The plan was for Carter Whitt to play a year at prep school before suiting up next season at Wake Forest. Instead, Whitt is already on the court for the Demon Deacons after graduating early and joining the program in December.
The 6-foot-4 guard is among a small group of freshmen nationally seizing an opportunity as midyear enrollees, getting the jump on college careers with what amounts to free eligibility amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I just figured it would be a better way to use a year,” Whitt said. “Rather than being away at boarding school, I might as well just be away at college.”
When the NCAA announced athletes in winter sports like basketball would get an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, it opened the door for signees to reclassify and join their college teams instead of facing the uncertainty of trying to play a final high school season in a pandemic.
Midyear enrollees have taken the court at several schools across the country, including No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 20 Southern California, UCLA, Oregon and Maryland. They’ve also shown up on the women’s side, too, including Saylor Poffenbarger at No. 2 Connecticut and Dominique Darius at No. 8 UCLA making their debuts in January.
In most cases, they’re earning spot minutes as reserves. Some are playing larger roles like Whitt in the Demon Deacons’ backcourt or Mustapha Amzil as an every-game starter at Dayton. Still others, such as Trey Patterson at No. 5 Villanova, have enrolled in school and are practicing but it is unclear if they will play this season.
Former Notre Dame player and ACC Network analyst Jordan Cornette compared it to an internship that benefits players and programs alike, noting: “There’s nothing going in the eligibility flames here, so there’s nothing being lost.”
“You’ve got to imagine most of these guys that are doing it are probably college players with a hope to be in the NBA at some point, but aren’t like lottery guys that we’re talking about naturally,” Cornette said. “So it would be incredible to be able to groom them in your system for that long and watch them flourish and really be some of the best players playing in your program given the experience.”
For college coaches, the challenge is figuring out how much those freshmen can handle.
Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann signed Meechie Johnson Jr. in November, then added the 6-2 guard to the roster in December after Johnson graduated early. Johnson made his debut Jan. 9 at Rutgers and has averaged 7.4 minutes through his first nine games, though he played more with senior point guard CJ Walker recently sidelined four games with a hand injury.
“That’s the challenge as a coach, right?” Holtmann said during that stretch. “You’re throwing him in midyear. … Now you’re saying, ‘Hey, hop in, play 15, 10 minutes in the best league in the country. And oh by the way, you’re also going to play one of the most important positions on the floor, the point guard position. Learn our defensive system, learn our offensive system and, by the way, don’t overthink, just play.’ That’s a lot to ask of a young man.”
Dayton has found a major boost in Amzil, a 6-10 forward from Finland. The November signee joined the Flyers in December, with coach Anthony Grant saying he had little practice time before his Dec. 30 debut against La Salle.
“The process of trying to get him acclimated probably really started more similar to an NBA-type deal,” Grant said, “where you give him some basic things and say, ’Hey, here’s what we’ll do and here’s how you’ll fit in and then we’ll try to teach you as you go on.”
Amzil has been a quick learner. He had 22 points and seven rebounds in 36 minutes for his debut and has started all 12 of his games. He’s averaging 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, and on Monday was named Atlantic 10 rookie of the week for the third time.
“I’d say it’s been a great help for me,” Amzil said. “I don’t know if it’s for everybody, but for me, I think it’s helping me.”
For most midyear enrollees, the production has been modest, with strong performances more of a bonus for their teams.
Oregon got a boost from 6-11 center Franck Kepnang with season-highs of eight points in 15 minutes in Saturday’s win against Washington. That same day in the Pac-12, 6-9 forward Mac Etienne made his UCLA debut with eight points and five rebounds in 28 minutes in a loss to USC.
USC has its own midyear addition in guard Reese Waters, though he has seen limited work (11 minutes in his first three games) much like Gonzaga forward Ben Gregg (25 minutes in nine games) and Maryland swingman James Graham III (averaging 6.8 minutes through five games).
DePaul has two, with forward David Jones making his debut in Saturday’s loss to Butler to join Keon Edwards as midyear enrollees to have played this year.
As for Wake Forest’s Whitt, he’s averaging about 20 minutes through 11 games with three starts, part of an effort to fast-track his own development and first-year coach Steve Forbes’ program rebuild.
“No offense to high school basketball, but this is like he’s getting a master’s and a doctorate right now in hoops, right? And ahead of schedule,” Forbes said. “I mean, you can tell a kid, ‘Hey, it’s like this, it’s the pace, the physicality.’ But until they do it, they don’t get it. And he gets it now.”
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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