Noie: Commitment of combo guard J.J. Starling says a lot for direction of Notre Dame hoops
Six weeks ago Friday, high school senior J.J. Starling climbed into the passenger seat of a Ferrari as Notre Dame coach Mike Brey sat behind the wheel.
Starling’s official campus visit from La Lumiere School in neighboring LaPorte had commenced in a most unique – but now seemingly fitting – way.
Over the previous four college basketball seasons, Notre Dame operated like a late model Buick Century that had seen better days. It had bald tires, rust issues, no side mirrors and leaked just about every fluid imaginable out there in the Rolfs Hall lot.
There’s optimism that the Irish ride will be so much smoother and further this season, and even more so a year from now after what happened early Tuesday evening. That’s when Starling basically guaranteed that he will be handed the keys to Irish hoops in the coming years.
One of the top combo guards in the country and the one high school player atop the Irish recruiting wish list, Starling went public with the plan to play for Notre Dame starting in 2022-23.
"What really stood out was Coach Brey," Starling said during his five-minute announcement/interview on Instagram Live. "He reminded me of my AAU coach and my coach here at LaLu (Patrick Holmes, a Notre Dame graduate and former Irish team manager under Brey). I found myself really comfortable around them.
"Ultimately, that's what you really want, especially if you're going to play at a college level. You want to be comfortable and be able to trust the guy you're playing for."
A consensus four-star, top-40 recruit, Starling picked Notre Dame over the likes of Duke and Syracuse via Instagram at La Lumiere. Listen closely and you could hear the cheers – or sighs of relief – back in Saint Joseph County on the Notre Dame campus.
The Irish got their future floor leader. Guards under Brey are handed a whole lot, and Starling is next. This was a “Whoa!” recruiting moment for a program that for too many commitments had too many “Who?” moments.
This is big for Brey and big for the program. Starling’s the kind of talent that Notre Dame often recruited, but seldom landed. Brey and his staff would spend time recruiting a kid, getting to know a kid, only to field a phone call that said, hey, Coach, I really like you and like your program, but I like this program more.
Notre Dame finally is the program a really talented prospect liked best.
Does Starling choose Notre Dame if Duke icon Mike Krzyzewski isn’t retiring at season’s end? Maybe. Maybe not. But the Irish got him.
That’s a big sign that Brey still can do this dance. That this new-look coaching staff have some impressive moves as well. That this program isn’t what it’s been the last four years.
"He's a cool dude," Starling said of Brey. "He lets his guards go. He puts trust in his players and his players put trust in him. That's what I really like."
A 6-foot-5, 195-pounder from Baldwinsville, New York, set to start his second year at LaLu, Starling is ranked the nation’s No. 27 prospect by ESPN, No. 33 by 247Sports and No. 40 by Rivals. All three recruiting services rank him a four-star prospect.
Starling will be the highest high school senior/college prospect to sign with Notre Dame since the fall of 2012 when Marian High School product Demetrius Jackson, an eventual McDonald’s All-American, chose Notre Dame over Illinois.
He might become the first McDonald’s All-American since Jackson to sign with Notre Dame when the annual burger all-star team is announced in early 2022. Jackson was ranked by one recruiting service the nation’s No. 35 college prospect.
With current lead guard/senior captain Prentiss Hubb set to graduate in the spring – and his additional year of eligibility plans for 2022-23 unknown - Notre Dame needs someone to step into his spot immediately next season. Starling should be that guy.
Having already visited Notre Dame twice in the summer, Starling set his official visit for Labor Day Weekend. That Friday of the holiday weekend, Brey borrowed a red Ferrari to cover the 40 miles to La Lumiere to bring back Starling for the weekend – all legit under NCAA recruiting regulations.
Starling eventually also took official visits to Syracuse and Duke. He canceled a scheduled official visit to Northwestern. He took an earlier official visit over the summer to Maryland.
Notre Dame was among the first schools to contact Starling under NCAA recruiting regulations way back in June 2020.
How much of a priority was Starling for Notre Dame? On the first day of the fall evaluation period last month, when coaches could go on the road and recruit in person, Brey and his entire staff – associate coach Anthony Solomon and assistant coaches Ryan Humphrey and Antoni Wyche – went to LaLu to see Starling.
It was a show of strength, a show of seriousness. Like, you’re our guy.
Starling was Priority One for Notre Dame in this recruiting cycle. The feeling was mutual. Starling was serious early about Notre Dame, and really never wavered.
As a junior at LaLu, Starling averaged 14.9 points and 1.9 assists per game. The previous year at Baker High School in Central New York, he averaged 28.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
Starling has at least 17 scholarship offers – most from high-major schools. He played AAU basketball for the respected Albany (N.Y.) City Rocks program.
Starling is the second high school senior to offer Brey a commitment. In July, 6-8, 235-pound power forward Dominick Campbell from Exeter (N.H.) Phillips Academy committed to Notre Dame. How the rest of the recruiting class shakes out is anyone’s guess – including Brey’s.
The 2021-22 roster carries six seniors and one graduate student, all of whom are on track to earn degrees in the spring. Six of the seven have the eligibility option to return next season, including Hubb, a three-year starter at point guard.
Who returns? Who doesn’t? Who knows?
“My assistants go, ‘How many scholarships we have?’” Brey said earlier this month. “I have no idea, but let’s sign a couple guys. I’ll figure that out on the back end.”
Meanwhile, Brey received some really good news – some needed good recruiting news – on the front end.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI