When Will the Ivy League Produce Another NBA Talent?

Patrick LairdCorrespondent IJuly 30, 2009


I recently attended a high school state all-star basketball game. There were two guards from a state championship team that I looked forward to seeing play. Behind me, a discussion began about one of the players, a point guard that will attend Yale.

"Why is he going to Yale? He ain't going pro if he's going to the Ivy League. Must not have had a lot of offers. They don't even have athletic scholarships in the Ivy League."

I quickly turned to the player's bio in the program and confirmed his college of choice. It said, amongst his impressive accolades as a high school player, that he will attend Yale University and "wants to pursue a career in law and own his own law practice." No better place to prepare oneself for the law field.

But a professional basketball career? I thought the comment was somewhat ignorant because surely there are a couple of Ivy League players in the NBA today.

In actuality, it's been quite some time since an Ivy League player made an NBA roster, let alone get drafted.

I thought of perhaps the greatest backcourt in Ivy League history, the University of Pennsylvania's Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney. NBA fans remember Maloney more than Allen because of his performances with the Houston Rockets in the late-1990s when he started all 82 games his rookie year.

While Maloney went undrafted, Jerome Allen is the last Ivy League player to be drafted into the NBA. The Minnesota Timberwolves selected Allen with the 49th overall pick in 1995. He later played for the Pacers and Nuggets.

In fact, there have only been two players from the Ivy League selected the last two decades. Dartmouth's Walter Palmer preceded Allen in the 1990 draft. Quite the decline from the 1980s that saw 13 Ivy League players selected.

Allen's selection into the NBA probably came as no surprise to basketball purists. He and Maloney's career at Penn became one of the, if not the most, dominant in Ivy League history.

Under Allen's guidance, Penn achieved an astonishing 51-5 record in Ivy League play and an overall record of 85-24. Allen achieved multiple player of the year awards for both the Big 5 and Ivy League. Behind Allen and Maloney, Penn saw its return to the national poll in more than a decade. Penn's highest spot in the AP Poll was 21st in 1995; they also reached 24th the previous season.

Allen and the Quakers advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1994 by defeating sixth-seeded Nebraska 90-80. They lost their second round game, but it was the first time in 14 years that Penn advanced past the first round.

Allen and Maloney almost did it again in their final season. Unfortunately Antonio McDyess' 39 points helped Alabama defeat the Quakers 91-85 in overtime in the first round of the 1995 tournament despite 53 combined points from dynamic Penn backcourt.

With an illustrious collegiate basketball career sans an athletic scholarship, Allen's induction into the NBA might have appeared to be a return to the 1980s for a league often dubbed the "Ancient Eight."

Yet here we sit in 2009 without a single player from the Ivy League earning an NBA paycheck. It is one of six conferences that did not have a player in the NBA during the 2008-2009 season.

Fran Dunphy, former Penn coach and current Temple University coach, said that tougher non-conference schedules for Ivy League teams have seen an influx of professional scouts at games. But that was said in 2005 and since then a couple of worthy prospects have come through the league and failed to reach the NBA.

One such prospect, Ugonna Onyekwe, played for Dunphy while at Penn. He finished his career as a two-time Ivy League player of the year and remains the school's second leading scorer with 1,732 points.

Before he arrived on the Philadelphia campus, some speculated that the London native would possibly be the first Ivy League player ever to leave school early to enter the NBA draft.

Onyekwe, however, did end up playing four years at Penn and made one final push for his NBA future in the 2003 NCAA tournament. Though his Quakers were eliminated in the first round by Oklahoma State, the 6'8" forward scored 30 points and earned the praises of legendary coach Eddie Sutton. Sutton said that Onyekwe was "probably as good as any player we have in our conference and we have some good ones in the Big 12."

NBA scouts had seen Onyekwe play and often confirmed that his talent, though physically undersized, exuded that of an NBA player.

It was not to be. He went undrafted and sought a professional basketball career in Europe. As of last season, Onyekwe still earns a living playing basketball in Israel.

The most recent NBA prospect to come through the Ivy League was—surprise—another Penn Quaker.

Ibrahim Jaaber played for Penn between 2004 and 2007. He, like his Quaker predecessors Allen and Onyekwe, won the Ivy League player of the year twice and even became the first Big 5 player of the year from Penn since 1979.

The 6'2" guard went undrafted but played for the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Summer League. Unfortunately, an NBA contract never resulted in his short time with the Pistons summer league team, but a European one did.

Jaaber still plays professionally in Europe and also plays for the Bulgarian national team.

The question then is what has happened since the 1980s when multiple Ivy League players would hear their names called on draft night?

For one, it seems that while other universities' standards become a little more flexible, Ivy League universities continuously become more stringent. This, along with no athletic scholarships, makes it harder for top recruits that depend heavily on athletics in order to afford higher education.

Another reason that the Columbia Spectator points out is tuition. Since Penn's Final Four trip in 1979, tuition rates in the Ivy League have become 10 times greater.

On the whole, the Ivy League can still compete with the nation's best teams, but probably not on a consistently high level. It's been over a decade since one of the Ancient Eight have won a first round tournament game.

The overall talent level of the Ivy League is disputable; are they any worse than years past or have the other conferences just become that much more centralized and stronger in talent? Every so often, they'll surprise the nation with an unexpected upset.

Tommy Amaker's Harvard Crimson were the latest by upsetting Boston College 82-70 in January of 2009. A pretty surprising upset considering that Harvard is historically the worst Ivy League basketball school, being the only team never to have won a conference title.

Ironically, they beat a team from the conference that currently boasts the most players on NBA rosters, the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Does the near future hold an NBA talent from the Ivy League? Chances look faint, but Ryan Wittman may be the league's best NBA prospect.

Wittman plays for Cornell, the back-to-back Ivy League champions from 2007-08 and 2008-09. The 6'6" guard certainly has the basketball pedigree. His father, Randy Wittman, played and coached in the NBA after winning a national championship and Big Ten player of the year at Indiana University.   

The younger Wittman averages 16.5 points. He led the league in scoring this past season with 18.5 a contest. He's known as a sharpshooter, hitting a career 43 percent of his shots beyond the three-point line. Wittman also doubled his assists from 41 the previous season to 82 this past season.

Perhaps his most important NBA resume builder are his performances against teams from major conferences. He averaged just over 27 points against Syracuse, Indiana, and Minnesota this past season, scoring 33 against Syracuse (albeit an ideal opponent for a deep threat like Wittman).

Wittman will play his senior season at Cornell in 2009-2010. It might be a stretch to say that Wittman will become the first Ivy League player drafted since Jerome Allen, but certainly most will say he can find a home in the NBA.

So does the Yale-bound point guard I saw have a chance of going pro?

By modern standards, his chances are slim if he plans on staying in North America. It appears that the NBA has slowly replaced mid-major players with European players. But basketball is basketball and if he is good enough NBA teams will come calling.

The Ancient Eight remains far removed from the players like Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney. Allen was a true NBA talent even though his career did not quite work out. Maloney is probably the last player from the Ivy League to have a significant impact on an NBA team.

The Ivy League vehemently states time and time again that it cares about sports and wants to compete and win. It just chooses not to provide kids a tuition break for doing it. The league remains steadfast in its roots, and all should applaud that.

After all, the point guard from the all-star game probably didn't want to attend Yale in hopes of making a fortune in the athletic field. He'll get something that a broken bone or ACL injury can never take away from him: a degree from an Ivy League school.

After watching that all-star game, there was no question that he was the best guard on the floor. Surely there were offers of an athletic scholarship, but he chose the road less traveled for the athletically gifted. And maybe he's a sign of what has really changed.

More kids, and it seems more college coaches as well, are willing to put all their chips in the NBA than a high quality education. To answer the question of the gentleman who sat behind me: Yes—he is going pro. Just probably not in basketball.

While five-star recruits narrow their choices down based on the most money and best NBA-ready program, Ancient Eight recruits are siding with the prestigious academia of its schools. As long as the Ivy League and its recruits remain the same, the NBA dream will become more and more of a distant dream for the nation's best student-athletes.

We may never see the likes of a Bill Bradley rise from the Ivy League again. As the years, and now decades go by, it seems as though another Jerome Allen or Matt Maloney is becoming less and less of a reality as well.

Discuss this and much more at Pickin' Splinters.


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