What's that joke about having no Cash, Jobs or Hope?
At the start of the 2014 NCAA tournament, college basketball fans had a chance to watch one of the most talented crops of youngsters in recent memory fight through the bracket for a piece of college basketball history.
There was hope for teams like Kansas, Duke and Kentucky to ride their one-and-done superstars to an NCAA championship.
Heading into the Sweet 16, most of that top talent has been kicked out of the Big Dance, which leaves little hope for fans of the college game that any of them will ever set foot on a college basketball court again.
Who has time for college when there are jobs to be had in the NBA? Who cares about hope when there is cash—lots and lots of cash—to be earned?
A week ago we had Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle...and now two of those players—along with Joel Embiid, Noah Vonleh, Tyler Ennis, Rodney Hood and a host of other young, talented NBA draft prospects—are choosing between jobs (read: cash) and giving college fans another year of NCAA tournament hope.
Some of these stars have an impossible decision to make because there is no wrong decision.
Stay or go—both are incredible options. It's a great time to be a college freshman, if you also happen to be one of the top players in one of the deepest drafts in the NBA since the one-and-done rule came into effect.
At the start of the college season, most draftniks looked at Wiggins and Parker as the two most talented prospects in the game, with Randle being a relative lock to be the third surefire NBA star entering the 2014 draft. As the season rolled along, other players stormed up the board to join them, most notably Embiid, the Kansas center who passed Wiggins on several prospect ranking lists before a back injury put everyone—in both college and the pros—on notice.
Embiid told reporters after Kansas lost in the third round of the NCAA tournament that he would have played in the Sweet 16 had the Jayhawks made it to the second weekend. Now, as many assume he will declare for the draft after consulting with family, friends and his coaching staff, one of the most talented players in the college game may end his amateur career having never played in the Big Dance.
He isn't the only one.
Noah Vonleh of Indiana announced this week that he is entering the NBA draft after just one year with the Hoosiers. He told Gary Parrish of CBS Sports, "It's going to suck leaving college without an NCAA tournament, but I have to do what's best for me."
Vonleh did what most one-and-done players do under the current rules. Indiana was nothing more than a way station before moving on to better things. If it truly "sucked" that bad to leave college without playing in the NCAA tournament, he would come back for another year at Indiana and try it all over again.
Remember, his quote didn't say it sucked not winning an NCAA tournament. He's lamenting the fact he didn't even make it into the tournament. At least Wiggins got two games in the Big Dance. At least Parker got one.
At least Embiid got to take a few plane rides and score some NCAA swag.
The One-and-Done Rule
Let's stop for a second to address the controversy over the one-and-done rule. Both the NCAA and the NBA apparently hate the rule, yet neither seems to think it has the power to change it.
Charles Barkley talked about the one-and-done rule during the NCAA March Madness studio show this week, suggesting that the NBA is "the worst it's ever been" in terms of quality of play, thanks in large part because the young players are not the same caliber of players as they were when prospects stayed in college longer than they do now.
If you were a top prospect who lost early in the NCAA tournament...
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently blamed the NCAA for the one-and-done rule, but it's the Players Association that collectively bargained with the league to keep players ineligible from the draft until they are one year out of high school and 19 years old. The one-and-done rule is an NBA issue, which is why owners and league commissioner Adam Silver are trying to make it two years instead of one.
The case for creating a two-and-done rule has merit, as college coaches would prefer two years with top players as opposed to just one. The most logical thought is that if a player is a top prospect coming out of high school or after his freshman season, it stands to reason he still will be after his second year, just with more basketball knowledge and, theoretically, more physical and emotional maturity to handle the rigors of the NBA.
People like Cuban blame the NCAA, while coaches like Bob Knight blame the NBA. Knight said on Mike and Mike in the Morning on Tuesday, via Sporting News, "the NBA does a tremendous, gigantic disservice to college basketball. It's as though they've raped college basketball in my opinion."
Whatever else Knight suggested—like going to a college baseball model where a player can either go pro right from high school or be forced to wait three years or until he is 21 getting drafted out of college—is going to fall on deaf ears after comparing the one-and-done rule to rape.
The rest of his comment—the non-insane part—makes a lot of sense.
Until the rule gets changed, however, the young players have the power. They should enjoy it while they can.
Winning at Every Level
Part of me wishes that every kid coming into college would try to be the next Carmelo Anthony, not the next Kevin Durant. Anthony was a second-team All-American at Syracuse in his only year in college before carrying the Orange to the 2003 national championship. He had his ride off into the college sunset before making the leap to the pros.
Durant, on the other hand, won nearly every major player of the year award in his only season at Texas, but the Longhorns flamed out in the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament before the best player in the country declared for the NBA. Three months later, Texas announced it was retiring Durant's jersey. The lede from a July 3, 2007 article from the Austin American-Statesman called Durant "the most acclaimed basketball player in University of Texas history."
As highly regarded as Wiggins was coming out of high school—and as good of a first year as he had at Kansas—he will not go down as the most acclaimed basketball player in Jayhawks basketball history. Neither will Embiid, Parker at Duke nor even Randle at Kentucky should the Wildcats take this run all the way to the Final Four.
And maybe that's the point.
This isn't a suggestion that players don't want to win an NCAA championship. Surely seven years ago Durant wanted to win the NCAA tournament, but his experience in college was part of a greater plan for his basketball career. Vonleh probably chose Indiana because he thought the Hoosiers gave him a great chance to win before going off to the NBA.
These kids want to win. It's just that winning an NCAA championship is nowhere near as important to a young player with NBA aspirations as winning an NBA title—or even getting paid to try to win an NBA title. If winning the NCAA championship was so important, more top prospects would stay in college as long as they could to keep trying.
Players Can Stay If They Want
The one-and-done rule is not a commandment. The best players are not kicked out of school after a year because they are ready for the NBA. They are choosing to go, and until the rule changes, that remains their choice, even if too many of them make the wrong one.
Some players can benefit from more time in college. At the very least, for players like Marcus Smart, T.J. Warren, Willie Cauley-Stein and Montrezl Harrell, spending another year in school has not hurt their draft stock much at all.
For every player who stays a year longer and gets better, there is someone like JaKarr Sampson of St. John's—the 2012-13 Big East Rookie of the Year—who declared for the draft following his sophomore season despite being pegged as anywhere from a mid-second-round prospect to an undrafted free agent.
There is also a player like Mitch McGary, who is ranked 40th by DraftExpress.com, who probably could have capitalized on going out after a Final Four run last season for Michigan. Yet a case can be made that another year of learning under John Beilein might prepare him even more for life in the NBA.
Michigan fans can hope. They can hope that no matter how far their team goes this season, the likes of McGary and fellow sophomores Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III come back for another run at a title next year.
They can hope, and hope is great. But jobs—and the cash that comes with them—can sometimes be better.
A lot of teams can hope. Kansas fans can hope. Heck, Wiggins and Embiid should come back next year. No matter what they actually decide to do, there's no mistaking the fact that they should give the NCAA tournament another run with a squad at full strength.
Kansas fans deserve that. College basketball fans deserve it too.
Getting knocked out on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament should be an embarrassment to a team with that much pure basketball talent, even without Embiid on the court.
Duke lost to Mercer in Raleigh, N.C., an absolute humiliation in a game it had no business losing. Both Parker and Hood should want to come back to campus for another year to get that awful taste out of their mouths. The Duke fans deserve a better tournament effort.
This should be a no-brainer for them: to come back and get a chance for retribution and redemption before going to the pros, where jobs and cash will be waiting for them.
Only there's a lot more at stake than cutting down a few nets.
Embiid, for example, has a back problem that could not only impact his draft status but truncate the potential longevity of his basketball career. If a "nagging" injury gets labeled as a "chronic" injury, his clock would start ticking way sooner and far louder than any college freshman's should.
Why wait another year or two to collect on his basketball abilities? Cutting down nets is not that important.
The same goes for a healthy Wiggins, Parker or Randle, should Kentucky fail to make it to the title game. What is college for other than developing the skills needed to get a job in one's chosen profession?
If Wiggins, Parker, Randle and Embiid—among a host of others, like Arizona's Aaron Gordon, Vonleh and Ennis—have honed their skills enough after a high school career and one year in college to justify being a top pick in the NBA draft, why should they wait another year to go pro? Because they didn't win a title in college?
Durant didn't win a title in college. Barkley didn't win one either. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant didn't even go to college, and they all seemed to turn out just fine.
It's hard to win a national championship, and the best any of those top prospects can do is hope they make it through another season without getting hurt. Why hope, when the job and the cash are waiting in the pros?
This should be an easy choice for the lot of them: to go to the NBA and make millions doing what they are great at doing.
Therein lies the problem—if holding two adjacent basketball worlds by the same string can be considered a problem.
Stay in school, and the history of the college game changes immeasurably. Go to the NBA, and the future of the three, four or five teams picking at the top of the draft may change forever as well. The decision has to be unique for each player.
Really, for any of them, there is no way to lose.