Anyone who follows college basketball recruiting— or really anyone who spends any time on the internet and has interest in sports— has seen it. There’s simply no way to avoid it. Too many sites, pages, blogs, YouTube channels exist for you to miss it, because each one is trying as hard as they can to make you see it.
“It” is the latest viral video of a high school basketball player dunking from the free throw line, or breaking ankles with a crossover, or talking trash after draining a three. From Ballislife, Overtime, and Bleacher Report to WorldStar and even ESPN, it seems like just about everyone is looking for the next big thing, while creating media darlings like the Ball family and massive teen Zion Williamson. To get a little more insight on this, I talked to Overtime’s editor in chief, Sam Gordon.
“I think the peak in interest around high school basketball highlights really goes hand in hand with the spread of smartphones (along with their reduction in price) and the rise of Instagram. Ten years ago there wasn’t an effective way to watch high school hoops without physically going to the game. Casual fans would only see players play once they hit college and their games were broadcast on TV. Now, anyone can go to a high school game, take out their iPhone and post a clip online. An hour later it could get picked up by a big account and seen by millions. Smartphones and Instagram enable short-form clips to be seen in almost real time, and the fact that these phones are affordable means that everyone can add to the hype.” - Sam Gordon, Overtime
The newest thing in college basketball recruiting, and in the basketball world as a whole, is the splashy highlights, the tiny clips of high-flying feats. The market for bite-sized basketball content is soaring like never before, and churning out overnight star after overnight star. For the first time ever, any player, anywhere could become the biggest news of the day if they make a big enough play.
“The popularity of these players and their highlights are still on a big upward swing. Attention spans are collectively waning and people want to watch a lot of short clips in a small timespan while scrolling through their feed. High school basketball lends itself to this culture. There’s less parity in high school hoops than in college and the NBA, which leads to wild highlights, and high school players are way more prone to making a funny mistake or falling over on a crossover than NBA athletes are” - Sam Gordon, Overtime
While the rise of social media fame can create a star in any gym in the country, it can also amplify those at the top of the high school basketball world to a point that we’ve really never seen before. Top recruits are more heralded than ever, and as the Adidas FBI scandal indicated, some teams (most teams) are willing to do anything to land the best of the best.
However, for the most part, the best of the best, five-star, top-notch recruits are rare in Columbus. Obviously Ohio State’s lack of involvement in that FBI scandal could be a contributing factor, but the Buckeyes haven’t really been players for top recruits since the beginning of the social media era, that just for the purposes of this article, we’ll say started around 2014, when Instagram and Twitter really began their rise to mainstream popularity, and smart phones became the rule, rather than the exception.
Since the 2014 class, Ohio State has landed 22 recruits, including two five-stars, in D’Angelo Russell and D.J. Carton. However, neither of those two really fits the profile of the kind of player that we’re talking about here. Both were, and are, in the case of Carton, a high school senior, very talented high school prospects, but neither was a viral recruit.
That is to say that neither one was (or is) drawing massive hype on social media for the latest highlight play, or the trash talking they did against a rival school. They were (and are) good players, being good, in a relatively quiet way.
Of those 22 recruits, only one applies to the kind of viral star that we’re talking about here. Only one is a different kind of player, one who cameras seem to follow everywhere he goes, one who constantly generates incredible plays. The first truly viral Buckeye basketball recruit arrived on campus, just months ago, by way of Hudson Catholic in New Jersey.
Luther Muhammad is unlike any high school basketball player I’ve ever watched. His game best resembles a time tested NBA veteran, who spent years learning how to play basketball closer to the ground, making smarter plays instead of throwing his body all over the court. Luther plays with the kind of control that you just don’t often see from a high schooler. He plays like he knows what your next move is, even before you know it.
I think that’s what makes him so interesting. You’re probably not going to see Luther Muhammad throwing down a ton of big dunks, or putting on high-flying antics to wow crowds. It isn’t that he couldn’t — at 6-foot-4, and with his athleticism, he very easily could be a dunking machine — but rather that he doesn’t want to. Luther Muhammad doesn’t need to dunk on an opponent to embarrass him, because he’s done that far before he reaches the hoop.
That isn’t to say that he’s a Kyrie Irving clone, over-dribbling his way into devastating ankle breakers and crossing over anyone who gets in his way. Luther is a solid enough dribbler, a solid enough athlete, and honestly, a solid enough player that he could do whatever is needed on offense. He scores, and does it at will, but that’s not what makes Luther Muhammad so impressive. What makes him so impressive, is that when he does score, he does it effortlessly. It’s like he’s not even trying. He’s less of a basketball player, and more of an artist.
That kind of player is rare. That kind of player, at 18 years old, brand new to college basketball, is nearly unheard of. There are plenty of elite athletes entering the game, hell, look at his high school teammate Jahvon Quinerly, known for his dazzling layups and lightning quick handles. Much more uncommon are players like Luther, for whom the game has already slowed, and for whom basketball just comes naturally.
That’s not to say that Luther isn’t a hard worker, or that he didn’t spend years perfecting his game, it’s just to say that on the floor, when the game is truly flowing, no one looks more comfortable than the New Jersey native. Whether the ball is in his hands in transition, as the lead guard in a half court set, or matched up one-on-one with the best defender his opponents can find, Luther knows exactly how to come out on top, and more often than not, he’ll let you know about it before he does anything.
That may take some getting used to for Buckeye fans. If there’s one thing we haven’t seen much of in Columbus, it’s elite trash talkers. Sure, we had Daniel Giddens yelling “UT ARLINGTON” after he blocked a shot from a UT Arlington player (if you happen to have a clip of this please send it to me), but Ohio State has been lacking a truly cocky star over the past decade or so. Luther Muhammad is just that, declaring that his team would win by 40, or that he’d give Russell Westbrook buckets, or, my personal favorite, hollering at this poor teen.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MY GUY LUTHER MUHAMMAD @LutherMuhammad pic.twitter.com/eJYPZPUzCH— Overtime (@overtime) June 17, 2018
“This particular clip is a microcosm of why Luther is popular on social media. Yeah, the move is good, but the trash talk is what makes it. Who hasn’t gotten into it with someone on the court, scored on them one-on-one and then talked trash? It’s relatable. You see that play, you look up his social media, and you follow him because you know there’s more to come. His infectious personality off the court adds to it also.” -Sam Gordon, Overtime
Luther Muhammad isn’t a finished product. He has plenty of growing to do, and plenty of basketball yet to be played in what could be a very long career. However, he’s already blazing a brand new trail at Ohio State. He’s not the next anyone, he’s the first Luther Muhammad. He’s a truly natural scorer, a ferocious defender, and a vibrant trash talker. He’s a basketball artist, and he’s about to start on his masterpiece.