Young Wolves living as pros at a college age

Part of the the youngest team in the league, a number of Timberwolves players would still be in school had they stayed and graduated.

Minnesota Timberwolves Kevin Love, left, is congratulated by Michael Beasley after a shot in the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 in Minneapolis. Love scored 31 points and had 31 rebounds while Beasley scored 35 to lead the Timberwolves in their 112-103 win over the New York Knicks.  (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Love, left, is congratulated by Michael Beasley after a shot in the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 in Minneapolis. Love scored 31 points and had 31 rebounds while Beasley scored 35 to lead the Timberwolves in their 112-103 win over the New York Knicks. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

by Josh Katzenstein

Kevin Love and Michael Beasley sit side-by-side in a Minneapolis gym. Suddenly, Love does the unthinkable. He stands up and hits Beasley in the face, at a speed somewhere between a slap and a smack. âÄúHe busted my lip,âÄù Beasley says, so he runs after Love, jumps on his back and gives him a noogie. Yes, a noogie. That classic playground tactic. Only this isnâÄôt a pick-up game on some random court; Beasley and Love are rising NBA stars. If they occasionally still act like kids, well, itâÄôs because they are. At 22, Beasley and Love arenâÄôt even the youngest players on the NBAâÄôs youngest team. The Wolves opened the 2010-11 season with an average age of 24 years, 84 days. Instead of attending college and pursuing a degree âÄî which, if not exceptionally talented some of them might still be doing âÄî these athletes are fulfilling their dreams. But itâÄôs not all fun and games for these college-age millionaires. A life-changing decision Third-year players Beasley, Love and Kosta Koufos all came into the league following one year of college. Jonny Flynn entered the draft after two years, rookie Wesley Johnson after three (two at Iowa State, one at Syracuse). All have different stories, but one thing in common. âÄúOpportunity,âÄù Johnson said as he explained why he didnâÄôt return for his senior season at Syracuse. âÄúI just think it was an opportunity for me just to go capture my dream.âÄù Some of the Wolves said the decision to leave college was easy. Others âÄî like Corey Brewer, who went back for his junior year at Florida and won a second consecutive national title âÄî said it was a little more difficult to leave college life behind. Either way, sometimes the money is just too hard to resist. The Wolves took Johnson, 23, fourth overall in the 2010 NBA draft. In his rookie season heâÄôs making $3.7 million, a figure many of the 50,000-plus students at the University of Minnesota, as they enter a depleted job market, would be happy to reach in their lifetime. BeasleyâÄôs salary for this season, his first with the Wolves, is just shy of $5 million, and the 21-year-old Flynn is making $3.1 million this season. âÄúI lucked up,âÄù Flynn said. âÄúI like to say I hit the lotto.âÄù Many draft analysts have projected Gophers sophomore forward Rodney Williams as a potential NBA talent during his freshman season, but he came back as a sophomore because âÄúyouâÄôve got to know whatâÄôs best for you and whatâÄôs best for your future.âÄù Recently, though, the league has taken some of the decision-making power out of the hands of the athletes. Starting with the 2005-06 season, the NBA Players Association passed a provision in its collective bargaining agreement that said all drafted players must be 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft and at least one year removed from high school. Sebastian Telfair came to the NBA straight out of high school. Now in his seventh season and having played for five teams, Telfair wishes the rule had been in place before he entered the draft in 2004. âÄúAt the time, you really donâÄôt understand the significance of college basketball and all that kind of stuff that you could get out of it,âÄù Telfair said. âÄúThe thing that makes me want to change my decision is I know IâÄôll never get a chance to play at that level. No matter what I do I can never play at that level, so hopefully my son can get to that level and play there for me.âÄù BeasleyâÄôs story might have mirrored TelfairâÄôs, had he actually had the option. He grew up in a poverty-stricken family in Maryland, so when his first season at Kansas State came to a close, âÄúmy decision was pretty easy.âÄù âÄúI wasnâÄôt the most fortunate kid in the world, so it was just a better opportunity for my family, for my younger brothers and sisters, to put [them] through college.âÄù LoveâÄôs decision became easier after an outstanding freshman season at UCLA in which the Bruins advanced to the 2008 Final Four. Some of LoveâÄôs teammates âÄî now-pros Russell Westbrook and Luc Mbah a Moute âÄî planned on leaving, so he opted to join them. By the time Love signed with an agent, he knew he would be drafted no later than seventh overall, he said. âÄúI still miss college to this day,âÄù said Love, who was taken fifth in 2008 by Memphis and immediately traded to the Wolves. âÄúItâÄôs a little bittersweet because obviously I was achieving a goal of my entire life, making the NBA and getting to share this experience with my family. But I still miss my buddies and getting to see them on a daily basis and being a part of that college atmosphere and that college team.âÄù Making the grade Wolves coach Kurt Rambis said he wouldnâÄôt have made it in the NBA right out of high school, and he didnâÄôt even make it after four years of college at Santa Clara. After drafting Rambis in 1980, the New York Knicks waived him, so he played professionally in Greece for a year to hone his skills. âÄúPhysically, maturity-wise, emotionally, I could not have come into the NBA at the age of 18,âÄù said Rambis, who eventually played 14 years in the NBA. âÄúIf I wouldâÄôve come out of high school, I couldnâÄôt have done it. Physically I couldnâÄôt have done it.âÄù And thatâÄôs what a general manager must decide: whether itâÄôs worth risking millions of dollars on the maturity and skill of a 19-year-old. âÄúThereâÄôs no rule attached to it,âÄù Wolves second-year GM David Kahn said of considering age in drafting players, âÄúbut I think you have to factor that into it. And just as age is important, I think years in college, who they played for; all that âĦ gets funneled into the decision-making process.âÄù Kahn said that players like Johnson and Flynn have had early struggles because their defensive scheme at Syracuse, a 2-3 zone, didnâÄôt prepare them for the NBA, where most teams employ a man-to-man defense. Intelligence and learning capabilities also play a role in where players are drafted in the NBA and in other sports. Athletes must go through a detailed interview process that gauges whether they will be able to make the transition, Kahn said. âÄúItâÄôs not only so much how theyâÄôll make it because most of them do,âÄù Kahn said. âÄúItâÄôs how long will it take; how long are you willing to wait?âÄù A tough transition For college students, the early morning hours are often reserved for late-night cramming, but for NBA players, thatâÄôs prime traveling time âÄî and not by choice. Flynn said he sometimes has to take 30 seconds to remember what city heâÄôs in, mentioning the constant travel as the most difficult transition. In college, teams typically play twice a week with three or four days between games. The only time they play back-to-back days is during tournaments. NBA teams normally play three or four games per week, sometimes as many as five games in seven days. The 82-game regular season is more than double the collegiate regular season. The transition is also tough off the court when players leave the âÄúfalse realityâÄù of college, as Flynn puts it. âÄúCollege isnâÄôt real life, but youâÄôre taking a step from your parentsâÄô home to college,âÄù Flynn said. âÄúThat false sense of reality, thatâÄôs the best thing about college.âÄù Now the best thing, some of the Wolves said, is having free time, but it can also be dangerous to have less structure. âÄúYouâÄôve got money, temptations and youâÄôve got a lot of time on your hands, and thatâÄôs where some players can get into trouble,âÄù Rambis said. Since most of the players are the same age, they spend a lot of time together off the court, which helps avoid some trouble. Beasley and Martell Webster both have music studios in their houses where Flynn said he and others rap sometimes. But Beasley said everyone has to be cautious about the people with whom they surround themselves because of the fame and fortune. âÄúOnce you get a couple dollars, everybody wants to feel like [theyâÄôre] your best friend,âÄù Beasley said. âÄúYouâÄôve got to stay on your Ps and Qs.âÄù There were also the lonely nights. Love played a full season before turning 21, so when players said, âÄúHey, come have a drink with us,âÄù he had to decline. âÄúFor me it was a lot of nights staying in my hotel room, staying at home not doing much,âÄù Love said. Growing together The 10-32 Wolves are still among the NBAâÄôs worst teams. TheyâÄôve given away leads late in many of their games, which is a danger with young teams in most sports. However, the young group wouldnâÄôt want to see anyone else after a losing battle. âÄúYouâÄôre going a while without winning any games, and itâÄôs tough,âÄù Flynn said. âÄúBut when you come into this locker room youâÄôve got these young guys always joking around, so it kind of eases that pain up.âÄù Many of the players on the Wolves are stuck on the downtrodden team because they had the skills to be drafted in the lottery. If they were a little worse, they could have been drafted to a contender. âÄúI think itâÄôs better this way,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúWe can grow and go through our learning pains together âĦ ItâÄôs easy when you have veterans on your team that could just bail us out. ItâÄôs a benefit of a young team you can learn together.âÄù