Xavier Booker’s spectacular rise momentarily met its match on Wednesday evening at Mt. Vernon H.S. in Fortville, Ind.
The culprit? Jet lag.
Fresh off earning most valuable player honors at the prestigious Pangos All-American Camp in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Booker was back in Indiana the next day to join his Junior Indiana All-Star teammates for their annual game against the Senior All-Stars.
But his four points on 1-of-5 shooting with three turnovers against the seniors bore little resemblance to the player who has gone from sophomore reserve to one of the top class of 2023 players in the country.
While Booker admitted to being understandably tired on Wednesday, that he was even there is part of his story. He could have simply sat this one out and rested up for more Indiana All-Star competition this weekend. But Booker said he wanted to be with his team and play in front of the fans, including many who no doubt came to see the 6-foot-11 forward who is coveted by just about every high major college program in the country.
Booker is embracing the journey and the attention it is bringing him. But it wasn’t that long ago that he didn’t want the spotlight.
When we spoke to him a year ago Booker couldn’t explain why he didn’t see the floor much as a sophomore at Indianapolis Cathedral H.S. despite having tantalizing natural gifts. He was quiet, and not comfortable talking about his game, even as he was just starting to excel on the spring AAU circuit.
My how things have changed.
Today Booker is rated a 5-star prospect and the No. 4 player in the incoming senior class according to 247Sports, and he is much more sure of himself, both on and off the court.
The ingredients for that meteoric rise have been part work ethic, part who surrounds him, and part Booker and his coaches embracing his strengths on the court.
“I’ve just been working,” Booker told The Daily Hoosier on Wednesday after the Senior All-Stars won 90-75.
“My confidence has gone up a lot. I’m just continuing to put the work in and surround myself with the right group of people who push me harder and harder every day, and continue to let me feel free with my game and let me play.”
Despite not playing much as a sophomore, Booker’s ascent began last spring playing for the George Hill All Indy AAU program, and it continued after his dominant late season play propelled Cathedral to the 4A state title.
Booker credits the head coaches of both programs, and many others for the guidance and mentorship that has allowed him to land scholarship offers from Indiana, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, Purdue, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Louisville, Texas, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan and many more.
“Definitely my guy (George Hill coach) Mike Saunders, definitely Coach (Jason) Delaney and the rest of the Cathedral coaching staff, and the whole George Hill organization, my parents, my brothers, everybody,” Booker said.
With his size, it would be easy for his coaches to put him on the low block and have him post up, but Saunders learned early on that Booker was not your typical 6-foot-11 player.
“When his father introduced him to me, he actually broke down his game and showed me, ‘this is what he’s comfortable doing,'” Saunders said. “I made a commitment to him, this is how you are going to play, you’re going to play how you’re comfortable, and I think when he sees that you make those decisions on his behalf, and he’s able to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, and maximize his abilities.”
Several of the offers have come in recent weeks, as Booker seems to put on one dominant performance after another wherever his travels take him, including USA National training camp, and to just about anywhere for any shoe circuit competition his independent AAU program can find.
The whirlwind adventure has left little time to even think about recruiting, but Booker recognizes the need to focus on that part now with school out and travel basketball on hiatus at least for the month of June.
“I’m gonna start going on visits here soon, and I’m just continuing to see what schools come, and take all my visits, and eventually the time will come for me to commit,” Booker said.
Booker said he feels like Indiana is pushing hard right now, and he is hearing from multiple assistants along with head coach Mike Woodson. One thing he likes about Woodson’s message — the IU head coach isn’t afraid to tell him where the holes are in his game.
“He sometimes tells me to rebound more, tells me I need to get more aggressive and play harder,” Booker said.
“It’s constructive criticism. I can see it and feel it when I’m not playing hard enough when I’m not rebounding and being aggressive. It’s good that he actually cares and he wants me to do my best.”
Booker took an official visit to IU in the fall, and one aspect of that visit still stands out, even after everything that his transpired since.
“Definitely just the bond that I got with the coaches,” Booker recalled of his October stay in Bloomington. “It’s a family type of bond with them. They’re really cool people, they really seem to have my best interest and they really care about me.”
Booker projects as a stretch-four at the high major level according to Saunders. With his ability shoot 3-pointers and put the ball on the floor, that’s plain to see, as is his appeal to both college coaches and the NBA, who also love his plus-7 wingspan that produces highlight reel dunks and blocks routinely.
The competition for Booker is intense and seemingly growing every day.
What will ultimately set one program apart?
It’s a lot of the same things that got him to this point — coaches who connect with him and believe in him.
“I just want to go to a school where I fit in every aspect — academically, athletically, coaching style,” Booker said. “I’m really just trying to go to a school where I fit in and I know I belong and the coaches have my best interest in mind.”
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