Money talks, and young players listen

There is a fundamental right in American society to be able to make money for oneself and one’s family. This goes hand in hand with the fundamental hope to be successful, with the measure of success oftentimes being the size of one’s bank account. It is with that in mind that we witness more and more prep school basketball prodigies making the transition from high school to the promise of the high life in the NBA.

Few would argue that prep superstars turned pro like Cavaliers forward and 2003-04 Rookie of the Year LeBron James or Suns forward and 2002-03 Rookie of the Year Amare Stoudamire were not ready for the ranks of the NBA, as both proved capable of making themselves cornerstones of their respective franchises. However, should we blame a player out of high school who never developed, like recently released Supersonics forward Leon Smith, or a player who so far has shown no inclination of being able to live up to the hype, such as Wizards forward Kwame Brow, for entering the NBA draft? Why would a high school player projected as a lottery pick pass up NBA money to play NCAA basketball?

NCAA basketball is a profitable industry that affords expensive salaries for its franchises without paying its players a dime. If athletes happen to become injured during the course of their college career, there is no monetary compensation. Former Western Kentucky 7 foot, 1 inch center Chris Marcus averaged 12 points and 12 rebounds per game as a sophomore during the 1999-00 season and seemed a certain top-10 NBA draft prospect. He chose to stay and play for his college team for the 2000-01 season before developing a foot injury that limited him to 15 games for the 2001-02 season. Marcus was not drafted when he graduated. There’s no guarantee Marcus would have become a superstar or avoided the foot injury had he entered the NBA draft after his sophomore season, but the guaranteed money would have eased some of the pain.

There is also no guarantee that a polished college player will translate into an NBA All-Star. One of the greatest players in collegiate basketball history, Duke alum and Heat center Christian Laettner, developed into nothing more than a borderline starter playing for one of the weakest NBA teams. The NBA draft, like that of the NFL, MLB or any professional sport, really is nothing more than a crap shoot. There is no assurance that one player will be better than a player he is drafted ahead of. If careers were accurately projected pre-draft, 1984 second-overall NBA draft pick and former Trailblazers center Sam Bowie wouldn’t have been taken before the legendary Michael Jordan, Bucks forward Joe Smith wouldn’t have been the first overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft and Pistons center Ben Wallace wouldn’t have gone undrafted in 1996. The draft and the development of the players who emerge from it are all about patience. High school superstar and Pacers forward Jermaine O’Neal warmed the Trailblazers’ bench before being traded to Indiana, where he has now emerged as one of the best players in the league. Rockets guard Tracy McGrady didn’t start leading the league in scoring until after leaving the Raptors. As such, it still remains too early to truly judge how wise draft choices like Bulls center Tyson Chandler or Trailblazers forward Darius Miles have been. Part of the risk in drafting a project player out of high school is the work and development that will most likely be required before the player can really begin to contribute. However, the reward, in the form of a player like Timberwolves seven-time NBA All-Star forward Kevin Garnett or Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, proves the ends can nicely justify the means.

Of course, it would have been nice to watch as some of these players faced off against one another in the college ranks. Imagine the possibilities of Bryant lighting it up for Duke, or James leading Ohio State out of basketball obscurity. And maybe our Olympic team would be better off with players sticking around college long enough to learn the fundamentals of the game. Still, if an 18-year-old has the skills to play in the NBA, or at least fool an NBA team into thinking he can play, is it right to force him to risk his monetary livelihood simply to pad the pockets of collegiate athletics officials and give the fans some exciting pre-March Madness games? Play on, young prodigies, for being paid to play is truly the American dream.