Atlanta-area recruiting proves rich in top basketball talent

Bruce Pearl hasn’t had to venture too far in recruiting top talent for his 12th-ranked Auburn men’s basketball team. The same is true on the women’s side for Dawn Staley and No. 1 South Carolina.

Sitting between their Southeastern Conference campuses – one state over, in each case — is an Atlanta market fertile with top-flight talent and future pro players. On the men’s side, that includes recent one-and-done talents like Collin Sexton, 2020 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards and Sharife Cooper, each of whom played for SEC schools before jumping to the NBA.

“Back in the day, if you were a great high school basketball player, you’d need to leave the region, you’d need to leave the SEC almost – unless it was to go to Kentucky or maybe Florida – if you wanted to be a pro and you wanted to win championships,” said Pearl, whose Tigers are scheduled to host LSU on Wednesday night. “That’s just not the case anymore. Auburn is one of the other programs in the league where you can do both.”

The Atlanta metro area includes 29 counties and has a population of more than 6 million to rank as the country’s ninth-largest, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber. It’s located in the heart of the SEC’s 14-team footprint, as well as being in the southern part of the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference’s reach.

That means a lot of talent spread across Atlanta and surrounding communities like Marietta, Powder Springs, Alpharetta, Mableton and Norcross, among others. High school programs are thriving and the area is a destination for summer basketball, all contributing factors in the recent boom in talent.

Pearl – who coached Cooper last year and has another top Atlanta-area recruit this year in rangy 6-foot-10 forward Jabari Smith — views Atlanta recruiting as a valuable tool to building a winner in the southeast. A key selling point for him is the ability for recruits to play less than two hours away from home.

The same is true for Staley at a campus a little more than a three-hour drive from Atlanta. Her Gamecocks entered the season with the nation’s top-ranked freshman class headlined by two of the nation’s top four recruits in point guard Raven Johnson from Atlanta and forward Sania Feagin from Ellenwood, about 15 miles outside of Atlanta.

“It’s a short ride for us,” said Staley, whose Gamecocks visit Missouri on Thursday. “Most Georgia players seemingly want to leave Georgia, but not too far. So we’re right on the cusp where you can get away from your family, they can come and visit you three hours away. … Georgia is definitely a hotbed for talented, talented” players.

On the men’s side, 247sports recruiting analyst Travis Branham said the Atlanta region has grown into one of the nation’s top recruiting markets with places like Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas – where 2021 No. 1 overall draft pick Cade Cunningham came up before playing in Florida – California, New York and the Washington, D.C.-Virginia-Maryland “DMV” region.

“The Atlanta market is one of the most valuable pipelines in the entire United States,” Branham said. “Year after year, they consistently – always – produce high-major talent. Not only just high-major talent like guys going to the ACC or the SEC, but they’re almost always producing five stars that end up in the NBA.”

To Branham’s point, 247sports’ list of top Georgia recruits in recent years typically are headlined by multiple current NBA players from the Atlanta area.

The top recruit in the 2015 class was wing Jaylen Brown from Marietta, who spent a year at California and is now a Boston Celtics All-Star. Sexton headlined the state’s class two years later as a point guard from Mableton before spending a year at Alabama on his way to the Cleveland Cavaliers, while the No. 2 recruit was Atlanta forward Wendell Carter Jr., who spent a year at Duke and is now with the Orlando Magic.

Two years later came Edwards, the Atlanta guard who took his high-flying athleticism to Georgia for a year before going No. 1 overall in the draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

This year’s class is headlined by Auburn’s Smith, who is averaging 16.5 points while shooting 45.6% from 3-point range. Georgia’s No. 2 recruit is Marietta guard Scoota Henderson, who opted to jump to the G-League. A third five-star recruit, guard Matthew Cleveland from Atlanta, is averaging 9.2 points off the bench at Florida State.

“If you’re in the area, you have to have a strong (Atlanta) presence,” Branham said.

The plan has worked for Auburn, which reached the 2019 Final Four with its top three scorers from the Atlanta market: guard Jared Harper from Mableton, guard Bryce Brown from Stone Mountain and forward Chuma Okeke from Atlanta. Last year, Pearl had Cooper out of Powder Springs and JT Thor out of Norcross as one-and-done players who went on to become second-round draft picks.

This year’s team added Smith from Fayetteville and a pair of transfers from the Atlanta region in former Georgia guard K.D. Johnson (Atlanta) and ex-North Carolina big man Walker Kessler (Newnan).

“I just feel like the competition is high,” Smith said of the Atlanta area. “There’s a lot of teams, a lot of known teams and a lot of unknown teams that can really play. And there’s a lot of unknown players.

“I just feel like Georgia and Atlanta is where the best basketball is.”

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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