Sorry, sports fans, it’s no longer about the name on the front of the uniform. It’s about the name on the back. That has been the case in professional sports since free agency began, but now it has become endemic to college basketball as well.
And who can blame the kids? Look at the numbers for the first round of the 2011 NBA draft:
|Selected||Guaranteed Rookie Salary||Selected||Guaranteed Rookie Salary|
|No. 1||$5,305,080||No. 16||$1,696,920|
|No. 2||$4,746,480||No. 17||$1,611,960|
|No. 3||$4,262,520||No. 18||$1,531,440|
|No. 4||$3,843,000||No. 19||$1,446,440|
|No. 5||$3,480,120||No. 20||$1,404,000|
|No. 6||$3,160,800||No. 21||$1,347,320|
|No. 7||$2,885,520||No. 22||$1,293,840|
|No. 8||$2,643,480||No. 23||$1,242,240|
|No. 9||$2,563,320||No. 24||$1,192,440|
|No. 10||$2,308,320||No. 25||$1,144,800|
|No. 11||$2,192,880||No. 26||$1,106,880|
|No. 12||$2,083,320||No. 27||$1,074,840|
|No. 13||$1,979,160||No. 28||$1,068,240|
|No. 14||$1,880,280||No. 29||$1,060,560|
|No. 15||$1,786,080||No. 30||$1,052,760|
For that kind of jack, few 19- or 20-year-olds are staying in school, even if they spent a year or two or three with NORTH CAROLINA written across their chests. The two Tylers at Carolina might, as did Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler at Duke. For them, the college experience may have been too rewarding to leave early, or maybe they didn’t need the money as much as most young stars and their families.
But, clearly, the game is changing and only those programs that change with it are going to stay strong or get stronger. Right now, Carolina and Duke look like they are using obsolete plans.
Both have lost one-year players – Carolina Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright, Duke Corey Maggette, Kyrie Irving and probably Austin Rivers. But neither is now restocking fast enough to keep pace, and the Tar Heels or Blue Devils may not be picked to win the ACC next season for the first time in a long time. N.C. State, with young talent already on the roster, is adding more next season.
And it’s not about where a player may be drafted this season; it’s also about where he might go next year if he stays in school. The domino effect forces some kids to go before they may really want to.
In 2005, Sean May and Roy Williams did not have the conversation that Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and later Marvin Williams had with their coach during the regular season. They were all dedicated to winning a first national championship for Coach Williams, but Felton and McCants particularly knew that was also their best route to being high first-round draft picks. Though he never started a game as a freshman, Marvin’s talent and potential were obvious to the pro scouts who had him rated as a first-rounder all season. Meanwhile, May insisted he was staying in school.
Then May got on a roll in late February and March, finishing the regular season with 26 points and 24 rebounds against Duke in the nationally televised finale at the Smith Center. His pro stock kept rising through the NCAA Tournament, where he won the MOP in the Final Four after Carolina beat Illinois.
THEN May and his coach had a conversation. Considering he had come off his first completely healthy season in college and he would be returning to a team without a proven point guard and no other incumbent starters, May wondered how his pro stock could possibly be as high as a senior. So he went out, too, and made Carolina the first team to ever have four lottery picks in the same year.
The Tar Heels recovered quicker than expected after losing their top seven players, mainly because they had an incoming freshman named Tyler Hansbrough, and a top-rated recruiting class the year after. An Elite Eight season (2007) was followed by a Final Four (2008) and another national championship (2009).
Carolina lost four starters from 2009 and the next season missed the NCAA Tournament completely. Fortunately, Williams followed up with two more good recruiting classes and only untimely injuries kept the 2012 team from getting back to the Final Four and perhaps winning another NCAA title.
It may not be as quick of a recovery this time, because the model is changing. Kentucky has proven it can compete for a Final Four berth every season with virtually a new team. The so-called one-and-done high school stars, who only go to college because they have to, are no longer labeled as bandit outcasts.
They are simply basketball players who are not revered because they make good grades, but are star ballers. So that is making it okay for players to watch their draft status through their careers and go when it looks like they can maximize their guaranteed first-round money.
Maybe Kendall Marshall doesn’t go out this year if all three of his fellow starters weren’t leaving, threatening his perceived value on a less-talented team next season. Marshall is this year’s May, climbing the draft board late to the point where he almost had to go.
Harrison Barnes stayed a second season and probably hurt himself, because his limitations were exposed as a sophomore and, despite making first-team All-ACC, leaves as a widely considered overrated player compared to his enormous expectations coming in to college. He needs to be careful about his pre-draft workouts or perceived weaknesses could leave him sitting in the green room until late in the first round. According to the chart above, that could cost him a couple of million bucks.
John Henson could have stayed and perhaps improved his current top 20 draft status next season, but debilitating wrist and ankle injuries during the tournaments surely gave him pause. If he got hurt again, he might have been branded as too fragile for the rigors of the NBA.
Carolina now waits on what would be the most devastating loss, freshman forward James Michael McAdoo, who got to shine ironically due to Henson’s injuries. Many pro scouts think he has the most upside of any Tar Heel player already declaring for the draft.
McAdoo’s departure, which could be announced next week, would leave Carolina with zero experienced big men and a front court of raw sophomore Desmond Hubert and incoming recruits Joel James and Brice Johnson. The Tar Heels may be all right at point guard with incoming freshman Marcus Paige, not quite the passer but a better scorer than Marshall, and Dexter Strickland returning to back him up.
But, clearly, UNC is not seen in the same light as Kentucky, where it’s become a haven for one-year stars on their way to the NBA. Coach John Calipari gets them to play together and showcase their talent, which are both assets put toward winning a national championship and getting drafted early.
Two still-unsigned players who fit that mold eliminated Carolina from their consideration – Las Vegas 6-5 forward Shabazz Muhammad and 6-11 center Nerlens Noel from Connecticut, the top two high school stars in the class of 2012. They will wind up at Kentucky or another school that not only supports one-and-dones, but now actively recruits that path.
Carolina and Duke may have to rethink their recruiting strategy or start overstocking their rosters. Because, in the short run, it’s no longer about the name on the front of the uniform.