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The Case for ... Starting College Early

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IT'S NOT OFTEN you can spot a tipping point the moment it happens, but that was the case on Dec. 18, when Austin Wiley, a 6'11", 255-pound center, stepped onto the court for Auburn in its game against Mercer. Wiley had committed to the Tigers a little over a year earlier, at the start of his junior year at Spain Park High in his hometown of Hoover, Ala., and shortly afterward Auburn's staff suggested to his family that he accelerate his high school education. They jumped at the opportunity. Wiley transferred to Calusa Prep in Miami last summer and graduated from there in the fall while playing at The Conrad Academy in Orlando.

Wiley, 18 (right), arrived at Auburn ready to help, averaging 7.1 points and 4.0 rebounds in his first eight games.

"This is a great experience for him," Tigers coach Bruce Pearl says. "He can get college coaching. He can have a meaningful off-season. He can get closer to a degree. So there are a lot of benefits."

The notion of a player wrapping up his senior year of high school early is fairly common in college football, but it hasn't gained the same currency in basketball. That could be changing. At least three other players—Clemson's A.J. Oliver, Iowa State's Cameron Lard and Purdue's Matt Haarms—left high school or prep school and enrolled at midseason as well, even though it isn't clear yet if any will see game action. And one player is already benefiting from a similar decision: N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr., who joined the Wolfpack after graduating from high school in December 2015 to rehab an ACL tear in his left knee. Smith is finally getting the chance to play for N.C. State this season and has cemented his reputation as one of the nation's top point guards and a potential lottery pick in this year's NBA draft.

Then there is the case of Hamidou Diallo, a 6'5" forward from Queens, N.Y. On Jan. 7, Diallo announced he was enrolling at Kentucky for the spring semester. Diallo graduated last spring from Putnam (Conn.) Science Academy and, according to his plan, had been continuing his education there as a postgraduate with the expectation that he would be one of the top recruits in the class of 2017. Instead, he chose to head to college at midseason to take advantage of the advanced training and competition available in Lexington, but though he is eligible to suit up for the fifth-ranked Wildcats right away, for now Diallo is just training and practicing with the team. His stay on campus could be very brief; because he will turn 19 this year and is one year removed from his high school graduation, he is eligible to enter June's NBA draft, where his superb athleticism would make him a likely first-round selection.

Diallo's decision to enroll now may have been unconventional, but it was also a no-brainer.

"If a young man is 18 and he has a chance to go to college as an 18-year-old, he should do it," Wildcats coach John Calipari says. "I don't know why you wouldn't."

It's not hard, then, to anticipate that many other players will want to follow similar paths to the ones Wiley and Diallo are forging. "I think it makes a lot of sense," Pearl says. "Why discourage someone from taking advantage of an opportunity to better himself?"

The question answers itself. Young basketball players are already trying to leave college for the NBA as soon as they can. It was only a matter of time before they figured out a way to get an even earlier start.

A trend that is fairly common in college football may now be gaining currency in hoops, too.