If New York City high school basketball fades - does the team most associated with the New York City college game struggle with it?
St. John's continues to pound the national - and international pavement for talent to fill the roster, looking at local targets when they have promise. In recent years, St. John's has been criticized for not keeping the best talent at home, as schools like Louisville and Connecticut routinely poached supposedly impact talent that would have taken the subway to Queens to play for the Red Storm.
But were those critics missing the most important point - that the talent level in New York is far down, and those impact talents weren't there in New York City to begin with?
In an article posted to Grantland.com last week titled "The Mecca in Decline," columnist Jordan Ritter Conn explored the noticeable recent decline of top-tier NBA talent coming out of New York City, using a plethora of revealing statistics along with a few convincing quotes from New Yorkers who have been steeped in the basketball scene.
"New York is no longer the greatest basketball city on earth," wrote Conn, "right now it's not even close." He continued, "today, you're just as likely to become a star if you're born in Los Angeles, Toronto, or Raleigh."
And while that initially might sound like a an overstatement, the facts are certainly there to back it up. [Five Thirty Eight's Neil Paine went deeper into the numbers around NYC's decline.]
Conn cited that only 12 players who spent at least one year at a New York City high school appeared in at least one NBA game this season. By contrast in 1974 (back when the league had just 17 teams) there were 16 such players. Speaking more to Conn's point - there wasn't one New Yorker selected in the first round of this June's NBA Draft.
The last two players selected first overall in the draft, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, both came from Toronto, Canada.
One thing that New York City basketball always had going for it through the years was star-power. From St. John's legends like Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson, to NBA All-time greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Irving, and Bernard King, the blacktops of the City had always been overflowing with potent NBA talent.
"Let's think about this for a minute," said lower Manhattan youth basketball coach Macky Bergman in Conn's article, "who's the best player to come out of New York in the last 25 years? I mean, you've got Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, Joakim Noah. The fact that we're even talking about those guys let's you know it's a problem."
And this clearly is a problem that has been brewing in New York City for some time now.
Top NBA talent has become much more widespread throughout the country and overseas in recent years, but even when an elite prospect does come out of New York there's no longer any guarantee that he'll stay there throughout his high school career.
Take former St. John's standout Moe Harkless as an example. Going into his senior year of high school, Harkless decided to transfer from Forest Hills High School in Queens to a private school in Connecticut. In a phone interview with Grantland, Harkless cited quite a few reasons for the move.
"It's so easy to get caught up in your own hype in New York," he said, "so many people want a piece of you. If you get away from that you can focus on basketball."
Harkless admitted that the competition of New York's high school leagues simply wasn't strong enough for him, saying, "I wasn't getting challenged. The competition just wasn't that good."
Three or four decades ago, it would have been insane for a player of Harkless' skill level to make the decision to move away from the basketball capital of the world. Today it's become a very real and beneficial choice for many.
The decline, then, may not just be in NBA-level talent, but in high-level collegiate talent as well. There are a few good college talents each year, but the national star-power has been lacking.
If there's one college basketball program that has been affected by this recent lack of star-power in New York City, it would have to be St. John's. Throughout their history the Red Storm have consistently relied on their location in the City as a main selling point to lure top recruits from all across the five boroughs who didn't want to leave home.
For years, that strategy paid dividends. From with Bronx-native Dick McGuire in the 1940's, moving on to the fantastic Brooklyn duo of Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson in the 1980's, through to Malik Sealy and Felipe Lopez years after them, to Ron Artest and Erick Barkley - the Johnnies have always had an abundance of superb basketball talent in their own backyard to choose from.
This past year's Red Storm team featured just one lifetime New Yorker in walk-on Khadim Ndiaye. With a lack of high-level talent coming out of New York City high schools in recent years, head coach Steve Lavin and his staff have been forced to look elsewhere for talent to fill out their roster.
Three players who figure to play major roles in the Red Storm backcourt next season, are from outside the city - D`Angelo Harrison (Missouri City, TX), Rysheed Jordan (Philadelphia, PA), and Phil Greene IV, (Chicago, IL).
The dearth of New York City talent has caused a clear spike in overseas recruiting for the Johnnies in the past few years as Steve Lavin has worked to increase the talent level of the Johnnies. Last year's Red Storm team featured five players (a third of the roster) who came from outside the country.
Two of those five, Nigerian-born Chris Obekpa (though he played his high school ball in Long Island) and Dominican-born Orlando Sanchez, averaged over 20 minutes per game last season and played an integral part in the team's success. The trend of overseas recruiting still continues to this day for the Red Storm, as they pursue Bosnian forward Amar Alibegovic to bolster next year's roster.
With basketball talent continuing to be found at all corners of the earth each and every day, it's clear that New York City is no longer is the center of the basketball universe.
Still, Steve Lavin has attempted to flip the dearth of talent to his advantage. In a time when players can be seen nationally on television and teams travel widely, he has worked to position New York City as a mecca of activity, opportunity and entertainment. In recruiting, the Garden is positioned as an NBA arena that resonates like no other when St. John's is winning, and the City and the Big East as a big stage to star on - the publicity and exposure of playing in New York is a carrot for players.
St. John's and all other area schools will certainly have to work much harder to lure top recruits to join their programs, not only broadening their horizons across the nation but across the world as well. Can New York-area programs be elite and successful without high levels of talent in their backyard?