Q&A with Dan Poneman

“So Jeremy was telling me you’re up at Alaska. Tell me about that, how did you end up there?”

Within two minutes of my phone conversation with Chicago high school basketball scout Daniel Poneman, I found myself feeling like I was the one being interviewed, but in a good way.

This was to be expected, I suppose. I rarely speak on the phone, and when I do it nearly always is with my lovely wife, and consists primarily of me asking her how our kids are doing while I’m at work, or letting her know my estimated time of arrival from work.

Poneman, on the other hand, is constantly communicating with others. From high school basketball players to high school coaches, AAU coaches, college coaches, recruiters, other scouts, this that and a third. Via phone, tweet, in person, doesn’t matter. The 20-year-old is a seasoned vet of the scouting game, where so much of your success hinders not only on your ability to see talent and recognize it, but your ability to network and get to know people in a positive way. He’s earned the respect of many coaches and their staff from across the nation and they value his opinion.

Most outside of Chicago first learned of Poneman when he was featured in this December 2007 Sports Illustrated article.

I hit him up last night, as mentioned above, via phone. Also, besides the SI article, before you read the interview do yourself a favor and check out this mini-doc Poneman was featured in, from Jay-Zs lifeandtimes.com – Ball so Hard. If you’re from Chicago and you love basketball and it doesn’t give you chills- you doing it wrong.

Rigo: For our readers who may not know who you are or what you do, can you give them some background?

Dan: Well, people ask me everyday – what is my job? What do I do? And I tell them I don’t really have a job description. I’m just Dan P. I like to say I’m the only person in the world with my job description, but I do a damn good job at it.

My job is to find the best basketball talent in Chicago and beyond and then do everything in my power to make sure everyone else in the world knows about them, and that they fulfill their potential in every way possible.

I started out when I was fourteen years old. The area that I grew up in near Chicago, in Evanston, at the time for the area it was a particularly talented time period, so I grew up playing AAU basketball with guys like Alex Dragicevich and Jack Cooley, who are at Notre Dame right now, Ben Brust who’s at Wisconsin, Chance Carter who plays football at Northwestern. David Smith, who’s the point guard for Drake, was my middle school teammate.  Chris Colvin, who is a point guard at Arizona State. Jeremy Montgomery, who’s a senior at Cleveland State grew up playing with us. Juice Thompson, who played at Northwestern, was two years older than me but grew up right near me.

So just, in my age group there were all these great players. So my freshman year, I played basketball for Evanston on the freshman team. And I discovered that there were websites and message boards about high school basketball, before that I had no idea people cared about high school basketball players.

So I go on the website and I see a lot of the guys that I knew ranked on the website. I thought first off, that’s was crazy that my friends are on these websites. Second, these rankings suck, when I know way better than these people because I’ve played against these guys.

So I start going on message boards, just writing my opinion, and I get well-known on the message boards for knowing a lot about ball. People started suggesting I start a website. So I start a website, illinoishsbasketball.com my freshman year, and the rest is history.

Rigo: Back when you were 15-16 years old, basically sacrificing your social life to stay on top of your website at the time, did you think it would pay off the way it has?

Dan: Well, here’s the thing – since I’ve had success at a young age, every person I’ve talk to are always commending me for how hard I work and sacrificing my social life and sacrificing going to college and all these things, but in reality it was never a hard thing to do. It was never like “damn, I can’t do these regular kid things because I have to do my job” cause my job was the fuckin’ bomb.

Derrick Rose during his senior season at Simeon HS, with Dan Poneman in the orange shirt watching from the front row

Every weekend in high school, to have to choose, you know, instead of going to the same parties with the same kids and things like that, to go see Derrick Rose get a triple double for Simeon, it was easy. And then after the game, just the fact that if I wrote about it or made a video about it, that people would actually listen to what I have to say and that they cared about what I have to say, it was just so awesome like, an opportunity that I couldn’t wait to take advantage of over and over and over.

Rigo: You were one of the first to really praise Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis when he was a virtual unknown in high school. To see him shoot up to the top of the class of 2011 high school rankings, and then see him dominate at Kentucky and be on top of many 2012 mock NBA Draft boards, how does that make you feel? Does it give a sense of vindication, or does it just make you hungrier to discover the next unknown recruit that’s gonna make it big?

Dan: It’s actually neither. It’s actually almost exactly the opposite. Whenever I talk to people, they give me credit for that but really, it’s almost an embarrassment to me because it’s not like it was that hard. I was in the right place at the right time.

I first saw Anthony when he was in the eighth grade. He was playing for Chicago Select, which is Sonny Parker, Jabari Parker’s dad’s AAU team. He was the sixth man on that team, he was like 5’11”, mostly a shooter. Actually back then, I used to joke with his teammates that he would be better than all of them. Even though most of his teammates were big-time ranked guys,  you could just see it in how long his arms were, and the way he was built that he was gonna grow.

I used to call him “Mini Evan Turner”. Evan Turner was like six feet at that age, shot up to 6’7″ and he became Evan Turner. So I used to call Anthony “Mini ET”, and it was just joking around because he wasn’t as good as his teammates at the time. But then the next time I saw Anthony  he was 6’10” and like I said, I was just in the right place at the right time.

Dan Poneman with Anthony Davis shortly before his high school prom

I was at the first AAU tournament he had with Mean Streets. I watched the first half of his first game in the tournament,  and after that my jaw hit the floor, I couldn’t believe it. This was the same Anthony that wore the goggles, 135 pounds and most thought was nothing, and now I mean it was clear, immediately that he was special. So then, you know, I caught the rest of his game and followed his games and made some videos, made some calls, and the rest was history. 

Rigo: Others have said in the past that one of your strengths in being able to scout has always been your ability to have these kids you’re scouting relate to you and vice-versa due to your young age. Obviously, you’ll still be able to scout at any age, but do you ever worry as you get older these kids will no longer see you as one of their peers and won’t open up to you as easily?

Dan: Well….college coaches always say that when I would talk about the kids, because I have that personality that allowed me to get to know them on a different level, so I have more insight. But I think that was also kind of more by default because the people I was spending my time with on the weekends rather than being with my high school friends were these players I was on the road with.

Dan Poneman with Jereme Richmond in 2009

Like Jereme Richmond, for example, I followed him through high school and through his AAU career, so I didn’t spend as much time with my friends from high school cause I probably went to over a hundred games through his four-year career.

So just being there all the time it’s like, these are my peers, these are my friends and I just became a part of that AAU friends circle, but then the other side of it is I was always with their coaches and around college coaches as well.

I mean, it’s already happening. The kids who are in high school right now are five years younger than me. So, I’m not friends with them like I was with maybe a Jereme Richmond or a Chris Colvin, but I still relate to these kids because we’re all young and the difference between 15 and 20 is a lot less than their coaches and parents.

Also, as I get older, I won’t change, but with my wealth of experience with spending time with so many kids and seeing so many kids go through the process, that a young high school basketball player goes through, I’ll be able to be a positive influence on the kids and have more insight that can help their careers rather than just giving them exposure.

Rigo: What is a typical day like for you these days?

Dan: I really don’t have a typical day. Every single day is just different. I don’t make a schedule of the games I’m going to, but really how I decide which games to go to is based on who texts me or who emails me and what people tell me about what games. Every day I wake up, I’ll have about 10, 15 texts about basketball stuff. You know, a college coach asking me about a kid, you’ll have players saying “come to my game”, a coach saying “come to our game”, a parent, whatever. So I just take it from there.

So I’ll schedule whatever games I have, I usually have different meetings with people throughout the day. A lot of times a lot of the work I do is at night after I get home from the game. My friend Doug comes to every game with me and films all the games so I can talk to guys throughout the game and just watch it later. I’ll do the editing myself, and afterwards I’ll usually call college coaches, let them know how I felt and then just take it from there. And of course, I’m on Twitter the whole time.

During the summer and spring, it’s different because there’s no high school ball. I usually leave every Thursday or Friday and get back on Sunday or Monday from whatever AAU tournament I went to that weekend. This past AAU season I went to Pittsburgh, Memphis, Saint Louis, Akron, Milwaukee, all these different places.

Rigo: So we’re both huge Jabari Parker fans. I’ve personally gone back and forth with cats who say ain’t no way a junior is the best player in the country, and I tell them “believe it”.  But in your words, why is he the best high school player in the country?

Dan: Jabari Parker has no weakness as a player. He’s gotten better every month of his career. He’s the most dominant player on the number one team in the nation, and he’s only 16 years old. How unbelievable is that? He’s going up against teams like Findlay Prep, who recruit five-star players from around the country to fill up their roster, and he goes to a public school as a 16-year-old, and they’re number one in the country. Against Brazil for the 16 and Under USA team in Mexico, he scored 27 points on 9/10 shooting. He was just named USA Men’s Basketball Player of the Year.

Dan Poneman with Sonny Parker (left) and Jabari Parker (right)

Jabari Parker is the real life Jesus Shuttlesworth. He has no flaws, no weaknesses. And yet, this is the nicest kid you’ll ever meet. 

Kind soul, with impeccable work ethic, who enjoys competition, who loves everybody, who loves himself and is completely focused. He’s the most focused human being I’ve ever seen in my life. He doesn’t make a show of it. A lot of athletes these days, you know, will talk about why they’re this and that, but Jabari is never a showman.

I did an interview with him when he was in seventh grade, the one thing he said was his dad told him “don’t be flashy, just do what you gotta do, just get it done.”  And that’s what he does. He’s like Carmelo Anthony with Tim Duncan’s brain. He’s the evolution of a basketball player. He could be the anti-LeBron. The anti-ego.

I saw Shabazz Muhammad score 45 points on like, 85% shooting in a championship of an AAU tournament against an SYF team that had Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. He missed like one or two shots the whole game. But I also saw a game that tournament where he had nine points because they ran a box-and-one defense.

Jabari Parker, if he gets double-teamed, which he does every game, he always finds the open man, he finds creative ways to pass. His basketball IQ is not only great, it’s off the charts. He might have a better basketball IQ than LeBron James right now.

Rigo: Wow. That’s a bold statement!

Dan: That’s the first time I said that out loud, but now that I think about it, it makes sense. I’ll have to put that on Twitter.

Rigo: Who are some under the radar players we should look out for?

Dan: Well, ever since Anthony, every player I’ve put out there that I say “this kid’s gonna be good”, people will say on Twitter and stuff “Oh, this is the dude that discovered Anthony Davis, so believe in this player” but they don’t understand everybody can’t be Anthony Davis. Anthony isn’t just like a once-in-a-while player, he’s like a once in a generation player, I mean how many people have that type of growth spurt? So that’s not gonna happen.

People associate me with the Jabari Parkers and the Anthony Davises, but what my real job is, or the bulk of my job, is to see all these other player. And you know, maybe one guy’s low DII, DIII or maybe another guy’s Junior College-bound. I’ve worked with probably over forty different junior colleges.

Everyone knows Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor. People know Paul White too. But people outside of Chicago don’t know much about Cliff Alexander from Chicago Curie, a 6′ 10″ power forward. But people in Chicago realize how dominant he is. A lot of people are saying he’s an Amar’e Stoudemire type. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t end up being top 5 pick in the draft a few years down the road. 

I got one more – Jerron Wilbut. He’s in the suburbs, he’s from Downer’s Grove South. He’s a 6’3″ guard, right now Rivals has him at 149, ESPN has him 35 among shooting guards, I think he should be higher than that. I think he’s at least a top 75 player.

Rigo: What’s next for you and SwagAir?

Dan: I actually have no idea. I always have something in the works. I always have goals, short-term and long-term. But one thing about the position I’m in is that I’m young, and I have a lot of opportunity and things are always changing. One day I’m a scout, next day I’m a coach, next day I’m a writer, then an entrepreneur. I don’t know which one I’m gonna end up doing, or what combination of those, so I’m just taking everyday as it comes and enjoying everything.

Rigo: You’ve mentioned in the past that being an NBA General Manager is your dream. Is that still the goal?

Dan: Not at all. I changed my goal. I know, people bring that up a lot cause I mentioned that in the Sports Illustrated article all those years ago. I say “all those years”, it was four years ago but really it feels like a lifetime. Soon after, I decided I wanted to do something different because general managers are usually only general managers for three to seven years and many will get fired for not doing a good job. It is a hard job, and there’s just a lot of turnover.

Also, it’s really hard to become a general manager because there’s only like 30 of them. A lot of politics is involved and at the end of the day, who are you really helping? You know, it’s a selfish goal to say, I want to become a general manager. I’d rather look at my goals as, I wanna help thousands of kids. So my goals now are concentrated more on having a social impact and a political impact on my city, and change Chicago basketball for the better for the long-term. 

Rigo: Chicago high school basketball lost a giant when “The Godfather” Mac Irvin passed away late last year. Can you touch on what he meant to you personally, and what he meant to the city of Chicago?

Dan: The first time I met Mac Irvin was when I was 15 years old. I was in school, in PE class, I remember it vividly. We were outside playing kickball or something, but I didn’t wear my gym clothes that day. I got a phone call from Chris Colvin, and his dad Ike said, “hey, the Godfather wants to meet you”. I was like, “what are you talking about?” He said, “Mac Irvin. He wants to meet you today.” I didn’t really comprehend it.

Dan Poneman with Mac Irvin

He explained he had seen my website, I was writing about all these players, so I went over there on like, 89th Street by CVS High School. I met with Nick Irvin, and he had this notebook that had information about me – my name, my website. And I was just in awe that my stupid website had people I didn’t know, knowing who I was.

From that day on, every single time I saw Mac I was greeted with a smile and a conversation. He was just like me. I guess that’s what I’m gonna be years from now. Just walk around, let my sons do all the work, and just talk about high school basketball. That’s what he loved to do at age 74 and that’s exactly what I love to do at age 20. Talking about high school basketball and getting excited about all these great players in our city.

Mac literally impacted tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in his life. You think about the thousands of kids that he directly or indirectly coached, and then their kids, it’s just insane.

Steve Jobs said, “death is life’s greatest invention” because it clears away the old and makes way for the new, and right now we’re the new. With Mac, one person had an impact on tens of thousands of people, and now it’s our job to carry on his legacy by collectively doing his job, and improving upon it.  His sons are all coaches, so I think the city’s in good hands with us, and he can rest easy. 

Rigo: So don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m a big DePaul fan. How well do you think Oliver Purnell and company are doing? Recruiting-wise, you think they can  put DePaul back on the map nationally?

Dan: Well first, I have to say they walked into a very hard situation. DePaul plays at All-State Arena, which is 25 minutes away from the city of Chicago. No offense to the guys on the team, but they had a horrible roster when Oliver Purnell took over. When he took over, a lot of people in Chicago said he’ll never make it, simply because he’s not a “Chicago guy”.

But a couple of months after he got the job, he took me out to lunch, actually. As soon as I got to sit down and talk to him, and hear what he was all about, and see the type of man he was, it was immediately clear DePaul’s in good hands and they’re gonna do well because he’s exactly what DePaul needs. Not somebody who’s going to kiss everyone’s ass, all the CPS coaches, and try to please everybody.  He’s the type of dude who is gonna bring in guys who really wanna buy into what he’s doing.

He also hired Billy Garrett as one of his assistants, who is the father of Billy Garret, Jr. at Morgan Park, who has committed to DePaul. Garrett, Jr. also grew up playing AAU ball with Jabari Parker, Tommy Hamilton, and all these other players. So with that combination of having a Chicago guy on the staff and Purnell being such a great coach, it just feels like a recipe for success. Already, they just beat Pitt the other day. They’re already on their ascent.

Rigo: Anything else you wanna add?

Dan: Thank you for interviewing me. Sorry if I talk too much. It’s what I do.

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