An underclassman’s dilemma: Stay or NBA?

by David La

Year after year, the aqueduct that is the NBA Draft channels top basketball players from a large talent reservoir to teams who thirst for their services.
This evening at the Target Center, players will be drafted with the hope that each becomes an impact player on the floor and a good citizen in the community.
But as the Roman civilization discovered, those aqueducts can carry their share of polluted water. And it’s not getting any easier for NBA teams to evaluate prospective players.
Concerns about maturity and personality in today’s image-conscious NBA run high, while the game remains as fast and physical as ever.
With college underclassmen and high school phenoms jumping to the professional ranks in growing numbers, scouts are forced to rest their hopes on players for their promise, rather than a consistant showing of their ability.
In the last decade, 75 percent of the top-five draft selections were underclassmen or high school players. Six out of the last 10 No. 1 overall picks were underclassmen.
With the exception of Cincinnati’s Kenyon Martin, the top selections in this year’s draft figure to be underclassmen once again.
But what are the reasons behind this trend, and what views do the players have of the opportunity to make the jump while they’re young?
Why they go
For some, the financial rewards that accompany being a high draft selection make all the difference.
Iowa State’s Marcus Fizer, a certain top-five pick who left school after his junior season, did so for the promise of a lucrative contract.
“I had to deal with what I wanted to do for my family and how I wanted to be a provider for my family,” Fizer said.
Players also benefit from teams’ willingness to pay in full for a less-than-polished product.
Former University standout Joel Przybilla, who opted for the draft after leaving the Gophers during his sophomore season, said, “If people are saying that you’re going to be a top-10 pick, why not develop on the NBA level and get paid for that?”
For Mike Miller, who left 1999-2000 NCAA runner-up Florida after his sophomore season, the thrill of the bills came second to the challenge of playing in the professional ranks.
“The chance to play on the highest level is everything,” Miller said. “We’re all out here for a reason, and that’s to play at the best level. The money will be nice, but I could’ve gone another couple years without it.”

Why they stay
With only a pair of seniors projected to be selected in the top 10 of this year’s draft, it might appear that the spoils of staying in school are slim.
Unless you’re Mateen Cleaves or Morris Peterson — seniors who sport national championship rings after guiding Michigan State to last years title — or Kenyon Martin, the consensus player of the year as a senior last season, why stick it out?
As far as Martin is concerned, the extra year of collegiate-level development made him the top pick.
“I would have left after my junior year if I felt I was ready, but I didn’t feel I was ready at that time,” Martin said. “I felt there was some things I needed to work on and I did. It made me a lot better player.”
Courtney Alexander’s combined five years at Virginia and Fresno State gave him ample time to develop a mentality that mirrored his talent.
“I’m a man now,” Alexander said. “I feel that there’s nothing that can disrupt my concentration, my inner-being, my strength. I feel like nothing can defeat me right now, and I can adapt to any situation.”
The other side
Players agree that the decision to stay in college or depart early for the draft is relative to the individual situation, and they harbor no ill will toward those taking an approach different from their own.
Cleaves, a senior, said, “I’m not going to knock a guy that doesn’t go to college or knock a guy that comes out early. You’ve got to do what’s best you for your family.”
In some cases, that means developing all facets on the collegiate level. For others, it means fulfilling a life’s dream now rather than putting it off a few more years.
However future young players decide their direction, they might consider the observation of Alexander, another senior. He spoke of his and Martin’s status, both of whom stayed in college and remained top picks in the draft.
“We came into college as boys, and we’re leaving as men,” Alexander said. “We’re also leaving as very, very good basketball players.
“I don’t regret anything I’ve done in college. I’m fortunate that I was able to go through college and be in the position I’m in today.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected].