so we thought. Later in the summer, just at the end of June 2017, Orlina opted to enroll in South Plains College—playing in the NJCAA. With that, Hampton indeed got a decision going their way but was ultimately ditched for another institution.
  • Howard recruited R.J. Cole (no.479) in 2017. This one recruit, on a totally opposite story to that of Orlina, has been a blast for Howard. Cole has already played two seasons for the Bison starting 65 of 68 possible games, and this past 2018-19 season he was named the MEAC Player of the Year and put in the All-MEAC team of the season.

Although Orlina became a whiff even before putting on a Hampton’s uniform, Cole’s tale won’t end as happily as it could either. Just this past May, top-tier colleges such as UConn and Alabama showed interesting in a transfer to get Cole after he declared for the 2019 NBA draft but ultimately withdrew from it. This is nothing new. The best players that rise above the rest while playing at an HBCU often transfer to other places that offer them the best facilities and most of all, a chance to make a good run next to the best around the nation.

  • Tennessee State was able to recruit a top-100 prospect, M.J. Rhett (no. 100) in 2010. Rhett is the highest-ranked player of those in the data set to pick a HBCU, a Dominican-born American that is still active and playing in Europe. Not every HBCU alumni make it far—in fact, most of them work a professional life out of sports rather keeping practicing them at the top level—but Rhett played three years at Tennessee State before transferring to Ole Miss, went undrafted in 2015 and from that point to the present day he’s played in eight teams all around the globe.

Is there any HBCU player currently active in the NBA?

The HBCU glory days are over. Names like those of Rick Mahorn, Earl Monroe, Charles Oakley, or Willis Reed might ring a bell in your head. Well, yeah, because all of those made it to the NBA and played to the best of levels there. Nowadays, though, things are plenty different. You have seen how HBCUs struggle to recruit the best players around the nation. They are playing at the same level as other big-power universities do, but their resources and what they can offer to athletes in pure sports-terms is just on a completely different scale.

That doesn’t mention the cream isn’t rising to the top. Just in 2019, up to four (!) players from HBCU institutions logged a minute of playing time in the NBA. Here are your fantastic four:

  • Kyle O’Quinn (Norfolk State) — O’Quinn played four years at Norfolk State, finishing college with 129 games under his belt and eventually a retired number (in February 2019). He was named MEAC Player of the Year in 2012 and MEAC Defensive Player of the Year twice (2011 and 2012). After declaring for the 2012 NBA draft he was selected by the Orlando Magic and he has yet to miss an NBA season having played since then for the Magic, the Knicks, the Pacers, and entering the 2019-20 season with the 76ers.
  • Robert Covington (Tennessee State) — The most coveted active player to come from an HBCU, Covington spent four years at Tenn State before declaring for the NBA draft... and going to sleep without hearing his name called on stage. He was able to get named to the All-OVC first team in 2012, and the second team in 2011 and 2013. The Houston Rockets signed Covington after the draft for their Summer League squad and from that point on—G League stint included—he hasn’t stopped improving. He’s now part of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • Tahjere McCall (Tennessee State) — Yes, it is a cup of coffee with the Nets, but it is most than you and me have done in our basketball careers. McCall played three years at Tennessee State and got named to the All-OVC first team two times (2016 and 2017), while also collecting OVC Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2016 and 2017. As most HBCU players, he went undrafted in 2017 but the Nets signed to their G League team (Long Island Nets) and he’s now part of the Atlanta Hawks franchise.
  • Zach Lofton (Texas Southern) — Born in 1992, Lofton is the last player to make it to the NBA—he played one game with the Detroit Pistons this year. He played for four different universities during his college days but spent his best year at Texas Southern. Playing for the HBCU he was named SWAC Player of the Year and to the first team All-SWAC both in 2017, and also was a first-teamer in 2018. He went undrafted in 2018 but Detroit gave him a chance to play for its Summer League team. Although the Pistons waived in January, their G League team held onto him.

So, could Joshua Christopher start a new trend around HBCU?

Truth be told, he won’t. It is hard to say, and hard to digest for the history of the HBCU group of universities around the nation, but it is almost impossible to depict a player of Christopher’s talent choosing to spend his college days in a below-average institution when it comes to preparing athletes for professional sport careers.

I’ve been watching Christopher for a while now and confidently say—without rankings from any site nor external influences—that he’s primed to take the NCAA and ultimately the NBA by storm. Christopher is a unique player among his peers, he’s got all the talent he can handle and will be one of the last one-and-dones before the NBA removes the rule from 2022 or 2023 on.

It wouldn’t be realistic to think of a player of Christopher’s caliber to not take advantage of the state-of-the-art facilities universities like UCLA or Michigan can offer. Christopher has already left a huge blue-blood—Kentucky—in the dust by not putting them in his final list and not naming the university in his official visit list. That’s already big for the NCAA as a whole when it comes to creating a more balanced and competitive tournament with the talent spread around different rosters instead of concentrating it in your usual yearly finalists.

From that point to seeing someone like Christopher donning Howard’s threads there is more than a bridge to cross, though, and it hasn’t been built yet. Perhaps Christopher is helping put the first stones in place, but there is still a long road ahead to see all the once-great HBCUs making a comeback.