Celebrate the New Dark Age
The New York Times recently ran an interesting article checking in on Jeremy Tyler, the 6-11 eighteen year old who one upped Brandon Jennings by not only bypassing college, but also his senior year of high school, to play professionally overseas. Tyler landed in Israel, where his experience has made Jennings's time in Italy look like a vacation by comparison. Indeed, the most striking thing about the article is how Jennings, now five games into his NBA career, is already perceived as a success story. Much was made last year about Jennings struggling with the transition and playing sparingly for Lottomatica Roma, but everything’s changed now that he's locked down the starting point guard job for the Bucks, while averaging 18.4 ppg, 4.4 apg, and 4.4 rpg and looking like the early favorite for Rookie of the Year.
The moral of the story seems to be that, if you're willing to suck it up and adhere to European basketball's bizarre notions of team play for a year (or in Tyler's case, two years), then NBA stardom awaits. Sonny Vaccaro, the evil genius behind both players' decisions, stated the matter more bluntly by praising Jennings's willingness to "shut up and learn." Tyler, by contrast, has reportedly demonstrated the kind of immaturity and whiny entitlement that most people seem to expect from today's teenager. If Tyler fails, it may jeopardize Vaccaro's plans and those of his partner in crime Jeffrey H. Rosen. Rosen has great plans for turning his Israeli pro team Maccabi Haifa into "the preferred destination for American prodigies who want to skip college" and ultimately "a global media presence." Shades of Saperstein.
Last week, Latavious Williams added a new wrinkle to the discussion by becoming the first high schooler to be drafted by the NBDL. Williams had already done several other things you do when you're a high school basketball star with bad grades and low test scores: go to prep school for a year, commit to Memphis, and explore the option of playing overseas. It turns out no foreign team was interested in the raw combo forward whom Scout.com rated the 52nd best player in the class of 2008, so the DL and its $19,000/year contract was the only option left. Since it's unlikely Williams will ever play in the NBA, he is more of a sad anomaly than a legit test case.
Current college freshmen John Wall and Renardo Sidney are better examples, since both have the skill, size, and athleticism that the NBA actually wants. Wall was rumored to be exploring the option of going overseas, but ultimately decided to play for Kentucky, which under Calipari is kind of like playing professionally while getting to stay in the country. (Lexington is also the likely destination of Michael Gilchrist, currently a high school junior and widely considered to be the best player in the nation. Oh, and he happens to be a close family friend of Worldwide Wes.) Sidney also selected an SEC school, Mississippi State, after most every other school backed away, out of concern about Sidney's amateur status possibly being compromised. Unsurprisingly, Sidney has still not been cleared to play this season by the NCAA, and Wall's status is similarly muddy.
Wall and Sidney's situation is a reminder that Jennings was also scheduled to play collegiately (at Arizona) before the NCAA flagged his test scores, thus setting into motion Vaccaro’s machinations. It’s worth mentioning here that KG was also planning to attend college (at Michigan or maybe UNC, depending on whom you talk to) before test scores derailed his plans and made him the next gen Moses (Malone), leading a generation of high schoolers into the promised land. Remember, also, that according to the NCAA record books, Derrick Rose never played in the national championship game, because someone else took his SATs for him. To a man, these players were willing (and even wanted) to go to college, but were prevented from doing so by either low test scores or, in the case of Wall and Sidney, unsavory associations. If Garnett or Jennings had been allowed to go to college, it’s not difficult to imagine them extolling the experience and continuing to take classes the way Durant and Oden have. So, when we talk about these issues, we need to reconsider whether players are going overseas to chase the money or because the NCAA forced them out. The answer, in most cases, is probably both.
So whither Wall and Sidney? If they are ultimately cleared by the NCAA, they play a year of college basketball, increase their brand awareness, and enter next year’s NBA Draft as known commodities. But, if they aren’t, then what? Since I assume they’ve been accepted as students by their universities, they could continue to take classes and work out individually, but that seems unlikely. A last minute pro contract overseas, a stint in the NBDL buoyed by sneaker money, or maybe an agent-sponsored residency at somewhere like the IMG Academy is more like it. Maybe the humiliation of being effectively kicked out of school would give them the motivation to succeed where Tyler has thus far failed. And if it works out for them, who could blame the next hoops prodigy for wanting to follow in their footsteps and stay clear of all the NCAA drama?