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Do you hear the unmistakable springtime sounds of sneakers against hardwood, of marching bands indoors, of ESPN analyst Dick Vitale shrieking? Well, then. This must be the month for madness in basketball, and it began typically, not with a buzzer-beater that sent college kids bum-rushing the court, but rather, something that happened inside a classroom at LSU.
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Or more to the point, what didn’t happen.
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The country’s most NBA-ready player who’s a freshman and strong favorite to go No. 1 if he declares for the Draft (and it’ll be a Chaminade-sized upset if he doesn’t) wasn’t included among the finalists for the John Wooden Award, the basketball equivalent of the Heisman. Ben Simmons will watch it go on someone else’s fireplace mantle.
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The reason for this wasn’t spelled out by the school, but it’s much easier to decipher than one of LeBron James’ latest tweets. Simmons was benched last month for “academic stuff” according to his coach, so the safe assumption is the kid either wasn’t going to class or not bothering to do the work. Eligibility for the Wooden calls for a minimum grade-point average of 2.0. That’s a breakaway layup, especially factoring a workload that’s reduced for most players during basketball season and which also includes a few obligatory bunny courses.
Simmons wouldn’t be the first good player left off the Wooden ballot; Steve Francis didn’t make the cut either because he reportedly quit going to class altogether his second semester, a technique followed by many others who know they’re going pro even before the tourney starts. To be fair, Simmons is from another country (Australia) and perhaps he had adjustment issues. And he’s probably busy taking selfies with star-struck students every five minutes. Fine. But a cavalier attitude toward books masks another, more obvious issue pressing college basketball and by extension, the NBA.
The very best freshmen are only making college a begrudging one-year mandatory service commitment and therefore don’t care about working toward a degree, and certainly the case of Simmons passes this smell test. One and done. That phrase is a fixture in the basketball vocabulary, and for overhyped high school seniors everywhere, the bad news is it doesn’t appear to be in danger of being erased anytime soon.
There’s just no incentive for the NBA to abolish the age restriction limit. There are no indications that the preps-to-pros scenario will be revisited anytime soon if ever again. The owners don’t want to make million-dollar decisions on immature teenagers who just left the prom 15 minutes before the Draft, and general managers still have nightmares of Kwame Brown. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is on record with his desire to bump the age restriction from 19 to 20. The union wants to abolish the one-and-done and are quick to cite the examples of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, but nobody believes this will be a deal-breaker whenever the next round of labor talks begin.
Dallas Mavericks Jerseys owner Mark Cuban says the very best high school players should take advantage of the NBA Developmental League and simply take mandatory classes or lessons on how to deal with money and fame, since their chosen path is pro basketball. In theory that sounds fine. But there’s one big reason why the D-League remains a distant second choice behind college and it has nothing to do with classes and libraries and fraternity parties.
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The D-League has less national visibility than the WNBA. There’s no TV contract and, most important, nothing that compares to the country-consuming hype and buzz generated by the NCAA tourney. Teenagers would rather receive the non-monetary perks of being on campus for eight months and play in both the conference and NCAA tourneys than make $25,000 and stay in budget hotels. If the choice is going to Kentucky and being coached by John Calipari and having virtually every game televised, or playing before a few thousand fans in Santa Cruz, well, what did Anthony Davis Jerseys do? John Wall?
The league could adopt the baseball model and draft those high school players who declare, and tell the others they must attend college for two years. But again, there’s no incentive for NBA teams to do that. There’s no rival league the players could use for leverage, and no high school star has ever jumped and spent his peak years playing in Europe. Therefore, there’s no realistic option for them but the NBA, and no reason for owners not to allow colleges to continue serving as a minor league, free of charge.
That doesn’t mean players today couldn’t follow in the successful footsteps as LeBron and Kobe. Ask a handful of NBA scouts and they’ll tell you Simmons would’ve been a lottery pick last summer, maybe top five. And look at the number of freshmen who get chosen in the top half of the draft every summer. Ten of the top 15 picks last year were players who were one year removed from high school. Had they been eligible straight from high school, how many would’ve gone in the top 15 in the 2014 draft? A good guess is Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and Emmanuel Mudiay, at least.
Weird thing: Simmons might not enjoy the perk of the NCAA tourney anyway. Despite Simmons being a 6-foot-10, all-purpose marvel who only lacks a consistent jumper, LSU is 18-13 and might need to win the SEC tournament first.
About those academic issues, he told USA Today: “I think it was just little things like missing a couple of classes and things like that. And then it gets brought up. If it was somebody else, it may have not been brought up. But I’m not worried about that now.”
Why should he be? If he so desires, he can finally free himself of the charade of big-time college basketball, send his paperwork to the NBA office and become an instant millionaire in a few months. It’s a path that’s not for everyone, but then, there are only a dozen like him in college basketball — franchise-altering players good enough to reach the next level in their teens.
They’re just not good or convincing enough for the NBA to do away with the one and done.
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