Virginia Tech’s Mike Young, like most basketball coaches, has a keen eye for talent.
While at Wofford, he was the first college coach to offer a scholarship to Zion Williamson, who grew up just a few miles away from the Spartanburg, S.C., campus.
Not that this was a particularly difficult scouting task for Young. Williamson was only in the eighth or ninth grade when the offer came, but his potential was glaring.
“He was around all the time,” Young said of the future Duke star, who would go on to become the 2019 AP college basketball player of the year and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick. “My wife, who knows nothing about basketball, could recognize what a talent he was.”
Did he recruit him as a point guard?
“I would’ve recruited him for any damn thing he wanted to play!” Young said with a laugh. “He’d have been the Bill Russell of Wofford basketball — a player-coach.”
Young relayed this memory to a small group of reporters early Wednesday afternoon. As he spoke, Tech’s most pressing basketball question — where would Kerry Blackshear Jr. decide to play this coming season? — still hung in the air.
That night, Blackshear ended the speculation. He posted on social media that he would be heading to the University of Florida as a graduate transfer, dealing a huge blow to the 2019-20 Hokies roster.
Blackshear isn’t Williamson, of course. Who is? But you don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities in these two situations when it comes to Young’s role in the process.
In both cases, all Young could do was tell these star players how much he wanted them. He could offer appreciation for their qualities as both athletes and people. He could stress how valued they would be on his team while extolling the virtues of familiar surroundings.
He did all that. Ultimately, though, neither choice was Young’s to make. Williamson picked Duke from a slew of high-profile suitors. Blackshear, the most coveted player on the transfer market, opted to return to his home state for his final year of eligibility.
The damage to Tech is significant and obvious, but it is short-term only. Had he stayed, Blackshear would have eased the Buzz Williams-to-Mike Young transition from a results standpoint. The rebuild wouldn’t look as daunting.
But the rebuild was coming regardless. The Hokies already had seen the departure of four of their top scorers from last season’s exciting team. Young’s system was going need some time to percolate, Blackshear or no Blackshear.
Stability was among the top priorities for athletic director Whit Babcock when he hired Young in April. And stable programs take the long view.
“It doesn’t mean we won’t be great in the near term,” Babcock said then. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to wait forever. But we’re going to build it with the thought process ... to be long-term greedy, not a flash in the pan.
“We wanted someone in Coach Young who could build and sustain it and to help us roll from this challenger brand to a championship brand.”
In that vein, it’s significant that Young retained the services of rising redshirt freshman Landers Nolley, who entered the transfer portal when Williams left but reconsidered. It’s significant that Wabissa Bede opted to come back. It’s important that Young has put together a roster and staff together quickly and efficiently for his first season in Blacksburg.
Fans have a right to be disappointed that Blackshear won’t be the Bill Russell of Virginia Tech basketball this year, so to speak. But Zion never became that at Wofford, either.
While Williamson was dominating the highlight reels on ESPN this past season, Young’s Terriers were going unbeaten in the Southern Conference en route to a 30-5 record and the second round of the NCAA tournament, continuing to enjoy success that took time to build.
Young will make do. So will the Hokies. The immediate future won’t be as fun, but the long-term optimism need not diminish.