Every day the list of those underclassmen who are making themselves eligible for the NBA draft lengthens. While nearly every person I’ve talked to, listened to or read has said the national championship game between Michigan and Louisville was terrific, nearly all of them thought this year’s March Madness was one of the poorest in terms of exciting, well-played games. Emphasis on well-played. Maybe this year was an aberration in terms of all we’ve come to expect from March Madness or maybe the absurd number of early exits has finally caught up with the college game. If that actually were the case, the deterioration should have happened well before now but there’s no questioning this year’s NCAA tournament was as poorly played as any in memory.
One reason could be that, usually, experience makes offenses and defenses work better. Those teams who are composed mainly of seniors, some fifth and sixth year seniors or guys who are as old as 24 or 25, are more mature, understand the intricacies better and have greater chemistry than a group of freshmen who just got thrown together and have played a total of thirty or so games, barring injuries. How, then, a cynic or a fan might ask, could Kentucky have won the national championship a couple years ago?
Simple. John Calipari is a master at leading and motivating a young group, getting them all to buy into his philosophy. However, here is a life lesson that needs to be learned and never forgotten: Above all else, talent wins out. He recruited them, motivated them and coached them. Had Nerlens Noel not suffered a seasoning ending injury, we might have seen those results for a second straight season. Can one man mean that much to a team? For that answer watch the Lakers from here on out. Especially if they make the playoffs. Can anyone even fathom how good Kentucky would have been, forget this year’s incoming class, if the team that won it all - relatively easily - had all returned to UK for another run? And another? I started my college coaching career in 1972. That was what UCLA did. Beat everybody to death and recruited to fill the spots left by graduation. Simple formula that worked for quite a while.
Undoubtedly, the early entry rule changed the player’s thought process but what really flipped the college game was the color green. The talk of giving a college kid a stipend is nice - for the good players who are planning on going to school for four years anyway. Does anybody really think a stipend is going to change a kid’s mind when he’s looking at the possibility of a six or seven figure contract? If he can’t make the right decision there, maybe he’s not smart enough to be in college.
Louisville’s Russ Smith has declared for the draft even though most who make up mock drafts have him going mid- to late-second round, meaning no guaranteed money. You think he’d change his mind if the NCAA passed a $300/month stipend? $400? $500? Maybe, as the old joke goes, “he loves college but hates class.” What compounds the problem is the timing of when to leave. OK, most guys are going to go as soon as they can. There are others, though, who realize they need some more seasoning and another year (or more) under their current “professor” would make them a much better and more ready prospect. And that’s where the timing dilemma comes in.
Take, for example, this year. I don’t pretend to know even one foreign prospect. I leave that up to my man Franny Frascilla who can tell you all of them. As far as the college players who comprise this year’s crop, there’s not one who doesn’t have “holes” in his game? The consensus number one pick is Nerlens Noel who’s intercollegiate career was limited to 24 games. Even if a team is comfortable with the brief showing of his considerable skills, there has to be a concern regarding the injury. One, did it heal properly and two, is he injury-prone, e.g. Grant Hill, Darko Milicic or the two guys no one can ever forget - Greg Oden and Sam Bowie?
The rest? In no particular order (since different mock drafts have them in different order), the guys who are consensus top picks are: Ben McLemore, Marcus Smart, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter, Anthony Bennett, Trey Burke, Shabazz Muhammed, Cody Zeller, Alex Len. Let’s not forget Isaiah Austin. He hits home because he played with my younger son, Alex, back in the 5th grade AAU days. What makes it particularly difficult when I evaluate him is that he looks exactly the same as he did when he was ten! From the long, lanky arms and legs to the same goggles, it’s like watching him through a magnifying glass. There is little doubt he’s going to be a great one just as there’s little doubt he’s not NBA-ready. Ready to start banging his slender body with the 25-30 year old men who’ve been in the league for several years, taking advantage of all the professional strength trainers and facilities. I’m sure Baylor’s facilities are first-class, but if they were placed side by side, I’m certain the state-of-the-art NBA equipment is far superior. Plus, the NBA isn’t limited as to how much time - or when - coaches can work with players, as do NCAA-affiliated institutions.
Having watched each of the above guys, some on multiple occasions, my belief is none of these guys are NBA-ready. Yet they’re going to get picked high. Why? Because, if they all stayed in college and worked on their skills, strength and stamina . . . here is what the draft would look like: Mason Plumlee, CJ McCollum, Mike Muscala, Jeff Withey, Erick Green, Nate Wolters, Jackie Carmichael, Solomon Hill, Michael Snaer, Brandon Paul, Eric Murphy, Pierre Jackson, Richard Howell, Isaiah Canaan, Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and a whole lot of Franny’s guys from overseas. And unless Fran has uncovered some real gems, many of those names listed would be lottery picks. Each of those players are good prospects, but if the thought of your favorite team using a lottery pick on any of them gives you a warm a feeling, check your pants leg because you might have just . . .
There is another reason guys leave school early and this one you won’t find anywhere but right here. My firm belief is that the real reason people go to college is not to get an education. The real reason is:
“These kids go to college to improve their station in life, and with what the NBA is paying - even if their careers are short-lived - it is a considerable improvement of their station in life.”