Starting 5: Kuzma grows on Utes

Each week, Starting 5 takes you on a tour of the recruiting landscape. It delves into topics, recruiting trends and stories. This edition focuses on the Utah Utes' recent run of commitments, emotional toughness in recruits and tells you what happened on last weekend's commitment spree.

Utah could have one in Kuzma

The Utah Utes last weekend added a player that isn’t nationally known – yet – but is significant to the future of the program. Small forward Kyle Kuzma (Burton, Mich./Rise Academy) is one of those neat stories that manage to fly under the radar until that first breakout week on the scene in college. Consider yourself warned.

Kuzma is a 6-foot-8 small forward who at one time was a 6-2 guard. If you’ve heard this story before, you might be thinking Anthony Davis. However, this time the player didn’t get to 6-11 but did retain his perimeter skills. Pair Kuzma up with combo forward Brekkott Chapman and point guard Isaiah Wright and Utah’s cooking in 2014.

Larry Krystkowiak, Utah’s head coach, sat in the corner of a gym off the beaten path in Las Vegas. He’d been hitting up remote gyms all week watching Kuzma. Apparently, he spent his time wisely. The Utes didn’t stumble onto the kid; they merely were in the right place at the right time. More skill than luck, one might say.

“Back in the prep season, around February, they were looking at one of their committed players,” Kuzma said. “They saw me, fell in love with me and we’ve been talking since April.” Penn State, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Tennessee were also smitten.

Utah played to Kuzma’s growth during the recruiting process. This is a kid who sees the floor and is as good a passer as he is scorer. Coach K figured out the right pitch early and hit a nerve. “They see me as not a position guy but as a basketball player,” Kyle Kuzma. “I can come in and play the two, three and four because of my versatility.”

It’s early and lots of precincts haven’t reported, but Utah’s got one of those foundation classes on its hands. At least it looks that way on paper.

UCLA leans on relationship

When it comes to recruiting, you use the ammo you have. Steve Alford didn’t hire former Wright State head coach Ed Schilling to get Trevon Bluiett, but there’s no question it didn’t hurt.

Schilling coached Bluiett at Park Tudor High in Indianapolis. Together they won state championships. As I said, Alford didn’t hire Schilling just to land a player and he shouldn’t feel the need to explain himself, so we’ll do it for him.

UCLA wasn’t getting the kid without the coach. The coach, in all likelihood, just opened the door and showed off his shiny new campus to ESPN’s No. 41 prospect. Bluiett’s 28 points per game, savvy game and strong body made him a big-time Big Ten target. Now he’ll use his frame and game to play a nice role for the Bruins. He’s Alford’s first recruit.

It's fitting Alford, a legend in the Hoosier State, would dip into familiar territory. “[Alford] couldn’t believe it,” Bluiett said of the reaction to the commitment. “I’m his first recruit and I’m from Indiana, too.”

Bluiett is the first national shot across the bow for Alford. UCLA is involved with several kids from the Midwest. UCLA is recruiting five other players from Big Ten country, including Kevon Looney a power forward and Reid Travis out of Minnesota.

Weekend update

There was no holiday commitment cease fire. Did not happen. If anything, the commitments were popping as much as any weekend in recent memory. Here are the highlights:

Isaac Haas, Wake Forest: Large human being (7-foot-1, 275 pounds), one of the biggest centers in the entire class. He’s a guy that doesn’t drop huge numbers yet, but he’s got a sense about him and his size makes him ACC ready.

TeMarcus Blanton, South Carolina: If you aren’t tough and athletic, chances are you won’t make it playing for Frank Martin. Blanton’s a pogo stick.

Wade Baldwin, Vanderbilt: The converted football player will be a combo for the Commodores.

Sam Logwood, Auburn: The truth is he didn’t play to his abilities in the summer, which probably was good for the Tigers. Had he turned in the spring we expected him to have, he would have been a tougher get for Tony Barbee. The Tigers fared well to get him and he’s got room to grow. Strong commitment.

Lance Tejada, East Carolina: He comes from a program that gets after it on defense, which has to be exciting for Jeff Lebo.

Justin Tillman, VCU: Shaka Smart started recruiting this kid in the spring and never let up. One official visit was all it took to get him to Richmond.

Why forward Leron Black is important to Illinois

Forget the ranking. Here’s the real deal. John Groce is a culture guy and Black – everyone agrees – is a character recruit. As talented as he is on the court, it’s the complete package as a person and player that should not be overlooked.

Groce is constructing a program in Illinois where recruits cut from the same fabric matter. Black’s going to play a forward role -- likely starting inside, but he’ll have a chance to expand his game. He’s one of the pre-eminent mid-range threats in the class. His basketball skill matters but for Groce, you’d think there was more to the targeting of this guy in particular.

After traveling the circuit, you get a real sense for the kids you’re dealing with. Black (Memphis, Tenn./White Station) is consistent with his actions. Ever the smiling kid, happy and fun to be around, you know what you’re getting from him. People like him; he’s an energy-giver, a real locker-room type. Illinois knew this, went hard after him and that’s why his pledge is key. There are recruits that will be in college a year who are valuable. Then there are kids who will unpack their bags, allow themselves to be coached and help set the culture and tone for your team. Black’s going to be in Champaign a few years. His impact will occur on and off the court and you can’t always say that about everyone who makes a pledge.

Emotional toughness

A friend of mine, Denny Kuiper, is a Hall of Famer from the Michigan high school coaching ranks. He’s written books on coaching and in the future is delving into player development. This week, we had a conversation about emotional development as it relates to high school players, especially evaluating them.

Kuiper’s point is that if there’s a lack of emotional development, then any chance at mental toughness goes out the window. It’s all part of a player’s DNA. According to Kuiper, who is working on a new book, you can recognize and ultimately coach emotional toughness. Players would do well to pay attention to this aspect of their game and their coaches can help them through it.

“The main thing is the player becomes disengaged physically and mentally,” Kuiper said. “That’s the main thing that happens. What the kid is doing, in layman’s terms, is he’s feeling sorry for himself. It might look like he’s got a bad attitude, but it might not be true. Young kids might just retreat inwardly.

“It can be as simple as reacting to a missed layup or yelling at teammates. The kid might not be emotionally equipped to deal with adversity, but I think you can practice this and teach kids how to deal. What we do as coaches is we tell them to be more coachable or forget the last call. At that point, though, the kid is gone and he tries to protect himself. He won’t interact as well then.”

Kuiper got me thinking. Who are some of the emotionally strong kids in the senior class? Turns out, this class is packed with guys at the top who exemplify what being emotionally tough is. When you think of emotionally tough point guards, Joel Berry comes to mind. Expression never changes and he’s locked in. Kuiper would say that’s a skill. Jahlil Okafor? Emotionally tough big for sure. When it comes to emotionally tough wings, Justise Winslow and Justin Jackson come to mind. These players have balance. Their highs aren’t too high and they control their lows. Tyler Ulis strikes me as emotionally tough and that’s how he’s separating himself from his peers. Emotional toughness is a skill we need to bring to the forefront and start expanding upon.