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Featherston On The Modern Draft

As much as I enjoy "Animal House" - which I believe is the funniest film
made in my lifetime - it includes one scene that always makes me angry.

Early in the picture, we see Donald Sutherland lecturing to a bored
classroom. To demonstrate what a great teacher he is, the filmmakers show
Sutherland apologizing for his dull lesson on John Milton's "Paradise Lost":
"Don't write this down, but I found Milton as boring as you found Milton. He
's a little-long-winded, he doesn't translate well into our generation and
his jokes are terrible."

That admission is supposed to define Sutherland as a great teacher?

It seems to me that a great teacher would be one who could show his
students why "Paradise Lost" is an important work of Western Literature
why it is worth studying. A great teacher could get his students excited
about the ideas that Milton wrestles with and show them why the 17th century
poem is relevant to their lives.

To see an illustration of my idea of a great teacher at work, rent "Dead
Poets Society" and watch the first few minutes, when Robin Williams takes
another 17th Century poem and brings it alive for his young students. The
high school boys who listen to Williams' lecture on Herrick's "Gather ye
rosebuds while ye may" at first think he's weird, but as the film progresses
we can understand how be brings poetry - of all things - alive to them.

What does all this have to do with tomorrow night's NBA Draft?

Well, it's something I've been thinking about since a conversation with an
AAU coach during last month's Tournament of Champions. We were discussing
Greg Oden and his insistence that he wants to attend college. The AAU coach
couldn't see the point of a player guaranteed to be the No. 1 draft pick
going to college.

"You go to college to learn how to make money, right?" he told me. "There's
no way he could make more money than he'd make as the No. 1 pick."

My friend simply couldn't grasp the idea that there might be another reason
for going to college than to put yourself on the path to financial success.
Last week, UNC coach Roy Williams said much the same thing:

"There is a point where we're never going to be able to compete ... $16
million is $16 million. I go to Ram's Club meetings and they say 'Oh, Gosh,
they should stay.' Give me a break! Every person at that Ram's Club would
give up UNC in a daggum heartbeat for $16 million. If they'd told me before
my senior year that I could coach and I'd make $16 million, I'd have been
out of there so daggum quick ..."

The funny thing is, Williams appeared to have a different perspective when
he walked about the lure of the NBA during the Final Four. Sitting on a
podium in St. Louis with his top six players - including four underclassmen
who will be in tomorrow's draft - Williams made what I thought was an
eloquent argument for the kids to stay in school. Excuse me, I don't still
have the tape from the interview so I won't try and quote Coach Williams
verbatim, but his point was that every NBA player he had coached - every
single one - came back to him and said that the best time of his life were
his college years. He didn't go so far as to suggest that his early entries
had made a mistake, but he did claim that all of them - 100 percent of
them -- enjoyed college basketball (the game and the lifestyle) more than
they enjoyed playing in the NBA.

The point is that college is much, much more than a place you have to go to
learn how to make lots of money ... at least it should be. It should be a
place to grow and mature. A place where you are exposed to new ideas. A
place to meet and interact with people from other cultures and other social
strata. A place to have fun - to go to Toga parties and road trips and trash
the homecoming parade.

In a recent article linked by the DBR, Steve Luhm of the Salt Lake Tribune
quotes a number of coaches who make that point, including Jerry Sloan, who
puts it quite succinctly: "Kids who don't go to college, even for a couple
of years, miss out on a lot of things that mature you as a person."

Of course, not all colleges fulfill their mission. Modern education can be
as stupefying as Donald Sutherland made it seem in Animal House. Too many
colleges today are little more than trade schools, churning out so many
future Gordon Gekko's. If that's the only option - jump to the NBA for the
money or stay in college and learn how to make money - then what can I say
but, "Jump away."

But, I'd add, "Oh, what you'll miss!"

I think about what I would have missed. I had a teacher at Duke who brought
Shakespeare to life for me. How much poorer I'd be (and I'm not talking
about financially) without an appreciation for the Bard. I was taught why
Milton, in fact, was relevant to my generation. I was introduced to the
historical struggle between labor and capital in this country, a perspective
that has strongly influenced my political leanings in later life. It was at
Duke when I was introduced to the serious study of film and became not
just a guy who goes to see the latest hit at the metroplex, but a buff who
has sought out the glories of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton,
Preston Sturges and so many more of the old masters. I don't know if any of
that makes me a better person, but it has certainly enriched my life. Would
I trade all that (and so much more, in and out of the classroom) for a
multi-million contract out of high school?

I can't answer that question honestly, since I never had that choice. And
because I can't answer it, I can't condemn any kid who chooses the money.
But I do suggest that it's possible that the issue is not as simple as we
sometimes frame it. It's not ONLY about the money ... it's about quality of

I don't agree with Roy Williams argument that when the money is there, the
player has to go. Let me suggest just a few complications to consider when
discussing the issue:

-- In the first place, the really great ones aren't losing the big money
... they are only delaying it. Marvin Williams would probably have been a
lottery pick if he'd turned pro out of high school. He's going to be a top
three pick tomorrow night. Did he hurt himself by going to college? How much
would he hurt himself by returning to UNC for another year ... or two? Did
Tim Duncan hurt his career by staying four years? And while a lot has gone
wrong for Duke's Jason Williams, staying at Duke in 2001 (when he would have
been the No. 1 pick in the draft) and becoming the No. 2 pick in the 2002
draft was not one of them.

Sure, a kid could get hurt ... although can you name one likely first-round
draft pick who suffered an injury that cost him a guaranteed contract? Dion
Glover blew out his knee at Georgia Tech and was still a first-round pick
the next year. Back in 1971, LaSalle's Kenny Durrett suffered a horrific
knee injury in his senior season and was still a first-round pick by the
Royals. Kenyon Martin broke his leg in his final college game and was the
first player taken in the 2000 draft.

It seems obvious to me that if you are a great player before the injury,
somebody will still take a chance on you. If that's not enough of a
guarantee, the NCAA now has an insurance plan to protect prospects from
catastrophic injury.

Of course, there's another class of players who are hurt by going to
college - the frauds. Almost every year, there are a couple of kids who
dominate at the high school level, where the competition is not good enough
to expose the flaws in their games. The pro scouts, so anxious to find the
exceptional player, will gamble on the unknown. But let the same kid go to
college, where his weaknesses are exposed, and his future is ruined.

In hindsight, Chris Burgess should have turned pro out of high school. He
would have been a first-round draft pick and signed a multi-million contract
before the pros found out that he couldn't play. Kwame Brown, Leon Smith and
DiSagana Diop are all frauds who were smart to skip college.

Shavlik Randolph? I'm not sure. There was a time, near the end of his junior
year at Broughton, when he looked like a sure first-round pick. But after
his lackluster senior season (as we now know, when he was starting to have
problems with his hip) the pro scouts I know were starting to raise
questions about his game. Somebody might have still gambled on his
potential, but nobody I talked to (except his father) thought he was a
first-round lock in 2002.

-- Do all the kids have a real choice?

Kevin Garnett, who opened the high school-to-NBA floodgates in 1995, wanted
to play college basketball. He would have played at least a year at Illinois
if he had met the NCAA qualifying standard.

In the decade since, my estimate is that approximately 75 percent of the 36
prep players who have declared for the draft (not counting the nine in this
year's draft) have been academically ineligible to play Division 1 college

Of course, that's not that simple either. When Tracy McGrady jumped from Mt.
Zion Christian Academy to become the ninth pick in the 1997 draft, he ha not
passed the NCAA's minimum SAT score. However, his coach, Joel Hopkins,
assured me that he could have passed, if he wanted to play in college. Maybe
... if Chris Wilcox could get eligible, anything's possible.

Frankly, I don't know how many of the first 36 where only in the draft
because they were academically ineligible and didn't want to go the juco
route. I know that was a determining factor for some - Carmelo Anthony only
passed the SAT on his final try ... had he failed, he would have jumped
straight to the NBA - I just don't know how many.

There probably are kids who don't belong in college. I don't have a problem
with that. But I do question a system that forces kids such as Luol Deng and
Marvin Williams - who do enjoy college - to jump at the NBA dollars.

-- What is the objective for the kids in the draft - the fast money of a
guaranteed contract or long-term success in the NBA?
I ask this because my research shows that for most of the prep players who
make the leap, achieve the first goal, but at least half, maybe more, fail at
the second.

Of the first 37 players to make the jump [Note: I understand that Moses
Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby jumped straight into the NBA in
the 1970s. But after that trio, there was almost a 20-year gap before
Garnett started the current trend. My study is confined to the modern
group], 25 were first-round selections, four were picked in the second round
and eight went undrafted.

Now, the success rate - at least in terms of draft picks - is actually
better than the raw numbers suggest. The overall list of 37 high schoolers
includes several that everybody knew were jokes and shouldn't have been
included in the draft - Taj McDavid in 1996 wasn't one of the nation's top
100 prep prospects. I guarantee you that no legitimate NBA source ever told
Ellis Richardson or Tony Key that he would be a first-round draft pick.

If we restrict our list to players selected for the McDonald's All-America
game (which still includes several who had no business turning pro, but at
least winnows out the real jokes), we get 29 players jumping straight to the
NBA - 22 first-round draft picks; four second-round and three undrafted.

Even players with major question marks - every pro scout I talked to thought
Sebastian Telfair was the third or fourth best point guard prospect in his
class, yet he was taken No. 13 in the 2004 draft - seem to be given the
benefit of the doubt.

That seems to indicate that if a prospect's only goal is to claim
first-round money, it makes sense to jump straight from high school to the
NBA. In fact, if we survey the McDonald's All-America lists since 1995, we'
ll find that the prep players have the second highest ratio of first-round

Class Entries 1st round (Pct.) 2nd round Undrafted
Prep players 29 22 (75.7) 4 4
Freshmen 20 16 (80.0) 3 1
Sophomores 25 17 (68.0) 3 4
Juniors 22 12 (60.0) 6 4
Seniors 68 10 (17.7) 9 47

But if the player's goal is to establish himself in the league, the numbers
aren't so pretty. Obviously, it's not always simple to define success and
failure in the NBA, but let me break down the prep entries this way:

1. Absolutely, positively, no-brainer success: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady,
Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire. I think you could also
include Jermaine O'Neal, who took a while to develop, but has played in
three all-star games, in this group.

2. Absolutely, positively, no-brainer flops: Taj McDavid, Ellis Richardson,
Korleone Young, Leon Smith, Ousmane Cisse, DiSagana Diop, Tony Key, DeAngelo
Collins, Lenny Cooke, Giedrius Rinbkevicius and James Lang. Most of these
guys never played in the NBA ... Young, Smith and Diop have played a handful
of games, but are out of the league and probably won't be back.

For those keeping score, that's six stars and 11 flops.

3. Solid NBA players: Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis, Jonathan Bender, Darius
Miles and Eddy Curry.
That evens the list at 11 "good decisions" and 11 "bad decisions.

After that, it gets harder to define success and failure.

Right now, I'd suggest that most NBA people would rate Kwame Brown a
failure, especially in relation to his position as the No. 1 pick in the
2001 draft. Brown has averaged 4.4 points in his four seasons and is likely
to be released in the off-season. I believe the second pick in 2001, Tyson
Chandler is also a major disappointment, if not a total flop.

I'm not sure where I should include DeShawn Stevenson. His stats are
respectable (11 points a game the last two years), but I've seen two
different NBA writers cite him as an example of a flop. Maybe somebody who
follows the NBA more closely than I do can fill me in here.

That leaves a bunch of players taken the last two years. So far, James is a
bona fide star, while Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, Josh Smith, J.R.
Smith and Al Jefferson have shown a lot of promise. Jackie Butler, an
undrafted free agent, has played in three NBA games and appears to be
floating out of the league. Kendrick Perkins, Travis Outlaw and Ndubi Ebi
(who has been injured) have made little impact in their first two seasons.
Robert Swift and Dorrell Wright were invisible as rookies ... Sebastian
Telfair was buried for half a season until management fired his coach and
ordered him on the floor. He ended up playing a lot without noticeable
impact ... right now, Telfair is only playing to sell shoes - he's the NBA's
version of Anna Kournikova.

You've got to wonder if guys like Kwame Brown or Jonathan Bender might have
improved their chances of becoming NBA stars by going to college and
developing their games. That was Mike Krzyzewski's argument when he tried
to convince William Avery to return to Duke for his junior year. Yes, Avery
got first-round money by going after his sophomore season, but he never
really got a chance to make it in the NBA. He wasn't ready and he wasn't
able to develop his game playing minor minutes as his team's third point

Of course, some guys do need the money badly, usually to take care of their
families - and that was Avery's argument. He ended up signing an initial
contract that paid him $2.4 million over three years. I hope he invested it
wisely because that's all he'll be getting from the NBA.

-- Are the teams that draft the high school kids making a mistake?

It's interesting that of the six preps who have become NBA stars - half of
them moved on to other teams before finding stardom.

Okay, that stat is a little skewed because we're only talking about six kids
and one of those, Kobe Bryant, was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets at the
behest of the Los Angeles Lakers. The deal to send Vlade Divac to Charlotte
was already worked out before the Hornets took Bryant at No. 13.

But Toronto's pick of Tracy McGrady with the No. 9 pick in the 1997 draft
turned out to be a disaster for the Raptors. McGrady was useless in his
first two years in the league. He gave Toronto basically half a season of
good (not great) basketball before moving on to Orlando as a free agent -
where he blossomed into a star.

Jermaine O'Neal played four forgettable seasons in Portland, never averaging
5.0 points a game, then was traded to Indiana for Dale Davis, who has given
the Trail Blazers four very solid seasons, but nothing spectacular - never
more than nine points or eight rebounds a game. Meanwhile, O'Neal has become
a 20 ppg scorer in Indiana and had made the all-star game three times. The
Trail Blazers ended up playing an awful lot of money for what has turned
into four solid seasons of back-up play at forward.

It remains to be seen whether or not Cleveland will reap the benefits of
taking LeBron James No. 1. Obviously, he's become an immediate star, but the
speculation is already growing that he'll jump to New York or maybe another
NBA hot-spot as soon as his initial contract is up. Stay turned to see
whether or not the Cavs can 1) convince their young star to stay in
Cleveland; 2) trade him for players that will be the foundation of a
successful team; 3) or at the very least cash in on some postseason success
before he's gone.

The details of the new NBA player agreement are still coming out slowly. But
it looks like the new deal will only lock up draft picks for three years
(two guaranteed years with an option). That's going to make drafting high
school players even more risky.

-- Is drafting so many high school players good for the NBA?

We know it's not good for college basketball. But, as Roy Williams pointed
out last week, that's the least of David Stern's concerns.

"It's not the NBA's job to try to solve things for college basketball,"
said. "They're trying to do what's best for their game and if it happens to
help college basketball, that's fine ... and if it doesn't, that's fine too.

"We're competitors."

Well, yes and no. Hard to remember now, but back in the late 1970s and early
1980s, college basketball regularly drew better TV ratings than the NBA head
up on Sunday afternoons. That changed in the early 1980s as Stern and the
NBA made a conscious decision to mark superstars - first Bird and Magic,
then Jordan. For the last two decades, the NBA has had the upper hand,
except during March Madness.

However, the league's ratings have been slipping in recent years. There are
a lot of explanations offered for the decline - the retirement of popular
stars such as Jordan, who carried the league after Magic and Bird retired;
or the ascendance of controversial stars such as Allen Iverson and Kobe
Bryant, who have proven to be unattractive to middle (read "white") America.
This year's dismal ratings for the finals have been attributed to two
small-market teams.

But there are also those who believe the league's heavy shift toward
skilled, but untutored young players has hurt the NBA's popularity almost as
much as it's hurt the league's chief competitor - the NCAA. Not only has the
pro game become more individualistic and less structured (as was evident in
the NBA's last two drubbings in international play), cutting out the
colleges has removed a ready-made marketing tool for the NBA stars.

It's easy to forget that Bird and Magic arrived in the NBA as full-blown
national figures, thanks to their exposure on the college level. So did
Jordan and Isiah Thomas. Not only that, college kids tap into an established
fan base - admit it, most of the readers of this web site care more about
Shane Battier than Shaun Livingston .... and more about Elton Brand or
Carlos Boozer than Jonathan Bender or Rashard Lewis. Check out a Wake Forest
web site and see how excited they are about Tim Duncan winning another NBA
title. Listen to Bernie Bickerstaff talk about how much it would help the
Charlotte Bobcats to draft a player with local college ties - a Chris Paul,
a Marvin Williams, a Raymond Felton.

The NBA and colleges are competitors, but they also have a symbiotic
relationship that they would do well to recognize and nourish.

-- Tomorrow night's draft is the last to be conducted under the old NBA
player agreement. Looking at the listen of undergraduates in the draft, I
wonder what kind of advice they were getting.

It seems so obvious to me. Under the new agreement that will go into effect
before the 2006 draft, high school players will be excluded for one year,
before they start entering again as 19-year-olds in the 2007 draft. That
means that next year's draft is going to be the weakest in modern memory. No
Greg Oden. No Kevin Durant. No Wayne Ellington or Dereck Caracter. Wouldn't
it make sense for every marginal prospect in this draft - Shavlik Randolph,
Randolph Morris, Amir Johnson, Louis Williams, C.J. Miles - to wait a year
and come out after next season?

I know the timing was close, but the new agreement was announced hours
before the deadline for withdrawal from this year's draft. I was able to
figure it out - and it's not my life.

As it stands, there are nine high school players available. There were 12,
but Martellus Bennett, Brandon Rush and Keith Bumbraugh were smart enough to
pull their names out. Gerald Green, Martell Webster and Andrae Blatche were
probably smart to stay in ... we'll see with Monta Ellis, Andrew Bynum and C.J. Miles.

Heck, even Louis Williams could get lucky - Telfair did and Williams is at
least as good a prospect.

-- What about the law of untended consequences?

It's easy to see in hindsight that the last NBA labor agreement, which
dictated a structured contract scale for first-round draft choices,
accelerated the stampede of young players into the draft. Under the previous
scheme, each contract was negotiated, so that it made sense for a prospect
to go to college and try to establish himself - so he could sign a lucrative
first contact.

Under the scheme adopted in 1997 that locked in salaries for three (and
later, with options, as long as five years), it became important to get in
the league as early as possible and get the clock running, so the player
could get through those first three/five years and sign an unrestricted

The scheme had an interesting loophole that sometimes allowed second-round
draft picks to earn more money faster than first-round picks. Duke's Boozer,
who was disappointed to miss the first round in 2002, exploited the
opportunity after a strong rookie campaign, signing a long-term deal in his
second year that was better than most first-rounders were given. Wait and
see the deal Chris Duhon signs this off-season and compare it with the
three-year guaranteed deals that late first-round picks in his draft got.

That's something Daniel Ewing can think about if he slips to the second
round. Obviously, he'll have no guarantee and even if he does make a team
next season, he'll play for something close to the NBA minimum. But if he
does have a successful rookie year, he can cash in as Boozer did and Duhon
is due to do.

It will be interesting to see the impact of the new labor agreement as the
players and agents learn the new loopholes and figure out how to attack the
new rules.

"Prep school is going to be the next big thing," Mt. Zion coach Antonio
Fozard told Robyn Norwood of the LATimes last week. "You'll see a lot of
kids go to prep school."

Or will it be the NBDL?

"I hope it doesn't sound at all pejorative, but certain kids don't have an
interest in college," David Kahn, an investor who owns shares in four NBDL
franchises, told Norwood. "A lot have attended college who don't belong in
college, but knew it was a necessary step to a pro career."

The new NBA rules aren't likely to help stabilize the college game. It does
appear that the academically challenged kids are lining up ways - prep
school, the NBA -- to avoid college for that extra year, while the qualified
prospects will do as Carmelo Anthony or Luol Deng or Marvin Williams did ...
make a one-year stopover en route to the NBA.

I suspect that those with the grades will still opt for college. One year
playing in front of huge crowds and on national TV is better than riding
buses between Asheville and Fayetteville in the NBDL or playing in the
obscurity of Mouth of Wilson, Va., or Pittsfield, Me.

"I'll still recruit these kids as long as they have great character,"
Williams vowed, adding that even if they came for one year, he and his staff
would make sure they were academically committed for that year. You wonder
whether the same attitude will prevail at Cincinnati or similar bastions of
academic expediency.

Too bad the league didn't adopt the scheme Williams suggested - a copy of
the baseball labor plan. High school grads would be allowed to opt either
for college or the pros. Those who picked college would be ineligible to
turn pro for three years. That plan would help everybody - the kids who don't want to mess with college could begin their pro careers right away; the
kids who do want an education would be able to play three years without
pressure and at least get close to their degrees; the colleges would have a
far more stable player pool; the pros would be able to focus on just three
distinct classes of prospects (high school seniors, college juniors and
college seniors); it would also restore to some degree the symbiotic
relationship between the colleges and the pros.

Ah, but that's just wishful thinking and one of the things I learned in
college were the words of John Greenleaf Whitter:

For of all sad words of tongue and pen
The saddest are these, "It might have been."

I know I'll think of those lines tomorrow night as I watch another crop of
young players rush headlong into the NBA.