Four-star guard J.J. Starling to Notre Dame men's basketball: What he brings and why his commitment is so important
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J.J. Starling to Notre Dame: What he brings, why his addition is important

Notre Dame went head-to-head with two big ACC brands and two peer academic institutions for four-star La Porte (Ind.) La Lumiere guard J.J. Starling.

It emerged as the winner and with a recruiting coup rarely seen in South Bend. Starling announced his commitment to Notre Dame on Tuesday, choosing the Irish over Duke, Syracuse, Northwestern and Stanford.

With Starling (6-4, 180 pounds) and four-star Phillips Exeter Academy (N.H.) forward Dom Campbell, Notre Dame has two top-100 recruits in the same class for the first time since 2018. Starling, a native of Baldwinsville, N.Y., is the highest-ranked recruit to pick Mike Brey’s program since Demetrius Jackson in 2013.

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It’s a massive recruiting win for a team that needed one this cycle and needed an infusion of talent to replace a potential mass senior exodus. Here’s a breakdown of what Starling brings on the court and why his commitment is a critical one.

High-level scorer

Starling is skilled a three-level scorer who plays on and off the ball for La Lumiere. He had a similar combo guard role for Albany, N.Y.-based AAU program The City Rocks, which plays on the Nike EYBL circuit.

He’s a well-rounded offensive player overall and a natural scorer. It starts, though, with his shooting. He has the upside of a high-level shooter in college. He has clean form with no wasted motion, a consistent stroke and a high release at the apex of his jump. He’s comfortable shooting without a set base and off the dribble. He’s an engaged off-ball mover and cutter, which helps him set up rhythm jumpers.

Elsewhere, Starling is comfortable driving with either hand and has impressive first-step quickness. His ability to change speeds and initial burst propel him by defenders and allow him to get all the way to the rim, where he’s a crafty and poised finisher. In the mid-range, he has a one-dribble pull-up and a reliable right-hand floater with consistent touch.

Defense and passing

On defense, Starling is an active helper and is willing to put a chest on his man. His frame gives him upside as an on-ball defender when matched up with opposing point guards. He gets hands on the ball at times when in help defense, but he’s not a pesky gnat who looks to pick pockets when on the ball. He can get lost in traffic at times off the ball.

As a passer, Starling can get sped up at times and try to make plays that aren’t there, but he’s comfortable as a ball-screen distributor and has requisite feel.

Starling comes from a high school team that runs a structured system, has other Division I players around him and plays a national schedule against other prep school powers. There’s no concern about competition level. He doesn’t play for a high school team that allows him to chuck shots and do whatever he wants. That background should help his transition to college.

Trend-bucking

Notre Dame’s recent misses when recruiting high-level players at La Lumiere are representative of its overall struggles to land consensus top-50-to-75 players of late.

Notre Dame took some mighty swings at top-30 players in 2019 — guard Cole Anthony, forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Isaiah Stewart, to name a few — and missed on all. It ended up with zero 2019 signees. A major theme of the Irish’s 2020 cycle was their dalliance with and eventual miss on top-40 center Hunter Dickinson. That class ended up with zero top-150 players.

Notre Dame’s 2021 haul had a pair of top-150 recruits in South Bend natives Blake Wesley and J.R. Konieczny, but it did not gain serious traction with any of the four top-50 players it offered. In the 2022 cycle, the Irish could not make enough headway with top-75 targets Alex Karaban, Isaac Traudt, Cam Whitmore and Rodney Rice.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball guard commit J.J. Starling
Starling averaged 14.9 points at La Porte (Ind.) La Lumiere in 2020-21. (Rivals.com)

Go further back from 2019, and the same theme surfaces most years since Jackson committed. Notre Dame shows up in uber-talented players’ top fives alongside some blue bloods, only to finish fourth or fifth.

Securing Starling’s commitment halts that trend – and at a time when Notre Dame needed to show things are different around Rolfs Hall. Beating out Duke for anybody and Syracuse for a Central New York native are good signs Brey does have recruiting energy left and that his new-look coaching staff can make a difference.

Landing their top target

• Starling was No. 1 on Notre Dame’s 2022 board, and the Irish weren’t shy about it. Brey picked him up at La Lumiere in a Ferrari to begin his Sept. 3 official visit. He and all three assistants went to visit him early in the morning on the first day of the open recruiting period last month. Notre Dame hosted him twice in June for unofficial visits.

Notre Dame didn’t just give Starling attention as a way of showing their interest. It paid less attention to other guards this fall to drive the point home. The Irish did not host any other guards on official visits. Rice was a longtime target with some interest, but Notre Dame didn’t bring him on campus. (Landing him was going to be an uphill climb regardless).

Going all-in on Starling was a risky move. But it was a swing a team needing a shot in the arm had to take. To connect, Notre Dame’s efforts had to start at the top with Brey. Starling’s comments after his announcement highlighted the head coach’s involvement.

“What really stood out was Coach Brey,” Starling said. “He reminded me of my AAU coach [Jim Hart] and my coach here at LaLu [Pat Holmes]. “I found myself comfortable around him. That’s what you want.

“He’s a cool dude. He’s telling jokes, always laughing, always has a smile on his face. That’s how I am too.”

Future centerpiece

The Irish have six academic seniors on their 2021-22 roster. It’s not yet clear how many of them will return for a fifth year using the COVID-19 blanket waiver, meaning Notre Dame could find itself staring at a deluge of departures. Which meant finding building blocks for 2022 was a must in this class.

Starling isn’t just a block. He’s a foundation. He’s capable of stepping into Prentiss Hubb’s shoes as the lead guard. He can play off the ball next to a distributor too. He supplies shooting, a critical element of Brey’s offense.

Notre Dame will be a guard-centric program as long as Brey is in charge of it. The Irish now have a guard centerpiece for the future alongside wings Wesley and Konieczny, who Brey thinks will push for meaningful playing time as freshmen this season.

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