Eli King's high-flying talent and enormous upside is the reason why so many high-major men's college basketball coaches from across the country were enamored of him.
But as King perused all his options, four schools really stood out the most: Iowa, Iowa State, Stanford and Minnesota.
The final choice came down to Iowa and Iowa State. On paper, Iowa's free-flowing offensive style would make a ton of sense for the Caledonia superstar. The Hawkeyes were third in the country in offensive adjusted efficiency in 2021 and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Big man Luka Garza was the Big Ten Player of the Year and the National Player of the Year by multiple outlets.
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Iowa State, on the other hand, had an abysmal 2021 season. The Cyclones finished 2-22 and didn't win a Big 12 Conference game. Head coach Steve Prohm was fired after the season, and it's fair to say that if Iowa State hadn't replaced him with T.J. Otzelberger, King probably wouldn't be a Cyclone.
Otzelberger earned commitments from both Owen and Noah King when he was coaching at South Dakota State. He coached Owen for a year before heading to UNLV. When Otzelberger left, Noah King decommitted from South Dakota State and Owen King transferred to Division II Winona State a year later.
Fit is everything.
Having talent is the most important thing, and Eli King oozes it. Special things can happen when a really talented prospect finds a system that can get the most out of him.
Let's take a peek inside Otzelberger's system and see how it could play out for King.
Otzelberger coached under Greg McDermott, Fred Hoiberg and Prohm in the past. Those coaches make their money because they have terrific offenses. Otzelberger is no different. He's viewed as one of the best, rising offensive coaches in college basketball.
During his three years at South Dakota State (2017-2020), the Jackrabbits were strong offensively. They were the best offensive team in the Summit League in Otzelberger's first two years and they finished second — by a nose — in 2019-20. Looking at the rest of the country, South Dakota State was in the top-50, including a No. 37 finish in adjusted offensive efficiency in 2019-20 — the same year that Owen King had a really good freshman season and South Dakota State went 24-9.
How did they do it? Simple. Otzelberger's Jackrabbits teams shot the 3-pointer really well. They got to the rim a ton and finished. They were also one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country. That's a really good combination and a scheme that King has the potential to thrive in.
King missed his entire junior season for Caledonia due to a knee injury, but that doesn't appear to be a long-term concern. King is at his best in transition. When he gets moving downhill, he is a difficult matchup for any opponent to try to stop.
“If Eli is able to come up the floor with the ball and you don’t slow him down before he gets up the floor, there’s nothing you can do," Fillmore Central coach Brady O'Connor said. "Absolutely nothing. We had cases last year where he’d go right by us and throw it down. Guys would get out of the way and you can’t blame them because there is literally nothing you can do. If you try to take a charge, he’ll jump right over you."
That's what has Otzelberger salivating. King's athleticism is off-the-charts good. His first step is lightning quick and he has the ability to get downhill and finish over an opponent.
Otzelberger's offense never really got clicking at UNLV, partly because of injuries. But the way Otzelberger used Bryce Hamilton in 2021 could be similar to the way King is used at Iowa State in 2022 and beyond. Hamilton and King are almost the exact same size. At 6-foot-4, Hamilton is an inch taller than King (at the moment) and the junior played at 205 pounds. That's a good ballpark of what King could get to when he's introduced to a college strength and conditioning program.
King is more athletic than Hamilton, but Hamilton was a similarly ranked prospect as King coming out of high school. Otzelberger loved to get Hamilton the ball in the middle of the floor where he could get downhill for mid-range jumpers or create for his teammates. Hamilton wasn't a knockdown 3-point shooter (30 percent in 2021 on 106 attempts) but he was capable. Opponents couldn't sag off him. The one knock on King's game is that he might not ever be a great 3-point shooter, but Hamilton was able to thrive in Otzelberger's system despite not being a strong shooter from 3-point range.
Concerns about King's jumper are probably a little exaggerated. Throughout his sophomore season, King would occasionally not really elevate with his jumper. It sort of looked like a push shot. The nice thing is that King's shooting really came on strong during the AAU circuit last year. We just didn't get to see it on the floor this winter due to the knee injury. He has the work ethic to improve, and we've seen time and time again that sometimes, jumpers just need time. Players can develop into a great shooter. King is a good shooter now. He has the potential to be a great one soon.
Otzelberger's ideal offense is putting five shooters on the floor who can attack in transition. That's where King can shine. Having five shooters on the floor is terrific. Having five shot-creators is impossible. That's where King is special. He's one of the best shot-creators in the Class of 2022. His vision and passing ability is really quite terrific. He has a feel for the game that's off the charts and he's not scared to try new things and experiment. Turnovers might be an issue initially, but the Cyclones can live with those when King is making dynamic plays and getting great shots for himself and his teammates.
King is the second commit in Otzelberger's Class of 2022, joining 3-star guard Tamin Lipsey. Lipsey and King played together for D1 Minnesota, and they were terrific on the AAU circuit. That fit is pretty flawless because Lipsey's a high IQ point guard and King is a combo guard who can rip the rim off in transition. They both can handle the ball, too, so it's not like one guard is going to have to shoulder all the ball-handling all year long.
The new NCAA rule where an athlete can transfer once without sitting out a year has thrown the college basketball world for a spin. The NCAA transfer portal is teeming with high-level players who are looking for shots and an immediate role at a school that's a better fit for them. It's unclear at best as to who King could be playing alongside in 2022 at Iowa State because rosters across college basketball are going to change in the next 18 months.
Offensively, King is the perfect fit for Otzelberger's system. The bigger picture for what Otzelberger wants is beginning to become clear. But King's ability on the defensive end is what separates him from most players, and Cyclones coaches and fans should be even more excited about the defensive potential that King brings.
King is only 6-foot-3, but his wingspan is abnormal. That length and anticipation made him a terrific high school football player, and he's going to take advantage of those traits a ton at Iowa State. His offensive upside is a big reason why he got recruited so highly. His defense could be the reason why King plays early and often for the Cyclones. He has plays on his highlight film that are jaw-dropping, like when he soared through the air for a huge block against Rushford-Peterson and then went down to the other end and slammed it.
"Eli is probably the best defender in the Three Rivers Conference," La Crescent coach Ryan Thibodeau said. "He can just get after you and make your life miserable."
King's a menace defensively. His hands are sticky, he reads opponents' eyes really well and his anticipation is as good as it gets for a high school player in southeastern Minnesota. It's like he knows what an opponent is going to do before the opponent even knows what he wants to do.
Otzelberger's never had a top-100 defense during his five years as a head coach. The offense has usually been spectacular while the defense is good enough to get by. King could change that. Obviously, Iowa State will need all five guys contributing if it wants to be a well-oiled defensive machine, but every team needs that leader, the guy who can take on the other team's top perimeter scorer and give him trouble.
King could be that for Iowa State. Maybe not right away, but eventually, he has a chance to be an All-Big 12 defender because of that athleticism, anticipation and length.
"Eli will cause a turnover and go dunk it and it’s a completely different game," Lewiston-Altura coach Michael VanderPlas said.