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On the Fast Track

Young athletes must ponder both risks and rewards when leaving college early in hopes of a pro career.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

The 2008 NCAA men's basketball final was careening toward a historic, youth-will-be-served moment. It appeared the kids would rule. Nineteen-year-old freshman guard Derrick Rose was carrying Memphis toward its first title. Two nights before against UCLA he had darted up and down the court with abandon, weaving around defenders like Gale Sayers chasing daylight. Now, when he wasn't running around the Kansas defenders, he was shooting over them, putting his team up by nine with two minutes and 11 ticks left. Then it happened.

In a flash, Memphis's athletic brilliance morphed into youthful chaos. The unraveling was classic—missed free throws, a stolen inbounds pass and a missed defensive assignment to send the game into overtime. Some errors came courtesy of Rose but more of them by junior teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts. The unnerving of the Tigers was Exhibit A for old-school detractors who view young collegians as a bunch of unrefined, immature teenagers in shorts and wholly undeserving of early entry into the NBA. Kansas prevailed, but the larger story was that Memphis's inexperience—read: youth—did the Tigers in.

Not two weeks after the crushing defeat, Rose put collegiate memories behind him and declared his eligibility for the NBA draft. "My only regret is not winning a national title for the University of Memphis," the teenager said evenly, as if mouthing a press release. "I am, however, very excited about the prospect of playing in the NBA."

Despite the timing, his decision made sense—Rose was drafted first overall by Chicago two months later, then signed to a contract worth $10 million for two years, with a team option at $5.5 million for a third year. Had it not been for the NBA's minimum age rule (in place since 2005, and first used in the 2006 draft) that players must turn 19 during the calendar year of the draft and be a year removed from high school, Rose would likely have avoided college altogether, going to the pros without ever setting foot on a college campus. "The notoriety they get and the endorsement they get from the media—they really have to strike the iron when it is hot," says Jim Baron, head coach of the Rhode Island Rams. "You knew Rose would get drafted in the top three."

Departing early. Should top players leave college before graduating and declare their eligibility for the NBA draft? Or should they stay in school, increase their future value and fulfill some vague sense of loyalty to their colleges by finishing? It's a risk-reward analysis that basketball players—and, to a much lesser extent, baseball, football and hockey players—have been considering since 1969, when Spencer Haywood left the University of Detroit two years before graduating to sign with the American Basketball Association's Denver Rockets. Haywood's mother was raising 10 children by herself and his family needed the money. Thus the term "going hardship" was born.

Then, such giant steps were rare; now, they are commonplace. In 2008, a record 30 of the 60 players drafted in the NBA's first two rounds were underclassmen. "The NBA draft is now a draft based on player potential and not player readiness," said Stu Jackson, vice president of basketball operations for the NBA. Asked for his prognosis prior to the 2008 NBA draft, Jackson said: "I would say there will be no more than a handful of seniors chosen in the first round." Jackson's prediction was spot on: just five seniors were drafted in the opening round, while 10 freshmen and eight sophomores were selected. It was different when Jackson coached New York. Of the 15 players on the 1990 Knicks, which he piloted to a 45-37 record, not one had left college early. That's notable: four of his players, Patrick Ewing, Maurice Cheeks, Kiki Vandeweghe and Mark Jackson, played a combined 62 NBA seasons and 18 All-Star games—and had been plenty good enough as collegians to have declared early for the draft. It's unclear what they gained by staying in school for four years.

Mike Krzyzewski, the coach of Duke since the 1980—81 season, favors athletes staying in college but not just for one year. "I think the NBA [minimum age requirement] is a good thing, and I wish there was an extra year," Krzyzewski says. Baseball and football have gotten good results by requiring that college players stay for three years, but Krzyzewski thinks the NBA rule comes up short, wondering, "Who will check to see what kind of classes the players who plan to go only one year are taking?" His concerns are founded: some colleges allow their "one-and-done" players to take meaningless classes for one semester, just to maintain their eligibility. Some drop out of school after the season ends in March, or early April if their teams get deep into the NCAA or NIT tournament.

For future Hall of Famers such as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, the jump from high school to college seemed as natural as a short juke to the basket and a quick stuff. But does college help lesser mortals? It could: a year or two at college quickens the social, physical and emotional maturity of athletes. College also helps to hone a player's basketball skills.

Money and timing must be factored in, too, and even unremarkable players can cash in. As Los Angeles Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said to his son Mike Jr. following his junior year at Duke, "If you don't leave now you will be leaving $15 million on the table." The son listened. The buzz around Dunleavy had peaked by 2002, when he entered the draft. Now with Indiana, he has earned a total of $30.2 million after six NBA seasons. On the other hand, 2008 College Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough did not enter the draft but instead returned to North Carolina for his senior year, hoping that his solid play and reputation would carry over to the 2009 draft. How can he know if he's made the right decision?

Most players fall short of the thoroughbred caliber of Rose, Michael Beasley and O. J. Mayo—the freshmen drafted one, two and three in 2008—and may be less prepared at age 19 than at 22. The landscape is littered with revved-up high-school-to-draft car wrecks such as Ousmane Cisse, Taj McDavid and Korleone Young. Cisse (drafted 47th overall by Denver in 2001) and McDavid (who entered the 1996 draft, but was not drafted) never made it to an NBA arena, and Young (the 40th pick overall by Detroit in 1998) played a grand total of three games, earned $287,500 and vanished, out of the league in a nanosecond, without a sniff of stardom. The lot of them might have been better served by graduating from college before taking a shot at the pros. "If they aren't drafted high, they go back home and all their dreams are crushed," says Richard Lapchick, president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. Lapchick's father was Joe Lapchick, the Original Celtic and legendary coach of the New York Knicks. "It's a dead end when they don't make it," Rhode Island's Baron agrees. "It's devastating."

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