'The world ahead of him'

As a 6-foot, 6-inch rising high school freshman, Nate Brafford's basketball journey features tons of promise and decisions. See how his parents are helping him wade through a process that can be as intense as it is exhilarating.

It was the most defining game of his season - so far. Nate Brafford, the 6-foot, 6-inch freshman guard with a wingspan that makes him seem even more imposing, dropped in 23 points in Tuscola High School's 91-67 victory over the North Buncombe Blackhawks. Still refining his game and growing into his basketball body, Brafford is making a name for himself in basketball circles in and around the state of North Carolina.

It started after he attended the "Southeast 100" camp in South Carolina, where he was named MVP of his class. The honor opened the floodgates. Scouting service rankings. Invitations to play on travel ball teams.

It's a lot for a 14-year-old to take in. Jason and Tabitha Brafford know the drill. Nate's parents met at the University of North Florida, where they played on the men's and women's basketball teams, respectively. Each of them has gone through the rigors of recruiting at different times and on different levels. At 6 feet, 8 inches tall, Jason had to work really hard at the game, playfully admitting that he only made his high school team because his coach didn't cut freshman. At 6 feet tall,  Tabitha found a similar path to a scholarship. At that time, it was the norm for college coaches to come to your high school game to see you play. Nowadays, unless they are going to see a player they already know about, that just does not happen. 

But both of them know that these are different days, and finding the right path can be a daunting task. For example, in Nate's 2021 class, 10 to 12 players already are getting offers. Is Nate in that category? It's a question the Braffords will have to find an answer to.

Four years ago, through a mutual friend, a formal introduction occurred between the Brafford’s and player development specialist, Kevin Cantwell, who conducted training sessions with players from Nate’s team, the WNC Altitude. Eventually, this led to a connection with Cantwell for private instructions. And while there are still a million questions swirling around their minds, the move has proved to be a good one. Right now, while lots of questions are getting answers, there are scores more to be asked as Nate progresses through the recruiting process.

Roundball Stories caught up with them to see why finding the right path and resources in their son's journey is an important step in the journey.

At what age did you begin to realize that Nate could play college ball.
I have always had a feeling. My wife and I both played in college; we were tall and had a love for sports. I guess it was when I saw him play against other kids in in his age group – around 5-6 years old. He was more aggressive than the others. Generally, the more aggressive kids are the better athletes in elementary and middle school.

Tell us about your son's basketball experience to date.

Nate started in rec league, then moved on to youth league (traveling to play in neighboring cities). We coached his travel team with local boys for several years. When he continued to excel, we thought it would be a good idea to let him play with more athletic kids, so we took him to Asheville and began playing with the Big Time Bulldogs.

With the success of his team, and through attending various showcase events like Phenom and Big Shots, he has been getting contacted by several other teams throughout the state. He made varsity as a 9th grader and has played some good minutes this year to date.

When you look at today's basketball landscape (compared to when you played), what do you see?

I see more of a focus on travel tournaments, various organizations sending invites to camps, showcases, training and college recruiting services. Everybody wants a piece of your money.

When I played (I started in 9th grade), I didn't know what travel ball was. I didn't really play serious travel ball until 11th grade. Now, if you don't start early, you're so far behind other kids who have been playing their whole lives. Myself and other parents I've talked with really don't know what to do, who to play for, which events to attend. This was not a problem when I grew up. There were not nearly as many events. Camps were the big thing, like Five Star, ABCD camp, etc.

What was it like when you were playing?
The game was slower, more physical, less three-point shooting, more fundamentals.

What are the differences? Similarities?

The current travel ball landscape seems to be about running and gunning, pressing, and little to no set plays or offenses being run. I think the good kids nowadays are better than when I was in school. Most of them have been playing since they were 5. They have better ball handling skills (etc.) not necessarily fundamentals.

The training with an outside coach has been something that has been great for Nate. Most kids listen to other people more than their parents.

A lot of kids today don't really have a grasp on how to play the game. I see a lot of games where a team has a lead with one to two minutes left, and instead of running the clock and trying to get to the free throw line, they continue to run and shoot quick shots, which lets the other teams back in the game. That drives me crazy.

There is also much less emphasis on defense and winning games today. I personally hated to lose and would do everything I could to win. With kids playing multiple games on a weekend in travel ball, I think they lose some of that. They come right back in an hour and play again.

What has been your perception of how a young player gets recognized today?

I have always been told that if your kid is good enough, they will find you. Now the emphasis is on the showcase and scouting companies. There is real pressure for kids to get themselves ranked and get on a big travel club that play on the adidas, Under Armour or Nike circuit. My perception is that if you make it to one of those teams, that's where the bigger college programs recruit from.

What role do you think fundamentals play in his journey?

Nate is not the fastest or most athletic kid. He is getting taller and competes with any other kid that I've seen in his age group. He has a goal of making the NBA one day, like most young basketball players do. I think fundamentals are the most important part of his game. Continuing to improve them is very important in his reaching his goal. In order to compete with the bigger faster stronger kids, he has to be smarter, shoot better and be better fundamentally better than them.

What do you see are your son's keys to climbing the ladder in the game?

He must continue to improve his fundamentals, continue to learn the game, and to be in the right place at the right time in front of the right people. Growing his body will also be a big key. He plays guard, but at a lot of events he has to guard very large post players because he's tall. This is difficult for him right now, as he is a slim 6-foot 6-inches.

How important is it for Nate to continue to hone his fundamentals?

Nate could grow to be 6-feet, 9-inches to 6-feet, 10-inches, which is why it is important for him to learn all aspects of the game (post play and perimeter play).

He has always just naturally been a good perimeter player. He is now getting to understand that you have to take advantage of matchups and that he may have to post up smaller defenders. He is currently working on his post-game and it continues to improve. There is always someone bigger and you have to use whatever gifts you have to take advantage.

In working with Kevin Cantwell, can you share some of the things that you're learning about a parent's role in their child's journey?

I've learned that I may put too much pressure on my son and that it can take some of the fun out of the game. I have tried to guide him throughout his journey, but have I have learned that the fights in the car on the way home from games are just not productive.

Kevin takes the more laid-back approach of when the kid is ready to get looks from college coaches, then he will help get them looks. His philosophy has caused me to not be in such a hurry to get to this event or that tournament. I have always wanted to get him seen as early as possible and not miss a potential opportunity. Kevin's focus is on training first. If you miss out on something because you were training, it is OK. Nate will be better off his junior and senior year when colleges really start looking at kids.

What are some of the things a parent can do to be supportive?

I try to give my son every opportunity that I can financially afford. My goal as a parent is to try to help him reach his goals. Don't get me wrong, we still argue about plays after games on the car ride home, or not boxing out, or bad shots, etc., but by now, he knows that I'm only trying to help. We still have our moments of disagreement, but as a parent, I take my cues from him. That may mean a quiet car ride home and a conversation the next day.

How important is it for parents to find all of the available resources for their child?

It's very important. Kids just don't know what to look for out there. They look for the bling or the flash with teams, players. I feel that the right program at the right time is essential for a player's development. Kids outgrow programs and vice versa. I try to put resources in front of my son to push him and never let him get comfortable. The training with an outside coach has been something that has been great for Nate. Most kids listen to other people more than their parents. I can say the same thing Kevin says, but he will tend to listen to Kevin, because he doesn't want to hear it from his dad.

What has training with Kevin taught Nate? What has it taught you and your wife?

Both of our boys have attended camps with Kevin when they were younger. Over the past year, I reached out to Kevin when I was looking for a more individual-type workout for them. Kevin's approach is building on fundamentals. He starts slow and with repetition, builds the fundamentals until a kid is ready to move on to another skill. Kevin is really big on weak leg work. Being as good off of either foot. Lots of pivots, spins and other drills off of the weak foot builds strength and a more well-rounded game.

My wife and I were recently having a dilemma about whether or not to transfer to private schools. In today's game, most of the better players are going to private schools to reclassify. Nate is playing against kids at showcases that are sometimes two years older, but are in the same class. This seems unfair to us and almost felt like we are being forced to re-class him in order to give him more opportunity.

Kevin has consistently steered us away from doing this because it was the best thing for Nate. Kevin has great advice that is personalized to what type of player your son is.

So, rather than look at private school, my wife and I have taken Kevin's advice. We kept Nate in public school backed off a bit with pressure, and helped him fall in love with the game.

Michael J. Pallerino, publisher of Roundball Stories, is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in a number of sports and business publications across the country. As a longtime editor in the sports product industry, his monthly editorials consistently garnered national attention from USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN Magazine, Sports Business Journal, BusinessWeek, among others. He has been interviewed by a number of publications and media outlets, including CNN.

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