Thursday, April 14, 2005

Jumping to the pros? Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

There's been a lot of talk about the NBA's proposed age limits. That the NBA would be better off if all those people jumping from high school to the pros would be better off if they had 2 years of college education before jumping to the pros. That it is somehow racist to deny young African-Americans the opportunity. (Although prominent African-American columnist Michael Wilbon argued the other day on PTI that the drive to "Be Like Mike" at the expense of other career options hurts African-Americans more).

Now I'm a college basketball fan. I would have loved to see how LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and others would have performed at the college level. I would have loved to see Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Sean May play out their college basketball days to their conclusion. And I would love to see these guys get some semblance of an education.

All that said, college basketball has been better off since the mass defection and the NBA should not be forcing those who want to go pro on the college game.

First, many of the early entrants are hurting the NBA's rep, not colleges. Sebastian Telfair? Overhyped and turning in average statistics in a backup role. Leon Smith? Malcontent who's now out of the league. Kwame Brown? Underachiever living off his high school rep. Kobe Bryant? Egomaniac who runs the team. I don't want any of these guys on my college's roster. Add to all that the fact that NBA offenses have degenerated to one-on-one isos because none of the early entrants want to listen to the coach enough to run anything else. Better they ruin the NBA than college.

Second, as much as we'd like to think these players would go to class, most of the early entrants wouldn't go. They would just go to school to play basketball and that's it. With the new academic reporting and scholarship losses attached to poor classroom performance, it's not really worth it to have the Sebastian Telfairs of the world in your program.

Finally, the college game has become more exciting since the high schoolers have jumped. Major college programs have been the most hurt by the defections, and the mid-majors are climbing to heights never before imagined. This has caused a dramatic shift in the college basketball playing field. Granted, major schools still dominate the Final Four, but years ago, no one would have thought a tiny school like Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference would climb all the way to a top-4 seed, and it's only a matter of time until a mid-major makes it all the way to the Final Four. Plus, a faster pace and more movement have been the themes of the college game, whether a team runs a conventional offense, a Princeton offense, or a motion offense. The NBA, on the other hand, has become slow, lethargic, and boring to watch over the same time frame, and that's when NBA players actually try to play. Half the time, NBA players don't even show up. In fact, the only NBA team I've ever seen try to employ a college-like strategy is the San Antonio Spurs.

Look at the ratings: It's estimated that
23.9 million people watched the National Championship Game between Illinois and North Carolina. By contrast, 11 million people on average watched last year's NBA finals.

(For further comparison sake, The Super Bowl gets about 40 million viewers. Monday Night Football averages about 16 million viewers, the Daytona 500 got 11 million this year.)

College's "loss" has turned out ironically to be college's gain. And the NBA's loss.

I hope, for the sake of the college game, David Stern reconsiders the age limit, or at least makes the high schoolers who want to turn pro play in the NBDL first, but right now it looks like neither are going to happen. The union wants to protect the veterans and the NBA thinks forcing students to go to college will improve it's product.

As for the high schoolers who want to turn pro: Go ahead. Skip college. Languish on an NBA bench. College doesn't need you.

Tomorrow: TBA
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