College basketball recruiting is by no means an exact science. Sometimes those with extra stars shining next to their names don’t see their abilities convert beyond high school. At Princeton there’s a long list of the comparatively unhearlded who have developed from seeming afterthoughts to all-conference players.
With that history understood, it becomes even harder to look 23 months into the future.
Yet on November 20 of this year the Tiger coaching staff can wake up in the morning feeling comfortable about having filled their top priority for the 2014 recruiting class.
Amir Bell of East Brunswick High School may not be a name that has attracted a lot of attention from the top recruiting sites yet but the key word in this sentence is “yet.” Getting Bell committed to the enrollment process at Princeton before he attracted additional attention from bold-faced basketball powerhouses was paramount.
It can not be coincidence that three different members of Mitch Henderson’s staff posted words to the effect of “it is a great day to be a Tiger” on Twitter last night with Bell’s commitment then entering public knowledge less than an hour later.
I had a chance to speak with the 6’4” 170 lb junior point guard’s high school coach Bo Henning on the phone a few hours ago. Quotes from our conversation plus links and videos featuring Bell can all be found after the jump.
All photos courtesy Ethan Reiss. Used with permission.
Henning, who is in his 24th season coaching the Bears just 20 miles up the road from Jadwin Gym, spoke highly of Bell’s growth so far – both physically and as a basketball player.
“He’s always played the point. Sometime when you’re a younger kid you pick a position for size or for experience and knowledge of the game. I know how important a position it is at Princeton and there’s a need for the position there,” Henning acknowledged.
“The great part about Amir is he was this 5’9” freshman playing varsity for us and now that he’s a junior he’s up around 6’4”. He’s grown and he’s only going to get stronger,” he added. “Because he’s had so much playing experience and has grown to this size he is able to take advantage of seeing the court so well.”
“He’s the kind of kid that Ivy League schools look for – he’s got an unbelievable sense of priorities,” continued Henning. “That’s not to say he doesn’t absolutely love basketball, because he does. He’s able to balance things really, really well.”
“If there’s anything that’s better about him than his basketball it is his character. He’s just an outstanding young man and probably the type of kid Princeton goes after on a regular basis. I think it is going to be a great, great fit.”
Henning concurred with the assessment that Princeton secured their priority with Bell as they start building the class of 2014.
In the long stretch of time between now and when he sets foot on campus as a freshmen, Bell will need to get stronger. That’s not saying anything new for a high school junior.
“He’s one of those kids who has been trying to put on weight and he does a great job in the weight room for us, but when you’re growing that fast it is hard to put on any weight,” Henning said. “Now that his growth is slowing down a little bit he may put another inch or two on but now I can see him starting to fill out.”
So, what sort of point guard is Bell? Henning welcomed describing his PG’s game in detail.
“I think he’s always been a pass-first point guard because he played for us at such a young age, out of respect for the upper-classmen,” Henning explained. “I think he thought that was what we needed but I’ve noticed a change in him this summer and this fall. He knows we need him to score more than he has in the past. That comes pretty natural to a kid who hasn’t been doing it the last couple of years. He’s just that in-tune to what is going on. It is not like it was anything I ever had to discuss with him, he just took it onto himself.”
As Bell grows into his body, he already has defensive ability and length working in his favor. His sophomore year Bell averaged 6.8 points per game starting on a team that went 18-8 before falling in the semifinals of the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament .
“He is an extremely long kid,” Henning stated. “He’s been a great defender right from his freshman year. You don’t normally give freshmen or sophomores the hardest assignment when you’re talking about your opponents but he would basically guard the other team’s best player as long as it wasn’t a center – any other position. He would love that challenge.”
Bell has also spent a great deal of time working to sew up any perceived weaknesses in his game.
“His shot continues to get better and better. He’s probably a little better now at attacking the basket because he’s so adept at using both hands,” described Henning. “It took him to gather more strength to become a more consistent shooter. He has a nice mid-range game now which he hasn’t had in the past and his three point shot is showing up with much more consistency. In terms of a point guard, especially for what we need, he’s the total package.”
With two years left to coach him, Henning sees areas were Bell still has room for improvement but he’s confident those particular aspects will rise to greet his strengths.
“I think he’ll become a more consistent three point shooter this year and next,” Henning said. “We want him to be such a good leader by example. I’m going to hope he becomes a much more vocal leader this year. He understands that and he has that in him. He’s such a nice, respectful young man – sometimes those kids may not be as vocal but he’s so competitive and loves to win so he’s not afraid to speak up too.”
Like many recent Tiger recruits, visibility during AAU season and the program’s summer Elite Camp were big factors in this process. Bell plays his AAU ball with Team Jersey Elite.
“Princeton saw him in an AAU tournament, as did a lot of other schools. He had an excellent summer on the AAU circuit and started to get invited to a lot of those types of camps,” Henning stated. “After talking to him when he went to the Princeton camp he said he was very comfortable, liked the kids on the team and liked the style of play.”
“He’s been playing AAU on a large scale since a very young age. His dad has done a great job of getting him out there. His dad coaches with the other AAU coach so he’s been around and knows which tournaments to get to in order to get the best exposure,” Henning continued. “Mom and dad wanted the best package academically and athletically for him so this has been in the works for a long time. He’s been a great student since as far back as we can remember. This wasn’t something that just happened recently where someone said 'Hey, if you’re thinking of going to an Ivy League school you’re going to need to pick it up academically.' He’s been that great student all through his life. His parents are very supportive, sound parents who gave him great direction.”
This moment is one Henning could see off in the distance for a long time.
“We had a conversation a couple years ago – he was a very good football player and an outstanding baseball player growing up – I never tell kids to play one sport, I always encourage them to play multiple sports unless I think there’s a good chance you can save your parents a heck of a lot of money with a scholarship,” Henning confessed. “He gave up the other sports just to concentrate on basketball and since then you can just see how much the time and effort he has put in has paid off.”
“Anything that comes Amir’s way is well-deserved. Nothing fluke-ish about it that’s for sure.”
Bell was named to the Greater Middlesex County All Freshman Team and the Greater Middlesex County All Sophomore Team by the Star Ledger.
A spare ESPN profile page sits here.
Bell's game-by-game statistics from last season are also available.
In April, Hoop Group wrote of Bell: "Smooth slashing guard who keeps growing. Grew 2-3 inches since the fall and continues to fine tune his game."
When Bell was named to the Hall of Fame Spring Classic U16 All-Tournament team, NERR stated: "A big guard at six-foot-three, Bell knows how to make his tools work for him and he did that to score the ball at will this weekend. He’s a nice looking prospect who is definitely worth being monitored moving forward."
Bell's AAU player page adds the following: Ranked one of NJ Hoops top players class of 2014, varsity starter as a freshman & sophomore. Terrific mid & long-range shooter, excellent ball handler & penetrator who can finish at the rim with either hand or find an open teammate. Tough competitor & very hard worker with a high basketball I.Q. Extremely long & excellent rebounder for his position. Outstanding student with high character."
Finally here's another piece on Bell's commitment to Princeton.
Freshman year highlights.
More recent action from last month.
East Brunswick versus Roselle Catholic. Bell is #5 in the green.
In this AAU game Bell is #33 wearing orange.
There's one more video streaming here.