Saturday, April 16, 2005

Underclassmen And the NBA Draft

Spring is here, and that means it's time for talented underclassmen hoopsters to weigh their options.

For the top players, such as Utah's Andrew Bogut and Wake Forest's Chris Paul, there isn't a whole lot to weigh. They will be top lottery picks, their value is at about its highest, and it's time for them to move on. It's a business decision, really, and while I'm at the top of the list of people who cherish academics, if I had a kid with the demonstrated skills of those two who had a passion for the game, the decision really isn't that hard to make. (I would be less thrilled if I had an Ivy Leaguer who decided to spend most of his days playing poker, even if he were making six figures at it).

For others, the decision is harder (click here for the list; and click here for the skinny, both thanks to As Andy Katz points out, there are a few kids who need to enter the draft; family issues compel that they play for money somewhere. Many kids entered to assess where they stand, and they are smart not to have signed with agents and forfeit their eligibility status.

The coaches, on the other hand, are sweating. Why? First, they finalize their recruiting seasons early. Long gone are the days where kids decided at some point during or after their senior years. Today, most kids are inked either after their junior seasons or at some point before their senior seasons begin. Therein lies the problem, because coaches recruit for future projected needs, and their plans could go awry if, as in the case of North Carolina, three key underclassmen opt to leave early. There's no great way you can recruit to immediately fill gaping holes, whether they're left by a trio (Felton, McCants and May) or by a single individual (Chris Paul). It's just too difficult to do.

There are three conclusions that one can draw from the early-entry situation. The first is that it's good for college basketball, because it assures that there cannot be dynasties. The reason is that if the elite programs always draw the type of player who will consider leaving early, the periodic voids that these programs will suffer from early departures will ensure enough tumult in the major programs to enable other programs to challenge the elite group. The second is that there's really no overall effect, because the elite programs will always draw enough elite players, and while those programs might suffer periodic declines (either to the bottom of the Top 25 or once in a while out of it), they'll still remain top programs. Support for this argument is that Duke, Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky, for starters, have remained elite programs (Carolina's temporary decline several years ago stemmed from coaching programs more than anything else). The third is that this system makes college basketball worse, because when you couple this system with the fact elite players from HS go straight to the NBA, the dilution of talent is too great. Also, when elite players leave a George Washington or a Northwestern, those programs could be set back for a while.

In thinking this through, my view is that the overall effect is probably slight, and this phenomenon only compels the elite programs to recruit more efficiently. For example, if your program will rely on key juniors and sophs, then you'll need good frosh to groom to ultimately replace the juniors, and you'll need good recruits to provide backups for the sophs once those sophs become juniors. That said, you certainly can't plan for a frosh's early departure, because it's likely that you won't have a backup plan on the bench or in the recruiting pipeline to replace a key frosh who, by definition, just got there. Which means that a program has to be careful what it wishes for when it recruits a DaJuan Wagner or a Tim Thomas, players who were likely to leave after a single season and who did just that. In the end, the elite programs will recruit smartly, balancing positions and talent so as to keep current players happy (i.e., by not recruiting two top-5 PGs in back-to-back years), so as to make sure that the rotation will have enough players with star potential (read: give them the ball in the final minutes and they'll make something happen, so that means that the frosh PF might be a better player than the senior, but the junior PG may be the star with the frosh a talented PG in waiting), and so as to make sure that there are succession plans for each group of players.

Most certainly, that's not an easy task, but remember not that many players leave early (even if the list of those testing the waters is long), and somehow year after year we end up seeing Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, Illinois, North Carolina and several others in the Sweet Sixteen.

Thankfully, most of the kids who have entered are just testing the waters. It's sad to see HS kids enter the NBA draft and forego their eligibility, only not to be first-round picks or not to make NBA rosters, and it's sad to see underclassmen who sign with agents, thereby foregoing their remaining eligibility, and then not get selected. No one wishes bad things on any of those kids, and for those who belong in the NBA, it's great that they'll get the chance.

Even if that means that some $1 million a year coach who makes more than his University's president has to sweat a little more to earn his living.

Hey coach, that's why they pay you the big bucks.

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