There is a notion that is becoming a proverb that says if you are going to be drafted in the lottery or first round of the NBA Draft, you must take the money without considering anything beyond the wealth guaranteed in the rookie contract.
It does not matter if you are actually durable enough to play 82 games against some of the most powerful athletes on earth, or just a fluke resting on the weakness of your draft class. The people who espouse this wisdom do not care if your game has that high polish and nuanced craftsmanship that nearly every player must have to fit a professional role, or whether you have the support system to stay humble and focused in the most challenging league in the world.
The long-term prospects for staying in the league also seem to be rarely placed in the scales. While rookie deals are princely sums, they are not the max-contracts available to the sultans of the league after becoming certified players union veterans. The first contract expires after three years, and you are 22-years-old.
The decision to turn pro should be made like a monk taking his final vows before the temple doors on top of the mountain slam shut behind him—but too often they are made with the nuance of Dr. Faust with a gym bag of money opened on the training table in front of him.
Zach LaVine is a soaring Young Turk on this year's UCLA team. He is an elite basketball prospect, a monster freshman player and as the season goes on, it appears he will have the hard choice of whether to declare for the professional draft at the end of the year. After his first 11 college games, Sports Illustrated was writing that LaVine had become the apple of scouts' eyes and a probable lottery pick.
UCLA had another player last year in Shabazz Muhammad with the same choice to make. Muhammad was picked 14th by the Minnesota Timberwolves—the final lottery selection. He signed a two year, $3.86 million dollar contract, with a team option for the third.
His first headline was about being sent home from a rookie training camp for bringing a girl to his room—the offense compared nothing in seriousness to what it suggested about his professional maturity.
Muhammad now practices everyday against hardened professionals and gets to play four minutes of a 48 minute game, 82 times a season. He averages 1.6 points and .7 rebounds. He was demoted in January to the Developmental League—it is a demotion when you are a lottery pick—to work on his skills.
There is no more big stakes glory, and from the outside, no fun. He would have been a college sophomore, scoring 20 points a game out of Los Angeles, preparing with his blood brothers for the gauntlet of March Madness. Instead, he makes $1.8 million as compensation for sitting on the bench in the NBA or playing with the Iowa Energy out of Des Moines.
The puzzling thing about Muhammad is that the basketball observer with a discerning eye could plainly see the weaknesses in his game at UCLA. It was a very good, powerful game that was superb for a college freshman, but it was not a professional's tool kit. He needed a few more years to build that up.
From a professional perspective, it was a coarse, brutal thing that lacked all the on-ball skill and open floor nuance that you have to have to play in the NBA as a small forward. He did not pass and he did not play defense. Muhammad could catch the ball and shoot, and he could manufacture points cleaning the offensive glass.
Everything else, literally everything, needed more than a little work, and he was going to be matching up with a nightly marquee of killers from Carmello Anthony to LeBron James and Kevin Durant at an undersized 6'6''.
The scouts at Draft Express ranked him as one of the most inefficient scorers available, but were forced to note that he did manage to score almost 18 points a game for the Bruins—scoring points being his preeminent attribute.
For Muhammad, the NBA Draft was foreordained. He had been locked into his destiny by his dad, who groomed him to be a professional player, lying about his age to give him an extra year of growth while playing against younger players. This allowed Muhammad to dazzle scouts and build up his reputation and confidence. All of this was for the money.
In Westwood, there was always that palpable urgency for him to turn pro—as though it would have been an insult to his manhood to stay for more than one year. Listening to the "Legend of Shabazz" when he came to UCLA it felt like he would have entered the draft after junior high school if they would have allowed it.
And now it is over. Muhammad cannot come back and play college basketball, and he is left to chart his own course in one of the most harsh, indifferent and competitive businesses in the world. He has become his own $3.8 million ship on a treacherous sea.
Whatever else happens with LaVine, it wont be sad like Muhammad, who has had his life lived for him. Imagine how cheated you would be if the biggest influence in your life convinced you college basketball was not fun or worth playing—that all that mattered was a professional's pay check?
Of course it is the guaranteed NBA money for players who haven't earned it that is mostly to blame. A much smaller portion of fault goes to the NCAA, college sports' governing body, for a byzantine and punishing Kafka-esque rulebook that strips athletes of their personal freedom to earn money outside of their scholarships while they are in college.
The greatest player the game has ever had, the one who seeded the fertile ground plowed-up by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and made professional basketball extravagantly rich and globe-spanning in popularity, talks sagely on this subject now and again. It is the players succceeding his generation who reap harvest after harvest of cash crops, while having done none of the work to grow them.
That is to say, they played so well in college that professional teams were persuaded to stake millions on the likelihood of their claim "panning out." This is a powerfully tempting reason for an underdeveloped, but much-heralded, 19-year-old to try for professional basketball. He'll never believe in himself more than he does then, and who would turn down millions?
"The kids today, they are being given things they haven't earned," said Michael Jordan during a profile on 60 Minutes. "I don't want to seem like an old-school, traditional, bitter-type of guy. You ask me and I'm telling you, the game is being cheated because of the success that is being given prior to them earning it. Simple as that."
Two games are being cheated: College and professional basketball are diminished because of the money in play so early on. Imagine how different it would be if players came into the league with moderate, humbling apprentice contracts, like second round draft picks, and were given an incentive to prove themselves before being guaranteed millions?
It might be a philosophical or idealistic position, but Jordan is talking about the long game, which is his clear perspective from the top of the mountain at age 50. Thirty years before he had left North Carolina following his junior season—but who would argue he was not ready one year early? Jordan averaged 28 points per game as an NBA rookie on 51.5 percent shooting.
His resume at that point included dropping in the game winning jump shot in the national championship game as a freshman, and being named a consensus first team All-American in the two seasons afterward. Portentously, Jordan says it was the national championship game that changed his life, when he went from being Mike from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Michael Jordan, the basketball player.
His college career at Chapel Hill, learning from Dean Smith how to master the full handbook of skills needed to ply the craft of basketball, made a prodigious difference on the course of his career.
If there is any "secret" to Jordan beyond his tremendous physical talent, it is that he arrived at North Carolina with the now-legendary mindset of having been slighted as an athlete already set in place. The more I watch life, the more I become convinced the people who are slighted and written-off, the ones who are forced to prove their value to an indifferent world, are—in eight cases out of 10—the ones you want to roll with.
This is exactly what the NBA Draft discourages, that powerfully motivating feeling of having to prove yourself before being given enough money, if it is handled intelligently, for several lifetimes. You get players who believe three year rookie contracts are the big prize, like a genie opening the door to Aladdin's Cave.
But if you liquidate those millions, and you have not developed enough wisdom within your craft to know how to earn a second contract, you run the ugly risk of your life becoming a desperate, joyless travail to hang around in some professional league, anywhere on earth, because all you know in the world is basketball. Where are you then?
These are things that LaVine can learn from Muhammad and Jordan. There is time to become great, to live that old but durable idea of putting off reward for the sake of real and usable achievement beforehand.
College basketball is an enormous stage, and there is no hoops-run on earth better. Its final reward, the NCAA tournament, is the single greatest sporting event in America. You will be immortalized for what you do in the college tournament, whether or not you reach apotheosis in the NBA after your rookie contract expires.
College basketball is the most pure fun you will have your entire career. It has been said so many times by accomplished professionals that is has become a worn down cliche.
College basketball is far, far more than just the best place available to develop your basketball game to a high plateau before moving up. It is also the best place to figure out who you are, to develop your consciousness, in the protected, aspirational atmosphere of a college campus.
What was it Shakespeare said? "This above all: to thine own self be true." If you have some idea of who you are and why you do the things you do, you will be a better person, and as a mammoth corollary, a better professional.
So there may be a decision for Zach LaVine at the end of the season—but the general logic of the process is universal. It has faced many others before him and produced again-and-again the same golden-rich nugget of wisdom: Play college basketball as long as you can, it is a mistake not to.