By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- If Brandon Jennings is selected early as expected in Thursday's NBA draft, it will be the endpoint of the new path the wiry guard has blazed to the league. Rather than play college basketball, Jennings became the first American player to graduate from high school and play professionally overseas for a year before entering the draft.
One year after Jennings's decision to play in Italy, there are signs that his success in the draft could trigger a small but significant movement. Jeremy Tyler, a talented forward from San Diego, already has decided to skip his senior year of high school to play overseas, and several others are considering following Jennings's unconventional route to the NBA.
Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe company executive who helped orchestrate Jennings's move, said he has had in-depth discussions with the parents of seven elite players still in high school about playing overseas instead of going to college. Vaccaro said he and his wife plan to visit or host the families of each player in the coming months to have more intensive discussions about the option.
"I think it is going to become a trend," said C.J. Leslie, a highly rated senior from Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C. "Talking in general, people are like, 'I am ready to get paid' or 'I am ready to get away.' "
Interviews with nearly two dozen of the nation's top high school players at last week's NBA Top 100 camp at the University of Virginia revealed that, while most remain committed to playing college basketball, several are frustrated with stringent NCAA rules and with the NBA's minimum-age restriction imposed before the 2006 draft.
Because players need to be 19 years old and a year out of high school before entering the NBPA draft, they have had few options other than to attend college for at least a year. They view Jennings as a trailblazer because he chose a creative -- if risky -- route, signing a professional contract instead of adhering to NCAA rules that forbid compensation.
"Brandon is his own entrepreneur," said Tristan Thompson, who is rated among the nation's top five seniors. The chance to play overseas for a year is "attractive for some guys," he added. "Once a teenager hears money, his eyes open."
Vaccaro, who said the parents of all the interested players reached out to him, declined to reveal the names of the seven players considering the overseas route out of respect for his private discussions with their families. "Parents are interested," Vaccaro said in a telephone interview. "This is an alternative. They just need options. They don't like what is happening in college sports. There is never a rule to allow the kid to have options."
Two other moderately talented high school seniors -- Mardracus Wade of Memphis and Justin Martin of Indianapolis -- said they would likely play overseas rather than in college if the opportunity emerged, and if their families allowed it.
"It is legal -- it's not like you are breaking rules," Martin said of playing overseas. "You've got a job."
Jennings averaged only 5.5 points and 2.3 assists in 17 minutes per game in Italy, but said he has no regrets about going overseas.
"I think more kids should do it," said Jennings, who had committed to the University of Arizona before deciding to play overseas, where he earned $1.2 million last season. "I got out. Just the fact that kids can grow up and become a better person, become a man overseas, [that] would be a great thing."
Some players said it is unfair they cannot be paid to play in college, especially when some come from impoverished backgrounds.
"If a college coach wants to give you money to get you to his program, I have nothing against that," said Wade, the guard from Memphis. "If the kid is living in a tough neighborhood, his mama is struggling and the coach offers him cash, he is not going to say, 'Nah.' He is going to take that. He is going to try to hook his family up. I have never seen anybody say no to it. I have seen people say yes to it. It is pretty common."
Wade, who said he has never been offered gifts or money, concurred with others who said talented players who attend college for a year risk becoming embroiled in scandal because after being hounded by street agents for years, they enter a college basketball world of intense scrutiny and strict rules that prohibit much of that contact. Three players who have declared for the draft after one year of college -- O.J. Mayo (Southern California), Derrick Rose (Memphis) and Nate Miles (Connecticut/College of Southern Idaho) -- have been linked to NCAA investigations.
"For the kids who don't always want to be at college first, scandal will come out, the under-the-table payments will come out, and it messes up the program with NCAA violations and it messes up college basketball," said Thompson, who has committed to the University of Texas. "Without the rule, it would reduce the number of scandals."
Organizers of last week's camp at Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena did not address the non-traditional route Jennings took with players because they said it affects so few and it's an option that players need to discuss with their families. But they did stress the importance of education and staying in college.
They told the players that only eight of the 100 campers likely would be drafted into the NBA. They said four of five retired players do not have college degrees and that the average retirement age is 27.
Nevertheless, many players plan on making college a one-year pit stop on their way to the NBA. While standing in line for dinner during camp, Thompson listened to one highly regarded player declare, "I'm only going to be on campus for six months and then I'm gone."
"Everyone wants to be one-and-done," Thompson later said. "You know who is going to be one-and-done by the end of their senior year in high school."
That sentiment has frustrated many college coaches. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he believes the top high school players should be allowed to declare for the draft and, if players choose to go to college, they should have to stay two years.
When players leave after one season, "we erode the base of trust and relationship that the athletic community has with the academic community," Krzyzewski said. "If you are one of those kids who can go, it doesn't mean you are a bad kid, but you can't make college an extended-stay motel. It should be where you go."
While enticing, playing overseas can be a significant challenge and a gamble. Jennings faced many obstacles in Italy.
"He sat on the bench most of the year," said LaQuinton Ross, one of the nation's top high school juniors. "So that's a whole year of not playing basketball besides working out. So I'd just do the one year of college."
But the players rarely have the final word in the decision. Even if he wanted to play overseas, Dwight Powell, a senior who attends IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., said his mother would never allow it.
"No way," he said. "Unless I go to Oxford."
Staff writers Steve Yanda and Michael Lee contributed to this report.