The air conditioning in his rental car was on full blast, and so was Josh Pastner.
It was just after 8 a.m., and the Georgia Tech coach was on the phone with the mother of a prospect updating him on his new schedule now that he had switched AAU teams. (She would text back later informing him that he had switched back.) At the end of the short phone call, Pastner told the woman he appreciated the call. Between winning the lottery and her calling, he told her, he would choose the phone call.
“Make sure you’ve got (the phone number) locked in,” he said. “Coach Pastner. Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech. Coach Pastner.”
This was last Thursday, Pastner’s first full day in a four-day stay in Las Vegas, one of the major destinations on the summer recruiting calendar. Hundreds of AAU teams descend upon the desert to play in one of three tournaments, drawing hundreds of college coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, as well as the ACC’s reigning coach of the year.
Pastner allowed the AJC to accompany him as he drove around Las Vegas to watch parts of 16 games in five different gyms (visiting some more than once), all the while operating on an empty stomach, in an effort to put together the 2018 signing class.
Pastner arrived to his first game around 8:30 a.m. at Spring Valley High to check on a prospect. As he walked in, an AAU coach greeted him warmly, then asked if he’d put on weight.
“I work out every day,” Pastner said, perhaps both amused and discouraged, after the coach had passed by.
Tech assistant coach Tavaras Hardy was already there, and the two were off to the next gym in less than 15 minutes, sharing their evaluations as they walked out to their rental cars. Part of the objective of attending AAU tournaments is evaluating. With prospects who have already been offered a scholarship, a much bigger part is being seen by prospects and their coaches to show interest.
On his way to the next gym, five miles away at Clark High, Pastner nearly rear ended a truck. Let's just say that Pastner could stand to pay closer attention to the road. On this day, he also used his drives between gyms to make calls and flip through the spiral-bound rosters of teams provided by the tournaments. Pastner joked that his wife Kerri gives him a hard time about his driving, and it is not hard to side with Mrs. Pastner.
Pastner walked into the next gym with Texas coach Shaka Smart, greeting one another as they made their way through the door.
“Yeah, you know – same old, same old,” Pastner informed Smart.
At Clark, two temporary courts were set up in the cafeteria, and a third game was played in the gym, where Pastner and Hardy watched a team starring Kristian Sjolund, a versatile 6-foot-8 forward from Norway now living in Texas that Tech has offered a scholarship. They watched with intent, two of just a handful of coaches in the gym, and walked out only when the game ended.
Sjolund is one of perhaps 30 rising seniors that Pastner and his staff are considering. When the coaches returned to Atlanta at the end of the weekend – except for Eric Reveno, who remained in Estonia scouting a European tournament – they were to compare notes and start to hone in on the prospects they wanted and believed they could sign. Pastner’s approach is to pool prospects in groups by position and tell prospects that the first one in the group to accept the offer gets the scholarship.
Last year, with little time to develop relationships, Pastner and his staff made a late run at a number of in-state blue-chip prospects, such as Pace Academy’s Wendell Carter, Pebblebrook’s Collin Sexton and Jonesboro’s M.J. Walker. Tech was a finalist with each, but the three ended up choosing, respectively, Duke, Alabama and Florida State. Pastner has pointed to the 2018 and 2019 classes as groups that Tech should have a better chance procuring commitments.
“I do think we need to have a good class,” he said later. “And a good class doesn’t mean it’s based on rankings. A good class means we need to feel O.K. that we signed who we wanted to sign, these guys are going to be good and help keep the program moving the needle forward. So this is an important class for us. There’s no denying it.”
But did he feel like he had a better shot?
“I think we’re in there,” he said. “It’s hard. These are 17-year-old guys. You just don’t know.”
The next stop was the Cashman Center, an exhibit hall with 98,100 square feet of space, big enough for seven courts. It’s the main site of the Adidas Summer Championships, which had four age groups and more than 300 teams.
Arriving around 10:30 a.m., he circulated for the next 45 minutes, visiting three courts to show his face. He visited briefly with Florida State assistant coach Charlton Young, the former Tech assistant who beat out the Yellow Jackets for Walker. Pastner messed with Young, saying that no longer for him was Duke the recruiting competitor to pack it in against, but Young.
“Spoken from a guy who came in and stole a lottery pick out of the city, and we didn’t even know he was there,” Young responded, referring to Pastner’s recruitment of Jordan Hill out of Atlanta when he was an assistant at Arizona.
After leaving Cashman at about 11:15 – it was now 101 degrees, according to Pastner’s rental, a silver Ford Fusion Hybrid – Pastner had his first decision of the day to make, which of two prospects to go see. He started driving without having made up his mind, and called up a former AAU coach for help.
At the other end of the call, the coach at first didn’t have much of an opinion on a particular prospect – Pastner couldn’t offer many helpful details to jog his memory– but he soon called back with a scouting report.
“Gotcha,” Pastner said. “But he can shoot it, though, right?”
The call confirmed Pastner’s decision to give the player a look, even though it meant a drive to a remote gym that would eat into his day. The former coach at the other end of the line?
None other than Tech football great Pat Swilling, who coached his sons Tre and Bruce Jordan-Swilling in New Orleans in AAU basketball for several years.
“I hope that kid’s a stud,” Pastner said.
His mind made up, Pastner exited I-15 and turned around to head to Legacy High School in North Las Vegas to look at the prospect. Because of the cost of time, Pastner was having second thoughts even before he arrived, comparing his decision to choosing between potato chips and an apple as a late-night snack.
He arrived just before the noon tipoff. As the prospect scored a couple baskets, Pastner chatted with East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo, a good friend, while keeping up with the game. But Pastner, wanting to get to the next game, had seen enough in less than 15 minutes.
“Not quick enough,” he said.
As he drove to Bishop Gorman High, site of the Fab 48 tournament, he took in the barren desert landscape on the outskirts of Las Vegas – the Sheep Range to the north and the La Madre Mountain Wilderness to the west. Pastner grew to love the openness of the desert in Arizona, first living in Tucson as a player and then a coach.
“I wonder if anyone lives in these mountains,” he said.
At Bishop Gorman, the parking lot closer to the coaches’ entrance was full. However, Pastner, who describes his optimism as not glass half-full, but “glass overflowing,” kept driving closer. Sure enough, Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley was walking to his car just as he pulled up.
“Son of a gun,” Pastner said, pleased with his payoff.
He arrived in time to catch the end of a noon game in an auxiliary gym, sharing the crowded sideline space with Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew and South Carolina coach Frank Martin. Posted up in a corner of the gym near the door, Pastner split his time between watching the game and trading text messages with prospects, parents and his staff, with whom he shares a group text for updates of prospects.
He assured later that he pays “very close attention” to prospects, even while talking with colleagues and texting.
“Sometimes, you’re sitting there talking to coaches – it is what it is – you’re sitting next to a coach, you’re going to talk to a guy,” he said.
He stuck around for another game at Gorman, this one in the main gym. He stood behind one of the baskets, maximizing visibility of his dark-blue Georgia Tech t-shirt.
“We win a national championship, I can sit down,” he said later. “They’d know I was there. Finishing 11th in the ACC doesn’t do that. Roy Williams can sit, because everyone knows who he is.”
The second part of the series detailing the rest of Pastner’s day can be read here.