Bowing to Seniority

Bowing to Seniority

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Bowing to Seniority

With the dearth of good centers in college basketball, one would expect that Xavier University would want David West, their All-American center who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game as a junior, to return for his senior season. But West did not feel so welcome.

“Honestly, it felt like they wanted me to leave,” West said. “Not Coach [Thad] Matta specifically, but most people seemed to be pushing me out the door [to the NBA].”

Eventually, West decided to return for his senior season, and then became part of a dying breed: college seniors who get drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. In the last two NBA drafts, high school players and college underclassmen outnumbered the college senior first round picks 19-13, with only four college seniors going in the first round in the June 2004 draft. In 1999, 13 seniors went in the first round.

The number of lottery picks (teams who do not make the playoffs, the first 14 picks of the draft) shows the disparity more clearly with more underclassmen being drafted in the lottery by an 11 to 5 margin.

Before the New Orleans Hornets took West with the 18th pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, he had a successful senior season at Xavier, where he was an All-American and the Associated Press Collegiate Player of the Year.

As little as eight years ago, West probably would have been a top five pick; as prospects were still valued more for their ability to contribute right away rather than their “potential.” But because of what Mississippi State University Coach Rick Stansbury calls a “disturbing trend,” that of underclassmen entering the draft with greater and greater frequency, West fell completely out of the lottery.

Some argue that the slide through the draft of seniors like West has to compete with not only the increase of college underclassmen entering the draft, but also international prospects who have the “upside” to be superstars, even though many teams have seen very little of them actually play. However, West does not think that the international players have affected the draft that much.

"If you can play, you can play," said West. "I'm not worried about what (European) guys can do. American guys have shown what they can do. In the end, if you can play, they're not going to let you go."

Over the past 10 years, the mindset of the NBA prospect has changed.

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In the 1993 draft, for example, highlighted by #1 pick Chris Webber of the University of Michigan, only 12 underclassmen entered the NBA Draft. Only one of those 12 was an international player (Etienne Preira of Senegal went undrafted) with only two players 20 or younger (Webber and Brigham Young University’s Shawn Bradley). The 2001 NBA Draft, however, had 55 underclassmen (a 218 percent increase), including 33 players who were 20 years old or younger and 6 high school seniors in the draft pool.

That was the record for the most high schoolers in the NBA draft, until this past June, when eight high school players entered the draft, and all of them went in the first round.

What accounts for the huge jump in early entrants? Quite simply, the money makes it hard for some kids not to make the jump. While this is not the same era as 1994, when Glenn Robinson negotiated a 10-year, $94 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks, the rookie draft pick pay scale still makes sure rookies are well compensated. The first pick in the 2004 NBA draft, Georgia high school senior Dwight Howard, will make $3,483,100 in his first season. The last pick of the first round gets annual salaries of $696,300, $748,500 and $800,700 in their first three seasons, all of which is guaranteed money.

Compare that with the $300,000 average salary of a rookie player in Major League Baseball, and if their contracts are renewed for the next two seasons, a three year veteran in the MLB will make approximately $990,000. The first three years of the 29th pick of the NBA draft is guaranteed $2,245,500.

If an athlete is considered to be a first round pick, he is advised by many people to jump straight to the NBA and take the money, foregoing any remaining years of college eligibility, or foregoing college entirely. Coach Stansbury has monitored this practice in the past.

This past summer, Stansbury dealt with a similar situation that Matta had with West. Mississippi State’s best player and projected NBA draft pick, Lawrence Roberts, was considering entering the draft. Unlike West, however, Roberts actually declared for the draft. However, after not being guaranteed a spot in the first round, Roberts decided to return to Mississippi State only a week before the draft.

“I told [Roberts] ‘Do what is best for you’,” Stansbury said. “If you are a solid first round pick, go. If not, come back and improve.”

Roberts, an All-American last year and third in the Wooden Award (awarded to the nation’s best player) voting, is the only All-American returning and is widely considered one of the favorites for the award this year. However, staying in school does not guarantee he will end up in the first round next year.

“We’ll see if he goes in the first round. We hope his decision benefits him,” Stansbury said. “But after 10 mock drafts he didn’t see himself in [the first round] in any of them. That was a pretty good indication. Will he be a better player [after coming back]? Absolutely. Will he be a first rounder? That’s a little less certain.”

If anyone would be considered an expert on early entry, it would be Stansbury. He is the only coach to have lost two eligible high school seniors directly to the NBA, losing Jonathan Bender in 1999 and Travis Outlaw in 2003. He also lost Mario Austin in 2003 due to what Stansbury called “bad advice,” claiming that Austin was given false information about his draft status. He blames the loss of Outlaw and Austin on agents, claiming that they manipulate the draft.

“The key is to not listen to agents. They do not know teams. They do not know the NBA set up. They have no idea what teams look for. Agents are only looking out for themselves.”

Agents are not allowed to have any contact with agents, or they risk losing their amateur status.

Stansbury does not blame Bender, who went fifth overall in the 1999 NBA Draft, for leaving early; and has gotten a four-year, $40 million extension from the Indiana Pacers.

Trial and Error

But Bender has been considered a disappointment in the NBA, especially when considering where he was drafted and who he was taken ahead of (such as Jason Terry, Andre Miller and Richard Hamilton).

This, and similar incidents, have still not deterred general managers of NBA teams from taking young players, even if it means a few growing pains. Aran Smith, who runs the world renowned draft website, says that high school players’ past successes gives players and NBA executives hope that they can be the next big thing.

“Look at all the success stories: Kobe [Bryant], [Tracy] McGrady, KG [Kevin Garnett], Amare [Stoudamire] and LeBron James,” Smith said. “All the best young talent in the NBA are high school to pros. The ones that haven’t made it were not talented enough to become great players in the first place.”

So, why are general managers not scared that they are not getting the next Leon Smith or Korleone Young, two of the many examples of prep to pros who either had struggles when they finally got to the NBA, or just being drafted? Jeff Jacobs, a columnist at the Hartford Courant, says it’s because each team thinks they know it all.

“Each team, each owner, each GM is convinced he is smarter than the next guy and won’t make mistakes. It’s called deluding oneself.”

Perhaps the most infamous story is Taj McDavid. McDavid, a South Carolina high school ‘phenom’, decided to jump straight to the NBA in the 1996 draft along with Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal. While Bryant and O’Neal both heard their names called in the first round, McDavid never heard his name called at all.

Because he declared for the draft, he could not go back and play college basketball, and was almost never heard from again, until a few years ago in an article in Sports Illustrated where McDavid said declaring out of high school was “the biggest mistake of my life.”

McDavid was not allowed to go back and play college basketball, since the rules in 1996 did not allow a player to enter the draft, and then remove his name from consideration while not losing his eligibility. This rule was changed for the 2003 draft. Charlie Villanueva was the only high school senior to use this rule, and is now a starting power forward at the University of Connecticut.

However, McDavid is far from the only high school NBA Draft entry horror story. Rashard Lewis of the Seattle Supersonics had one was well. He declared out of high school for the 1998 NBA Draft. Lewis was even invited to the “Green Room.” The Green Room is where the elite players who are expected to go high are invited to sit on draft night so they can go up and shake Commissioner David Stern’s hand and to await their name to be called. Lewis’ hometown team, the Houston Rockets, had three first round picks and promised to use one on Lewis. But the Rockets, and every other team with a first round pick, passed on him in the first round. After the last pick of the first round was announced, Lewis put his head on the table, and began to cry.

Why are more players not scared off by these stories? Jacobs believes that players also have a problem objectively evaluating their own talent.

“Each prodigy and each prodigy’s supporter knows there is only one Michael Jordan but that the prodigy is the second best thing that ever happened to this world. It is also called deluding oneself.”

Change of Pace

While many NBA executives have privately complained about the rapid drop in age of draft eligible players, few had said anything in public until after the 2001 NBA Draft. This was the first draft to be dominated by high school players, with four of them (Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and Saginaw Diop) all going in the first eight picks.

In the aftermath of that draft, David Stern finally came out publicly espousing an age limit for draft eligibility. While the Players’ Union was quick to decline Stern’s suggestion, it has become clear that with each year, the NBA draft has become more analogous to the MLB draft (where players wait at least three years before making an impact) than the NFL draft (where players make an impact right away).

Jacobs says that while an age limit would help, it would not fix everything.

“Look, I’d love for it to be 21,” Jacobs said. “I think that’s a good mature age for a guy to be strong enough to go on his own. Legally, this does not stand up, although the college bargaining between teams and players could set up guidelines. College-wise, there still can be guys, 21, missing their senior year and not get their diplomas. A hard and fast age isn’t the panacea many think it could be.”

Jacobs offers his own solution for the draft problems, saying the draft should resemble the baseball or hockey draft.

“I’d like to see an 18-year-old draft and then the individual NBA teams would have the discretion to bring him in if he was ready. Heck, I could even live with a “one mistake” rule. If the kid blew out the first time, he could go back to college and play that year. That of course, is something the NCAA resists. I would agree that colleges shouldn’t be used to shuttle guys back and forth between State U and the Celtics. That would be a joke.”

While many “experts” say seniors drafted in the first round have declined because of a flawed drafting strategy, Jacobs says it might just be because the senior class just simply isn’t that good.

“For the most part, I’ve found out that most of the guys who stick around until their senior year do it out of necessity. In other words, nobody wants to make them a lottery pick. If there’s millions and millions immediately available to you, it’s almost impossible to turn down.”

Chad Ford agrees an age limit is not the problem or the solution. He wrote in his articles before this past year’s draft that Stern’s hypocrisy was the reason that many players are coming out early.

In his April 9th column on ESPN Insider, Ford claimed the NBA encourages these high school players to declare for the draft by giving signs that they are ready, because teams pick these players very high citing their “potential.” Besides that, Ford wrote how the NBA actually has a committee that gathers information for underclassmen and tells them what their draft status has become. The committee is lead by Stu Jackson, a former NBA coach.

Jackson gives the information to the player to help him with his decision. This process takes the risk out of some players entering the draft. Ford goes on to say that it makes it easier for them to leave early and enter the pro ranks before they are ready to because they can know whether doing so would mean they will be getting a nice pay check. Ford said that if players were “more unsure” of their draft positions that they would be more hesitant to leave.

In the same article, Ford said: “This whole process leads to an interesting question. Is the NBA responsible for the flood of underclassmen? Of the 13 players noted that would be college seniors had they not entered the draft, all were drafted in the first round, including 10 in the lottery. While Jackson wouldn’t reveal specifically who the committee has and hasn’t given advice in the past, there’s a good chance it was the NBA who confirmed to these kids that it was safe to enter the draft based on projections.”

It is possible that Stern’s own doing has caused the greatest problem not to be the all the teenagers flooding the NBA, but the lack of seniors who stick around. This past June, Smith called the senior class “the worst one in draft history.”

“It’s been bad for a long time,” Smith said. “The top five to ten guys left early and there was no depth. It was a horrible class.”

One assistant GM, who talked to Ford for one of his pre-draft columns, said these high school players were smart to come out this year.

“Of those 10 kids we saw at the Hoop Summit, how many of them could outplay any of the seniors right now,” he said. “I can think of eight off the top of my head. Now everyone knows why we’re so in love with teenagers. When you see what we have had to watch all year, you’d be in love too.”
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