Friday, July 13, 2012

NBA's Straight From HS Drama

The Dwight Howard drama, and the Rockets' unfortunate feeding of it, got me thinking about something.  What do Howard, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant have in common?  They're very good, sure, but they've also held the teams that drafted them hostage.  And they all came straight out of high school.

The requirement of one year of college has helped the play of the NBA, and it's also helped in another way - less drama.  Howard has been screwing with the Magic for a year, and if they can't work something out with the Rockets, it'll drag into a second season.  LeBron was constantly bemoaning the collection of talent around him and ultimately left his team in one of the most self absorbed displays in sports history.  The Lakers are constantly trying to keep Kobe happy and nothing is good enough.  Or his fault.  They had to move an in-his-prime, HOF player Shaquille O'Neal because him and Kobe didn't get along.  For these guys, it's about the ME not the TEAM.

Compare this to Kevin Durant, one of the most understated superstars sports has seen in awhile, quietly signing an extension with the small market Thunder.  Or the equally quiet 2011 MVP winner Derrick Rose.  Blake Griffin signed an extension with the perennial doormat Clippers without expressing a desire to explore other possibilities.  The display of respect and class both teams had after the Spurs-Thunder series was moving.  The Spurs are an old team - this year probably being their last, best shot at winning a title, and they could have been bitter.  The Thunder are one of the NBA's youngest teams, and showboating or gloating wouldn't have been unexpected.  When the whistle blew, both teams embraced each other in respect of a truly excellent series of basketball.  All of the Spurs either played college ball or professionally overseas.  Same with OKC, save Kendrick Perkins (who isn't always the most stable).

The college experience seems to help these young, rich, famous athletes stay grounded.  But why?  I'd argue it's a couple of things.  First, a different location takes anyone out of their comfort zone.  Second, even if a freshman shows up and is the best player for the team, they still have to compete against and ultimately with seniors who may have been there for 4 years already.  Lastly, for the first time in their lives, their incredible, individual talents don't necessarily equate to team success.

Let's take Kevin Durant for an example.  Durant is from the Washington D.C. area and then went to college at the University of Texas.  I don't know what his life was like in DC, or where he lived but I know this - Austin, Texas is unlike anywhere else in the country.  It's preppy and laid back, hippie and expensive, high tech and old.  Really an odd, odd confluence of people and attitudes.  Completely different from either the city or suburbs in which he grew up.  Different situations are uncomfortable at first, require work to truly fit in, and are ultimately character building.

Durant showed up at UT as a top 2 recruit.  Perhaps this isn't the best example, because he was immediately the #1 on a team of freshmen and sophomores... or perhaps it is.  Durant was the consensus best player in college basketball, his numbers got better during the Big XII season, and it still wasn't enough.  UT finished third in the regular season standings, didn't win the conference tournament, and got bounced in the second round of the NCAAs.  Not a spectacular season for the team, but it's exactly where he found himself with the Sonics/Thunder.  Great player on a terrible, young team.  But they are growing up together and learning to win together.  He could have left and had his pick of cities, but chose to stay in the midwest.

Maybe Kevin Durant is an anomaly.  Maybe he never wanted the bright lights.  But his best friend is Michael Beasley, who has had a rocky road through the pros.  There are contradictions to my theory, sure. Like Carmelo Anthony, similarly a one-and-done player but also a pain in the ass.  There are plenty of players that went to college and cause problems but I can't think of one straight from high school player that is the consummate professional.  Amare Stoudemire might come closest, but he still has his ups and downs.  Lamar Odom is a train wreck.  Andrew Bynum is talent unrealized, and a player I hope the Rockets do NOT get. I guess Tyson Chandler has been pretty quiet bouncing around the league, but that's my only example of the converse.

The one year of college rule is the best thing David Stern has done for the NBA.  Teams have a better way to evaluate talent and fans know the players.  It is a win-win.  It's effect on the college game isn't quite so easy, but I'd say it's been positive too.  The level of play in the pros raises every year, and so does the professionalism.  Better skill and less whining makes the NBA more appealing and more profitable.

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