By Marcus Shockley
There was a time when leaving school early and heading to for the pro ranks was only an option for the rarest stars, such as Michael Jordan. That’s certainly changed, and the concept of moving from high school, to college and hopefully into the NBA is now something that the majority of players would like to accomplish as quickly as possible.
The truth is, it’s still only an option for a handful of players, and the complications surrounding making the leap are involved, with a lot of people who have interest that doesn’t always align with what the player wants.
So, when is the ‘right time’ for a player to jump to the pros?
Traditional wisdom has held that there are three major considerations as to whether a player should make the leap from the college (or high school) game to the pro level.
- Is the player physically and mentally ready for the pros?
Always tough to gauge, the physical and emotional demands on players entering the adult’s world of pro basketball are significant. Very few people are objective judges of their own abilities and comparison to others, and players are no exception (this is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect). A player has to rely either on his own understanding of what he’ll need to do to succeed or take advice from others on his future prospects.
The NBA landscape is littered with players who thought their athletic talent alone would be enough to survive, and they were bounced out of the league or ended up far down the bench. Conventional wisdom would show that the longer the player has had out of high school, the more likely he’ll have an understanding of what will happen once he reaches the pros. This has even held true for Brandon Jennings, who struggled for a year playing internationally, skipping college, before returning to the NBA. He learned the truth about jumping to the pro game from high school; that all that razzle-dazzle in prep school, all of the recruiting rankings and all of the hype don’t mean a thing when you take the court with men getting paid to play. Jennings was held up as a case study of how high school players could avoid college entirely, and served to prove that unless you are both extremely talented and willing to mature, as Jennings was, it’s not an option.
- Will the player be drafted high enough for a guaranteed contract?
There are even fewer players who know almost with certainty that they’ll be drafted in the first round. College seniors have no choice but to attempt to turn pro, hoping to land at least in the NBA second round or get an international or minor league contract. But underclassmen who want to make the jump need to have some serious assurances that they aren’t blowing their college degree for nothing.
Players with serious NBA interest have two major resources, depending on where they play college basketball. Teams like North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky have massive NBA connections and can get real feedback on where a player might end up. Not only are the connections vast at schools like this, but they also have huge amounts of experience and networks that can accurately assess whether a player might be able to make the leap or not. It is important for these schools to be able to scout players correctly, because it makes them successful in the long term.
The other resource for players is more treacherous, and it’s signing or consulting with an agent. These are murky waters for players, where agents are judged by their contacts, and players have no real insight as to whether an agent is telling them the truth or not. Good, established agents are easy to track, but not all players have access to those agents. There’s also a difference between getting a contract for the number one pick in the draft and a relative unknown from a smaller school.
Adding into the complexity of all of this is the fact that sometimes staying in school can actually lower a player’s draft pick. There are loads of players who were considered lottery picks when coming out of high school, had astounding college careers only to see themselves slide down into the late first round or even the second round. Players have to consider that if they are the projected #1 pick, they will never be projected higher. Their market value will never be higher. The smart choice is to go pro in that case, regardless of the situation.
In other words, if someone is going to make Kwame Brown the number one pick, Kwame needs to go pro. Case closed. It doesn’t matter if two or three years in college would have make Kwame Brown much more prepared for the pro game.
- Is there a significant financial need?
Even though college basketball fans don’t like it, the reality is that most college basketball players, just like anyone else in the world, want financial security and freedom. Even if players don’t come from impoverished backgrounds, almost no one in the country makes the kind of money available to NBA basketball players. Just as fans have needs for cash, from paying the mortgage to medical bills to just having money to buy their children something for the holidays, players are humans trying to survive as well.
The issue for most players is that in youth, it is hard to look at the future with the Zen-like approach of Tim Duncan, who, as a young man, saw the world the same way that a mature adult would see it: live your life for the moment, enjoy your college years, there will be plenty of money at the end of the rainbow, but only one youth. It’s not easy for anyone to wait and enjoy the journey, and it’s even harder when you are young. Most players haven’t had enough life experience to know that they need to just be patient, and then on top of all of the cultural pressure to make ‘big money’ right now, there are players with real concerns. Some players have parents who need medical attention, or have been simply working multiple jobs for years to get their child into school and give them a shot.
Those players want to take care of their families, to set themselves up, hopefully for a long time. No one could blame them, but the decision becomes cloudy as the pressure for money mounts.
As this year’s NBA draft approaches, there will be dozens of players who want to test the waters for the pro game. Most won’t end up in the NBA, even if they leave school early. It’s not even clear if this fact is well known; it certainly isn’t publicized, and players who don’t end up as top picks and on SportsCenter highlights are soon swept aside for next year’s class.
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