Young scout is rising star in own right

James Graham

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One could say Daniel Poneman has an obsessive personality.

When he sets a goal for himself, he intends on finishing it. He’ll stay up all night completing a school project or spend hours at the gym refining his jump shot. While some would call it crazy, it is this passion and drive that has made the 16-year old arguably the best high school basketball scout in Illinois.

Poneman, a junior at Evanston Township High School, runs

illinoishsbasketball.com, a successful Web site dedicated to Illinois high school hoops. The site includes free detailed analysis of the top prospects in the state as well as highlight reels, news about new recruits and an extensive message board.

While the Web site may seem like just another hobby, Poneman’s clientele suggests otherwise. He is in regular contact from major college basketball programs such as Arizona, Kansas and Ohio State, who are all seeking his opinion on players he has scouted.

How did a 16-year old kid, who is often younger than the players he scouts, become a trusted analyst of Illinois high school basketball?

“Daniel has a unique twist on the scouting services,” said Sundance Wicks, an assistant coach at Northern Illinois. “He really gets at the heartbeat of players in Chicago. He’s friends with a lot of them and can tell us things no one else can.”

Poneman has lived and breathed basketball his entire life. His dad, Fred, was a guard at Brandeis Univeristy in Massachusetts and played against President Bush at Harvard Business School.

As Poneman grew up, he was raised on a healthy diet of college hoops. In fact, living in small Fairfield, Iowa, there was little else to do except watch Iowa Hawkeyes games in nearby Iowa City. Poneman believes these years were crucial in his development as a scout.

“I like to believe that because my dad raised me watching so much basketball that I have a special eye for talent,” he said. “I see things that people miss.”

When his family moved to Evanston, Poneman began playing. From the time he was in third grade, he played for AAU, Small Fry and school teams; anything just to be a part of the sport he loved.

While many of his teammates dreamed of becoming the next Michael Jordan, Poneman never had aspirations of playing professional basketball.

“I never expected to make it to the NBA like most kids my age did,” he says. “My dad would always say to me, even when I was really little, ‘Your strength is in your smarts not your skills’ …from that point on I pretty much knew I wanted to be a general manager.”

He became interested in following high school basketball in sixth grade, when ETHS was taking on rival Proviso East, which was led by former Michigan State and current Chicago Bulls guard Shannon Brown. Poneman recalls being blown away by Brown’s dominance and started tracking his career.

Receiving limited playing time on the ETHS freshman team, Poneman’s interest in playing began to wane, so he spent more time going to varsity games.

“Our team was awful,” he said. “But I loved watching players like Jonathan Peoples, who now plays for Notre Dame, and knowing that I’d be able to watch them on TV the next year.”

It soon became his hobby. He spent hours poring over player reports and statistics and started going to games all over the Chicago area. He would talk to players and coaches and compile his own rankings.

“He goes to more games than probably any other scout in Chicago,” said Chad O’Donnell, an assistant coach at Albany. “Colleges notice that.”

As his interest grew, he looked for more outlets to share this newfound passion. He began posting thousands of messages on basketball scouting Web sites with his articles, rankings and scouting reports.

“I was the message board’s local guru,” Poneman said. “People would ask me all the questions … the owner of the site usually didn’t need to write anything.”

Soon after, local high school junior Jimmy Hayes contacted Poneman to help him with the site, which was receiving only 50 to 100 hits per day.

Poneman and Hayes shut down the site and spent that summer completely reworking it. They added photos and expanded the original design to include rankings, analysis of players and teams, and news about local tournaments and events.

The site re-opened on Sept. 20, 2006, and Poneman dedicated more and more time to it, so much so that Hayes couldn’t keep up and dropped out. Poneman wrote five or six articles a day and even would cut dates short to update the latest news.

While his social life may have taken a hit, his hard work was rewarded. The number of hits on his site rose to about 600 per day, and the local basketball community began to take notice.

“I had parents call me up saying, ‘Could you bump my kid up in the rankings,?'” he said. “Players at games would ask me to come see more of their games. … It got so bad that I had to take my phone number off my business card.”

Poneman also started hearing from college coaches, who asked him for his opinion on players he had scouted, looking to get insider information from the players’ peers.

“Because of our age, we can connect better with the athletes,” said 16-year old Cavan Walsh, who writes for the Web site. “They tell us stuff they would never tell another scout.”

One of the first coaches to request Poneman’s help was Northwestern assistant Tavaras Hardy, who contacted Poneman regarding a couple of prospects.

“He knew that I had something before I did,” Poneman said. “He was really the first coach to really take me under his wing. … It was huge.”

Due to NCAA regulations, Northwestern coaches declined to comment for this story.

Buoyed by the coaches’ support, Poneman began to promote his services more aggressively. At tournaments, he would casually walk up to big-time coaches like Illinois’ Bruce Weber and begin offering analysis of players he believed the school should consider.

“He’s a very outgoing and personable guy who really makes a real effort to get to know coaches and players,” said Lamont Paris, an assistant coach at Akron. “It’s clear he really loves what he’s doing and coaches respond to that.”

Poneman’s big break came when he was invited to attend the Nike Peach Jam, a national high school basketball tournament, in North Augusta, S.C. There, Poneman met with some of the best coaches in the country, such as Kansas’ Bill Self and North Carolina’s Roy Williams.

The site – which began as a small, local enterprise – had gone national.

“By the end of the season, I realized that I really had something here,” Poneman said. “I am really going to make this something special.”

These days, Poneman’s hobby is a full-fledged business venture. The Web site receives about 1700 hits a day and his phone is constantly ringing with coaches and players asking his advice.

The media also has caught on. Poneman appeared in the Dec. 31 issue of Sports Illustrated and has been featured on several television stations, including Comcast SportsNet.

And Poneman isn’t planning on getting complacent, as he is constantly working to increase his influence. For one thing, his site soon will expand to include a pay portion for more detailed scouting reports.

He also is working on putting on his second annual Best of the Best Eighth Grade All Star game, featuring 40 of the top eighth-grade prospects in Illinois. In addition, Poneman is in the process of developing a 72-team AAU tournament for 10-to-16 year-olds, to take place next fall.

Poneman is living a basketball junkie’s dream. So what does the future hold?

First and foremost, Poneman’s goal is to stay at home and attend NU to study business and psychology, he said. Even so, he plans on maintaining his site and insists there won’t be a conflict of interests between his business and loyalty to the Wildcats.

“If I discover a recruit and only tell my university, I’m doing that kid a disservice,” he said. “He should have the opportunit
y to have a lot of programs to choose from so that he can find the one that is just right for him.”

Beyond college, Poneman aspires to become an NBA general manager. His role model is Sam Presti, who worked his way up through the San Antonio Spurs’ system and was recently named GM of the Seattle SuperSonics at age 30.

“Hopefully I can get an internship, work my way up through the system and eventually lead a team to a championship,” Poneman said.

jamesgraham2007@u.northwestern.edu

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