COVID-19 and its fallout put much of the traditional recruiting cycle on hold for John Poulakidas, as it did for so many athletes in the class of 2021. Still, the Neuqua Valley shooting guard had enough early interest to have his choice of more than 15 Division I schools — despite losing out on most of his final AAU season and the chance to meet many coaching staffs in person.
Poulakidas, a 6-6 sharpshooter who averaged 17.5 points and knocked down 76 triples as a junior, had the option to stay close to home: Loyola-Chicago, Illinois-Chicago, Bradley, Southern Illinois, UW-Milwaukee and Saint Louis all offered.
He also had a number of Power 5 options: Minnesota, Wake Forest, Rutgers and TCU.
But in the end, Poulakidas chose the program that he believed cared about him the most, and the one that would best set him up for the rest of his life: Yale.
“The biggest factor for me was choosing a program and a staff that loved me just as much as I loved them,” Poulakidas said in a phone interview ahead of his official announcement. “One thing that I’ve learned in this whole process is that going somewhere where you’re loved is extremely important. That allows you to put yourself in the best position to become the best person you can be, and the best player as well. When you surround yourself with people who truly care about you and your well-being, that allows a lot of individual growth. Seeing how invested and how much time they put into me really stood out to me.”
It didn’t hurt that Yale has won two straight Ivy League championships, with the 2019-20 campaign for a three-peat cut short by COVID-19.
“And obviously in the classroom it doesn’t get much better than an Ivy League education,” he added. “When you add that in with the fact that they were invested in me … I really feel like this puts me in the best position on and off the court.
Basketball has always been in Poulakidas’ life: His dad played a season at North Central College, and an uncle played at Briar Cliff University in Iowa. He was surrounded by the sport well before he grew into the body of a modern Division I wing.
“Ever since I was born my dad put those fuzzy basketballs in my hand,” Poulakidas said. “It wasn’t until probably two-years-old when I started shooting on those mini Tikes hoops. Basketball’s really always been in my life.”
Though he’s always been around the sport, playing high-level college hoops wasn’t on his radar until after playing varsity as a freshman for the Wildcats, moving to the starting lineup in the middle of the year.
That team went just 9-20. His sophomore year Neuqua Valley improved to 13-17. This past season the Wildcats went 23-9, their most wins since the 2014-15 season.
The program’s improvement the past three years has coincided with Poulakidas’ development as a player. Known first for his three-point range, he’s made a conscious effort to become a better play-maker, as well as a guy who can score at all three levels.
“What I really did was took more of a focus on becoming a ball-handler and having the ball in my hand,” Poulakidas said. “After freshman year that was really a big focus of mine. I knew that if I could add a play-making ability — to go along with my IQ, and my size and my ability to shoot — I could become that much more valuable as a player.”
Nothing captures that offensive versatility like his performance against Bolingbrook in January, when he set the school record for points in a game — 49 — while leading his team to a 92-89 upset win.
“Honestly, when the game started I missed my first three shots,” Poulakidas said. “But as the game went on … I saw that my shot was falling and I just wanted to keep being aggressive. I know that there are games where my shot isn’t necessarily falling and I’ve got my teammates to lift me up. And that was the game where I was hitting my shots and my teammates were continuously looking to me, and we were able to get the job done in the end.
The combination of Poulakidas’ skill set and physical gifts made him attractive to many college programs. The Yale coaching staff made it easy for Poulakidas to picture himself excelling in the program.
“[Assistant] coach [Matt] Kingsley was always sending me screenshots and pictures of everything where they feel I would fit in their program,” Poulakidas said. “Coach Kingsley and I, we did a lot of Zoom calls where he would take me through plays within their offense that he felt I would fit best in. Or taking me through their practices, which they were recording, to show me what they looked like. He would even break up film from college and NBA guys that he felt … that I play similar to.
“Something that they did different was they almost specialized it to where they were really focusing on me and the parts of my game where they felt I would be able to prosper in their program. … I felt like A) I learned a lot, and B) it showed me how much I meant to them as a player.”
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