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Why a top-60 recruit committing to Harvard is actually a genius move by the player

Last weekend’s biggest recruiting headline was tied to Terrence Clarke, who verbally committed to Kentucky while also announcing he’s reclassifying to 2020. It was a big development, undeniably, one that suggests John Calipari is about to secure a top-two class for the 11th consecutive year. But a different, less-publicized, recruiting story was arguably more interesting — or, at least, less predictable — than Kentucky landing yet another 5-star guard. And that was Harvard landing a top-60 prospect for the first time ever.

“I’m deciding to play for the next four years at Harvard,” Justice Ajogbor, a 4-star center who is 60th in the Top247 rankings for the Class of 2020, told 247Sports upon announcing that he would be rejecting offers from traditional high-majors to instead enroll at an Ivy League school. “The opportunity to go to a school like Harvard is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

This development was fascinating to me on a number of levels — mostly because it’s what I’ve long believed all borderline top-100 prospects who double as very smart young people should at least consider. I honestly don’t understand why more don’t. I seriously don’t get why this doesn’t happen more often.

Obviously, if you’re a 5-star prospect, or a consensus top-10 player in your high school class, your dream is to play in the NBA, and, given those credentials, it’s a realistic dream. So enroll wherever you want. Chances are, things will work out fine. But when you’re ranked outside of the top 50, the odds of having an NBA career decrease drastically. Sure, it’s possible to get there and even star there; Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard are wonderful examples of unheralded recruits who made it and did it. But they are exceptions to the rule way more than the rule —  and incredible stories largely because it’s rare to start where they started as prospects and end up where they ended up as players.

Which brings me back to Ajogbor.

He’s a very good prospect — but far from a guarantee to someday play in the NBA based on nothing more than where he’s ranked in his high school class. So given that reality, what’s smarter, in the best interests of his future, than accepting an opportunity to attend an Ivy League institution? If he develops into a legitimate NBA prospect there, he’ll get drafted out of Harvard the same way Curry got drafted out of Davidson, Lillard got drafted out of Weber State and Leonard got drafted out of San Diego State. In this era of scouting, if you’re good enough, the NBA will find you anywhere. So he loses nothing, in that regard, by enrolling at Harvard and playing for coach Tommy Amaker. And if the more likely scenario comes to pass, i.e., if it turns out Ajogbor simply is not good enough to make the NBA, he’ll still spend four years in college as one of the most talented players, if not the most talented player, in his league — which sounds fun. More importantly, though, he’ll leave college with — follow me here — A DEGREE FROM AN IVY LEAGUE INSTITUTION! And if you’re not going to be a professional basketball player who makes millions of dollars, there’s probably nothing you can take into your post-basketball life that’s more valuable than A DEGREE FROM AN IVY LEAGUE INSTITUTION!

No matter what happens, you exit college a big winner.

(Note: it’s true Ivy League institutions do not offer athletic scholarships like traditional high-majors that might also be pursuing a prospect of Ajogbor’s caliber. But what’s also true is that a good percentage of basketball prospects a school like Harvard might target are going to pay very little, if not nothing, to attend Harvard based on the financial aid that’s available to all students. So cost-of-attendance isn’t a real deterrent to pursuing an Ivy League path via basketball even though athletic scholarships are not available.)

To be clear, yes, I can acknowledge there are other things academically-gifted prospects ranked around where Ajogbor is ranked could reasonably consider when picking a school. If you value charter flights and playing consistently against the so-called best, inside big arenas and on national television, the path Ajogbor chose might not be for you. And that’s fine. There’s nothing stupid about a top-75 prospect picking a school from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or another power conference. Most do it every year. But if the goal is to truly set yourself up for life after college, with or without basketball, shunning the traditional high-majors and instead accepting an opportunity to attend an Ivy League institution is a smart move.

Unusual, sure.

But also definitely smart.

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