Shoals Unlimited: The NCAA Tourney Is a Nice Little Event Where Pro Talent Withers

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week. ↵
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↵I get it, the NCAA wanted an age minimum for the NBA draft. There’s just no way it would’ve continued to let phenoms like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant bypass college altogether. By shrewdly branding itself as a safe haven for all that is honest and decent about hoops -- something the NBA’s image could always stand a little more of -- it had nearly forced Stern's hand. The NBA had its reasons for wanting one, too. If you hadn’t noticed, the commissioner was getting sick of announcing lottery picks he’d never heard of before that night. ↵

↵Carmelo Anthony’s title run set the blueprint, demonstrating just how mutually beneficial such an arrangement could be. Melo gave college ball one of its most pristine fairy tales in recent memory, one made all the more dramatic by the fact that everyone knew he was leaving after the season. Stern got an instant star who, compared to the likes of Travis Outlaw, might as well have been a vet switching teams. ↵

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↵But has the age minimum really created a bridge between the college and pro ranks? Or is the NCAA just wasting the time of eventual All-Stars? ↵

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↵While no one has quite matched Anthony’s picture-perfect season, we’ve seen players who formerly would’ve skipped college get a chance to dazzle the nation. Kevin Durant’s year at Texas was simply staggering, and his good friend Michael Beasley was no less dominant at Kansas State. Derrick Rose’s Tigers may have had their hearts broken in the 2008 title game, but Rose himself was a man among boys. ↵

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↵On the other hand, college ball has the uncanny ability to stifle future stars, or camouflage them altogether. We’re not talking about the all-too-familiar economy of sleepers and busts that makes the NBA draft an all-consuming passion for some (including even a few scouts). Looking at this year’s rookie class, I’m left wondering how O.J. Mayo -- once the Next LeBron, now the future of the Memphis Grizzlies -- could have been so prosaic at USC, to the point where his going third in the draft was considered a comeback of sorts. ↵

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↵Or why did the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, one of the most dynamic and versatile young guards in the league, spend two years at UCLA known only as a defensive stopper and raw dunker? To paint an even more extreme picture, how is it that Dwyane Wade and Brandon Roy, both of whom served extended tours of duty at their alma maters, were merely very, very good at what’s supposedly an inferior level of play? ↵

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↵There’s really only one answer that makes sense: As a reaction to earlier and earlier draft entrants (culminating in the preps-to-pro mania), as well as coaches who are always somewhere on the road to becoming institutions in their own right, college ball is quite simply a different form of basketball than the pros. Do Chris Paul’s numbers at Wake Forest suggest a Hall of Fame pure point? Remember when there were questions as to whether Deron Williams could even play that position? ↵

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↵Don’t get me wrong, college basketball has always been different than the NBA. But usually in the “of course Adam Morrison won’t be able to get his shot off against pro defenses” way, not “let’s assume everyone is probably better than they look here.” Scholars of the game will now remind me that Michael Jordan was famously held back by Dean Smith, and that it made him a better person. But the difference was that everyone could tell Smith was limiting MJ. Now, it’s not so clear-cut. ↵

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↵It’s this schism that creates fans like me, who care little about college ball except insofar as it provides a look at future pros. Formerly, that’s the kind of thing one might have said about AAU tournaments and high-profile high school games, or footage from a European game where the fans were smoking and throwing nails at the visiting team. However, the relationship between the NCAA and NBA has reached a point where, as it was back when players could jump straight from high school to the pros, potential and what might be are as important as what a player shows you that night. Once, that meant putting a player’s accomplishments in perspective, or making an educated guess about how they’d mature. Now, though, it often involves taking them completely out of context, or observing only bits and pieces of their game. ↵

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↵It’s no accident that so many NCAA stars have to claw their way into pre-draft camps, and an enigma like Anthony Randolph—once just a soft, wiry big man from LSU who could leap—is now talked about as a future superstar in the Kevin Garnett vein. No matter how much of a bridge the two leagues try to build between them, they can’t get around the fact that these days, they’re speaking fundamentally different languages. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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