The college basketball season has finally wrapped up and the 2012 NBA Draft is right around the corner.
John Calipari just won his first NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Championship with a team depending on the one-and-done talent of 18 and 19-year-old players.
Many basketball pundits questioned his approach, saying that embracing players bolting for the NBA is not in the players' best interests.
Or is it?
Yes, getting an education is important, but what if a player truly needs the mega-millions that an NBA paycheck will bring?
And furthermore, what about those kids who were guaranteed to be a lottery pick, but then returned to school for one more year only to see their stock plummet?
For many college basketball stars, going to the NBA when scouts are salivating over them is the best move.
The cases of Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes both perfectly illustrate the dangers of staying at college for "just one more year." Both players were nearly locked in as top-five picks, but after less-than-amazing sophomore seasons, their draft stocks have fallen.
It may not be the most morally correct position or the most popular, but in the long-term, it may be the best answer to an incredibly difficult question.
And here’s why…
First and foremost, any college basketball star must always consider the possibility and the potential affects of an injury when deciding whether or not to go pro.
Yes, coming back to college and chasing the dream of a national championship is great and should be commended, but what if something goes wrong? One bad landing or poorly-timed jump could end a career.
An injury like a torn ACL, broken bone or other long-term setback would not only force a player to likely stay in school for an additional year, but also might lessen important athletic talents like quickness or cutting ability.
If a player is even slightly injured, like when Jared Sullinger battled a bad back at the beginning of this season, NBA scouts will undoubtedly question their durability.
For someone like Sullinger who already must argue against those who think he is too small and not strong enough to matchup with NBA players, an injury only validates those concerns.
No one ever wants a player to get injured, especially one who is doing an admirable thing and getting an education instead of cashing million-dollar checks.
But, the reality of the situation is that basketball is a contact sport in which injuries do occur and college stars must take that into account when making a decision about their future.
Remember Hasheem Thabeet? The 7’3” center’s ceiling was sky-high, causing him to be drafted second overall in the 2009 NBA Draft.
And then he was promptly sent off to the D-League. Thabeet currently averages around one point per game for the Portland Trail Blazers.
NBA teams are forced to draft many players based on their potential rather than the skills they exhibited in college simply because so many players are going pro at a young age, before their game is fully developed.
Sometimes, teams find hidden gems like Rajon Rondo, a point guard who came nowhere near his potential in college, but is now a certified NBA All-Star.
However, the more likely outcome is teams drafting players like Thabeet who have the body and raw skills that could lead to a great career, but simply cannot put it all together.
The North Carolina Tar Heels’ Harrison Barnes is the perfect example of such a player.
Barnes was rated the No. 1 high-school player in the country and, after a slightly slow start at North Carolina, he began to live up to his billing at the end of his freshman season. Barnes averaged over 15 points-per-game and was deadly from beyond the arc.
Then, Barnes decided to stay in college for his sophomore year and, abruptly, the party was over.
Despite the fact that his scoring actually increased in his second year, scouts are finding more and more holes in his game.
The seemingly-endless potential that Barnes exhibited as a high school student and a college freshman has been picked apart.
Instead of being a great athlete who can shoot the lights out and learn to create his own shot, Barnes is now seen as a player who cannot shoot off the dribble, is incapable of locking down on defense and must work harder on the boards.
College stars must strike while the iron is hot. Thabeet still cashed a monster paycheck, despite his utter lack of production.
Barnes will likely make a significant amount of money as well, but maybe not quite as much as he would have if he declared for the draft one year earlier.
If there are any knocks on an underclassman’s game or body, many NBA teams believe that with the right coaching, conditioning and attitude, the player can fully round out their game.
Doron Lamb, for example, is slightly undersized to play shooting guard, his primary position in college. But this season, he played some point guard and showed enough promise that NBA teams believe they can mold him into a reliable player at a different position.
But if Lamb stays in college one more season, plays much more point and does not significantly improve, scouts will begin to question whether or not he has the instincts to truly excel when he is running an offense.
Jared Sullinger has faced questions about his size for his entire career. He is just 6’9”, but played center and some power forward on a small Ohio State Buckeyes team.
His freshman year, Sullinger mostly held his own and was able to catch opponents off-guard with his post moves and push them out of the way as much with his bulk as anything else.
But in his sophomore season, teams scouted Sullinger better and defended him much more effectively. While his stats were mostly the same in his two years of college, he was clearly bothered by longer, taller centers.
His shooting percentage actually decreased from 54 percent to 51 percent, despite the fact that Sullinger’s three-point shooting percentage increased dramatically and he was taking almost the same number of shots per game.
The questions about whether or not Sullinger can matchup strength-wise with players like Dwight Howard and quickness-wise with someone like Lamar Odom could push Sullinger’s name further and further down the draft board.
How much influence do good teammates have on a player’s ability?
Sometimes, players on stacked rosters like that of the Syracuse Orange do not truly get a chance to shine because they are surrounded by star teammates.
But in other instances, a player’s value drops when he no longer benefits from his teammate's play-making ability.
Anyone can put up big numbers if they can rely on a stellar point guard to get them the ball in the perfect place for them to score.
Such is the case of Harrison Barnes.
In the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, North Carolina Tar Heels’ point guard Kendall Marshall broke his wrist and was unable to play in the team’s final two games.
Barnes struggled mightily in both, shooting a combined 8-of-30 overall and just 2-of-14 from three-point range. Those statistics are a far cry from his season-long percentages of 44 percent and 36 percent from deep.
The reason for Barnes’ lack of production in his last two collegiate games? Marshall was not setting him up beautifully and Barnes was being counted on to create much more offense for the team.
Turns out Barnes is not quite as good as he seems without his star point guard playing alongside him. And don’t forget, Barnes struggled at the beginning of his freshman season when Larry Drew III was still running the show in Chapel Hill.
If one player decides to stay behind while his other star teammates go pro, his stock could fall dramatically if he cannot keep up his production.
Players drafted in the lottery are often counted on to lead teams back to prominence. If those players depend on a star point guard to get them their points, NBA teams will be sorely disappointed.
The most important thing to remember for these kids making such a huge decision at such a young age is that there will always be colleges in the world.
Vince Carter declared for the NBA Draft after his junior year in 1998. In 2001, after making many, many millions of dollars, Carter graduated from the University of North Carolina.
Carter proved that it can be done—professional athletes can still earn a degree and prepare themselves for life after basketball even while raking in money.
So if a college athlete or his family really needs money, that player should declare for the NBA Draft when getting paid is a sure thing.
If a player is injured in his first year in the league, he will still make obscene amounts of money, but can then go back to school and get his education to prepare for the rest of his life.
Yes, players might be better equipped to deal with the business aspect of the NBA if they have completed more years of college. But the fact of the matter is, the rules allow players to declare for the draft after their freshman season, so if they want to or need to, they can.
The 2011 NBA Draft was fairly weak by all standards. Stars like Perry Jones III, John Henson and Terrence Jones all opted to stay in school instead of leaving for the riches of the pros.
Last season, Jared Sullinger was a lock to be drafted in the top-five and most likely higher. He was a finalist for multiple Player of the Year awards and thought to be one of the best talents in college basketball.
But this year? The draft is loaded, specifically at Sullinger’s position.
Thomas Robinson came out of nowhere to take Sullinger’s place near the top of Player of the Year voting before Anthony Davis received the award. Jones III has another year of school under his belt and his amazing talents are still very obvious. And Anthony Davis has been the best of them all, a near lock for the No. 1 overall pick.
So where does that leave Sullinger?
Odds are, he will still be drafted in the lottery, but top five? Doubtful. It is a toss up as to whether Sullinger will even be one of the top two big men taken in June.
Yes, he is still a great player and many NBA teams would cough up quite a bit of money to sign him, but who knows what could happen?
Players with lottery-level talent have been known to slip down the board on draft night simply because the teams on the clock wanted a different type of player.
So instead of being assured of a top-five pick, Sullinger must now wait nervously and cross his fingers that he is still selected early on.