The Curious Case of Sebastian Telfair: From NYC Phenom to NBA Bust

Craig MeyerCorrespondent IAugust 5, 2009

"Watch Me Now."

It was a headline that came off as something much more, along the lines of a statement or proclamation, boldly placed on the cover of the most well-known and widely-read sports magazine in the world. 

On the cover was not an NBA superstar, an imposing NFL middle linebacker, or even a standout collegiate athlete. What it was was a high school senior, a legend in some circles who already had the basketball world buzzing about his playmaking ability, and his acumen and comfort with the game that was usually only exhibited by the NBA's best players.

That skill and the growing lore about his game molded him into a Sports Illustrated cover boy, tenderly grasping a ball while leaping over the Coney Island Pier and surrounding skyline, all at the tender age of 18.

His name was Sebastian Telfair and he was poised to become the next big thing in the NBA and in the game of basketball itself.

His story began as a familiar and oft-repeated one, growing up as an underprivileged youth in the rough-and-tumble Brooklyn housing projects. The unfortunate circumstances that Telfair and his family found themselves in fueled a desire for him to make something of himself, and his means of escaping poverty were found in a game he used as a circumvention from his daily life: basketball.

Telfair honed his game on New York City's famed playgrounds, and quickly developed into not only a schoolyard legend, but also a phenom whose reputation was beginning to expand far beyond the Big Apple.

He led his Lincoln High School team to multiple PSAL city titles, and ultimately became the all-time career points leader in New York high school basketball history (a record that was recently surpassed by another Lincoln product, Lance Stephenson).

To many, it seemed like Telfair was living a life similar to that of the fictional Jesus Shuttlesworth in the movie "He Got Game", only this was happening in real life before our very eyes.

Celebrity status soon followed, as stars like Derek Jeter and Jay-Z began showing up in high school gyms just to watch Telfair play.  During his senior year of high school in 2003, Telfair was followed around by a film crew that was working on a documentary that was released a few years later, titled "Through the Fire".

The film documented the trials and tribulations of Telfair's rising star, and was centered on his looming decision as to whether to follow his college commitment and play for Rick Pitino at Louisville, or to test the waters and enter the NBA Draft.

For months, many people figured Telfair would stick to his commitment and spend maybe a year or two in college, but Telfair's tone soon began to change. A murder that happened down the hall from his family's residence in their housing complex began to make him think that for the health and welfare of his family, it may be for the best that he begin collecting NBA paychecks as soon as possible.

In the end, Sebastian accepted a lucrative shoe contract from Adidas and subsequently opted to skip college and enter the NBA Draft.

After all of the workouts and team visits, the Portland Trailblazers decided to take a chance on the high school wonder, selecting Telfair with the 13th overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft.

Few would have considered at the time of the pick that Draft Night would have been the highlight of Telfair's career at this point five years later.

Given the gift of hindsight that we as sports fan possess, we have seen Telfair's professional career morph into what it has become, which has quite frankly been nothing more than a disappointment, especially given the umbrella of hype that he entered the league under.

Telfair ended up spending only two years with Portland, posting unimpressive numbers in points and assists, and shooting an embarrassingly-low percentage from the field.  At the end of this two-year period, the Blazers effectively gave up on Telfair and shipped him to Boston in a trade.

His averages dropped in his lone season with the Celtics, as he was buried on the bench on a squad that at that time was one of the worst in the NBA.

In the following offseason, Telfair was one of many pieces in the blockbuster Kevin Garnett trade, bringing Telfair to a rebuilding Timberwolves franchise. He put forth two lackluster seasons in Minnesota, and about a month ago, was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers, which for those of you keeping score at home is his fourth team in his six-year career.

Telfair's troubles since leaving high school have extended beyond the basketball court. In April 2007, after being pulled over for driving 77 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone, it was discovered that in addition to having a suspended Florida license, the police found a loaded .45 caliber handgun under the passenger's seat of Telfair's car. He pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a weapon the following year and was suspended three games by the NBA for his actions.

Experts, pundits, and talking heads have gone in depth to examine what has caused this supposed downfall, and many have put forth different theories, each of which raises interesting and legitimate points.

Many of these opinions stem from Telfair's decision to forego a college career to make an attempt at some sort of instant gratification in the NBA.

Coming out of high school, Telfair possessed immense skill and put forth highlight reel quality play, but he was widely considered to be a mediocre outside shooter.

His size and physical stature were also points of concern before he entered the league. At 6' in height and weighing in at 170, Telfair was small even for a typical NBA point guard.  Jumping to the NBA straight from high school only compounded this shortcoming. It was one thing for a bigger player like a Garnett or a Dwight Howard to make that sort of quantum leap, but it was something else entirely for an undersized point guard with a weak jump shot to attempt the same thing (uncharted waters, if you may).

With his decision to enter the NBA Draft, Telfair also stripped himself of the opportunity to play college basketball. In the years since David Stern's age limit for players entering the draft, many top prospects who become "one and done" college players have looked upon their time in the collegiate ranks as a crucial component to their development as players.

Many believe that Telfair would have undoubtedly benefited from a year of guidance and instruction under Pitino at Louisville, and would have gained further national exposure, playing on a talented team that (even without Telfair on board) reached the Final Four in 2005.

Even a single year in college may have been enough of a lesson in maturity for Telfair, as his multiple arrests are a model of sorts as to what can happen when you give millions upon millions of dollars to teenage boys, many of whom have not only been poor for most of their lives, but have also never lived on their own without the surveillance of parents and teachers.

Some of this judgment may seem premature to pass on Telfair—he is only 24 years old and still has some potentially career-changing years ahead of him. However, the fact remains that players typically have shown what they are capable of producing within their first four or five years in the league (regardless of their age), so barring some sort of unprecedented improvement, Telfair will continue to underachieve and do nothing to make the basketball community stop viewing him as a career backup at best.

What could very well happen for Telfair is this: he can henceforth serve as an anecdote to young, undersized, and mentally raw players who are in limbo as to whether they should make the jump to the pro ranks. These young talents can see his missteps, poor decisions, and lack of judgment as evidence as to why there is tangible proof to take advantage of time in college as a key period of player development, as well as a chance to acquire some much-needed emotional maturity.

The potential and promise of greatness that were embodied for Telfair in that Sports Illustrated cover have withered away and virtually disappeared in a matter of only a few years, undone by a series of poor choices and faulty handling.

Indeed, we have all watched Sebastian Telfair, but we have not borne witness to the next great NBA point guard, but rather a misguided youth who will be forever burdened as being labeled as an NBA bust and a cautionary tale.