A Risk Worth Taking
For many high school and college stars, the decision to go pro
early is a sound one
On the night of the 1998 NBA draft, Rashard Lewis looked like the
poster boy for an NCAA stay-in-school campaign. The 6'10" high
school senior from Alief, Texas, who hoped to be a lottery pick,
sat forlornly in Vancouver's General Motors Place with tears in
his eyes when his name wasn't called in the first round. The
Sonics finally chose Lewis with the third selection in the second
round. After spending most of his rookie season on the bench,
Lewis proved he could play in the NBA in the 1999-2000 playoffs
when he averaged 15.4 points and 6.9 rebounds in Seattle's
first-round loss to the Jazz. Last summer the Sonics signed Lewis
to a three-year, $13.3 million deal (though he can opt out of the
third year) and he proved his worth, averaging 14.8 points and
Lewis is only one of many former high school seniors or
collegiate underclassmen who started as cautionary tales but
blossomed into success stories. That may be disturbing for
college coaches, but it's information not lost on today's young
players, 40 of whom--including six high schoolers--made
themselves eligible for this year's draft on June 27 as of
Sunday's deadline. "Draft night doesn't tell the whole story,"
says NBA agent Arn Tellem, whose clients include two of the
NBA's brightest stars, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, both of
whom went directly from high school to the NBA. "For most of
these players, once they're given an opportunity, they do very
well for themselves."
Although the NBA and NCAA try to discourage young players from
turning pro, the system all but demands they test the waters.
For one thing, there is now much more information available to
help a collegian or a high schooler make an informed decision if
he puts in for the draft. He gets the benefit of input from NBA
scouts and general managers who project where the player will be
drafted. The player can even compete at NBA predraft showcases
and still withdraw from the draft by June 20 if he hasn't signed
with an agent. (No such escape option exists for high schoolers
who enter the draft.)
More than that, however, it's the league's salary structure that
most encourages young players to jump. Here are some factors they
The free-agent clock. Under the NBA collective bargaining
agreement, teams can lock up their first-round picks for as many
as five years before the player can cash in as a free agent.
Thus, it may be prudent for someone like St. John's freshman Omar
Cook, who recently declared himself draft-eligible, to get into
the league as early as possible, even if it means riding the pine
his first couple of seasons. Says agent Joel Bell, "I've heard
many college players say, 'I'm not ready now, but in three or
four years I will be, and that's what counts.'"
Positioning. At 6'7", Arizona junior Michael Wright is too small
to play power forward in the NBA, but that's what he would have
played if he returned to college next year. That undoubtedly
factored into Wright's decision to enter the draft, just as it
did last year for 6'8" Florida freshman Donnell Harvey, who was
selected 22nd overall by the Knicks, who traded him to the
Mavericks. "Donnell never stepped more than five feet from the
basket at Florida," says Harvey's agent, Dan Fagan. "For him to
be successful as a pro, he needs to develop his perimeter skills."
The Terence Morris factor. So named for the 6'9" Maryland senior
who probably would have been a lottery pick had he come out after
averaging 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in his sophomore year but
now will be lucky to be selected in the first round following his
senior season, when he had 12.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
That lesson wasn't lost on Alabama freshman Gerald Wallace, who
has entered the draft even though he may have lost considerable
ground by completing his freshman year (and averaging only 6.3
points a game in SEC play) rather than turning pro straight out
of high school a year ago.
To be sure, some youngsters also make costly mistakes by trying
to turn pro too early, but as long as the odds favor the players
plenty more will be willing to take their chances. "These guys
are trying to maximize their careers," Tellem says. "If the
process gives them all this incentive to leave early, then you
can't fault them for doing it."
Preseason Tournaments Live
Board Tables Earlier Decision
A few days before the NCAA's Division I board of directors
gathered for its spring meeting in Indianapolis on April 26,
Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager met with
James Madison president Linwood Rose, one of the 18 university
heads who constitute the board. The two men spent most of their
hourlong meeting discussing pending legislation that would have
eliminated the so-called certified events--tournaments like the
Great Alaska Shootout, the Maui Invitational and the preseason
NIT--that take place during the early weeks of the season. In
crafting his argument against the proposal, Yeager asked Rose a
question: When was the last time James Madison was able to
schedule Virginia at home? "The answer was 1982," Yeager says.
"And that game was played only because Ralph Sampson was from
An NCAA exemption allows teams participating in certified events
to play as many as four games and be charged with only one toward
their limit of 28. Over the past year advocates of the exempt
tournaments have contended that if those events were put out of
business, it would become nearly impossible for lesser-known
schools to get games with high-profile teams on neutral courts.
(Few major powers venture onto the home courts of the
mid-majors.) That argument failed to sway the NCAA's management
council, which on April 10 approved a recommendation to
effectively scrap the certified events. However, the board of
directors, which has the ultimate say, postponed a final ruling
on the legislation for three years.
Why did the board of directors see this issue so differently?
Mathematics, for one. The seven power conferences have three
seats each on the management council, but they only get one
apiece on the board. That didn't go unnoticed by several
tournament organizers, who focused their lobbying efforts on
three presidents from mid-major conferences: Rose, Bob Lawless of
Tulsa and Claire Van Ummersen of Cleveland State.
Lawless didn't need much convincing. An avid basketball fan, he
recalled that during the 1999-2000 season Tulsa had won the
Puerto Rico Holiday Classic. That helped earn the Golden
Hurricane an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, which Tulsa
parlayed into an appearance in the Elite Eight, earning the WAC
about $380,000 in 2001 and a comparable amount for the next five
years. "We probably wouldn't have even been in the NCAAs were it
not for that certified event," Lawless says. "And we're not
Here's another reason that proponents of the legislation didn't
carry the day: their refusal to admit their real motivation was
to eliminate the tournaments so they could schedule another home
game or two (the same rule change would have increased the
maximum number of games to 29) and thus make more money.
According to John Parry, athletic director at Butler and a member
of the management council, "No one wanted to go on record and
say, 'It's the money, honey.' The people who spoke against it
were passionate, but for the most part the ones who were for it
stayed quiet." Instead, the power conferences tried to justify
their position with specious arguments about missed class time,
which is farcical considering that certified events are usually
held during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
In the end, the reason the vote was overturned was a difference
in perspective. Says Lawless, "I think for the most part
university presidents have a broader view of what's good for
intercollegiate athletics than people who are athletic directors
and conference commissioners."
UCLA Goes to Head of Class
Going into the final days of the national letter of intent late
signing period which ended on May 15, the consensus among
recruiting experts was that Florida had the nation's top
incoming class. That changed last Saturday, when 6'11" Kwame
Brown of Brunswick, Ga., who had signed with the Gators last
fall, announced he would enter the NBA draft. Now that Florida
has been downgraded--if only slightly--here are the winners of
the recruiting wars:
1. UCLA (6'7" Cedric Bozeman, 6'11" Michael Fey, 6'8" Andre
Patterson, 6'6" Dijon Thompson). A good class became terrific
when Patterson signed. He and Thompson have the explosiveness to
thrive in the Bruins' up-tempo system. Bozeman should take over
at the point, while Fey may be the premier frontcourt sleeper in
2. Memphis (6'9" Duane Erwin, 6'8" Chris Massie, 6'4" Anthony
Rice, 6'2" Dajuan Wagner). Wagner, who considered turning pro, is
a high-scoring point guard with superb athleticism. His presence
alone is enough to rate John Calipari's first Memphis recruiting
class among the nation's finest. Massie, a bruiser with a knack
for inside scoring, was one of the leading junior college players
in the nation.
3. North Carolina State (6'10" Jordan Collins, 6'7" Ilian
Evtimov, 6'6" Julius Hodge, 6'9" Josh Powell, 6'8" Levi Watkins).
A spindly slasher from New York City, Hodge is the most talented
prospect Herb Sendek has landed during his five years with the
Wolfpack. Of the post players, Collins is probably the most ready
to contribute, while Watkins will provide a blue-collar attitude
the team has lacked recently.
4. Kansas (6'4" Keith Langford, 6'2" Michael Lee, 6'1" Aaron
Miles, 6'8" Wayne Simien). There weren't many top-notch pure
point guards in this year's class, but Miles was the best of the
lot. He should be especially effective when teamed with Simien, a
fundamentally sound post player.
5. Florida (6'8" David Lee, 6'6" James White). Even without
Brown this class is formidable. Lee and White should have an
immediate impact on a program that was already teeming with
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Should Cook (right) and the Colonials' SirValiant Brown turn pro even if they are not ready?
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER By landing Wagner, who flirted with the NBA, Memphis became a big winner in the recruiting wars.
the Joe College report
If you thought North Carolina coach Matt Doherty had it tough
last season, which came to a tearful conclusion after a
second-round loss to Penn State in the NCAA tournament, wait
till next season. With the departure of sophomore shooting guard
Joseph Forte to the NBA, the graduation of Brendan Haywood and
Max Owens, and the likely absences of Julius Peppers and Ronald
Curry, who both figure to concentrate on football, the Tar Heels
will have to build a team around... Jason Capel and Kris Lang?
"You have to wonder where our scoring will come from," says
Doherty. For that matter, you have to wonder if North Carolina
will make the NCAA tournament for the 28th consecutive year,
much less finish in the top three of the ACC for the 38th
straight season.... Hey, Tommy Amaker: We noticed that you
booted freshman guard Maurice Searight for "violation of team
policies" only five weeks after you accepted the Michigan job.
However, last season at Seton Hall, when Eddie Griffin punched
out teammate Ty Shine in a locker room brawl following a loss to
Georgetown in January, you handed out only a one-game
suspension. What would you have done if Searight had been a star
instead of a bench warmer who averaged 2.6 points per game?...
The rich do get richer. Rick Pitino had only two scholarships to
award after taking over at Louisville in March, but Coric Riggs,
a 6'3" guard who averaged 23.2 points and 7.4 rebounds for
Louisville's Fairdale High, paid his own way to walk on as a
freshman. He spurned scholarship offers from, among others,
Murray State and Alabama-Birmingham.