Every April, my hoophead friends call or text with basically the same message: “He’s not ready.” Or, “If he doesn’t stay in school one more year, that kid is just flat-out stupid.” These are also the same unpaid talent evaluators, by the way, who thought Hasheem Thabeet was going to be the next Dikembe Mutombo. They also once sold me on high-flying Harold Miner. Unfortunately, “Baby Jordan” wasn’t in the league long enough to be Infant Julius.
These same virtual GMs are now positive that Alex Len made a colossal mistake by leaving Maryland for the NBA after his sophomore season. Some even think Otto Porter Jr., who also spent just two seasons at Georgetown, could use an extra year of dominating 20-year-old college kids before going pro.
I have just one retort for my basketball-genius brethren: They’re all ready, because enough NBA scouting departments have deemed them ready. And if the people with the purse strings believe you already can play or develop into a player at their level, it’s immaterial whether you become a 10-year pro or a three-and-out bust.
You have to go. Now. Or risk losing millions of dollars up front.
Both Len and Porter almost certainly will be lottery picks in the upcoming draft. Gauging by different draft Web sites, Porter could go as high as the third pick overall, and Len should be taken between the seventh and 10th picks.
All the hand-wringing, all the moral certitude, about how another year of college can benefit those two kids goes out the window with one unalterable fact: Through no fault of their own, their stock may never be higher in the league’s severely flawed system, an apprenticeship program that actually penalizes players such as Roy Hibbert and Jared Sullinger for having the wisdom to stay for another year of college.
Sullinger, a big piece of sheetrock in the post, bulled over the Big Ten as an 18-year-old. He was projected to be the No. 1 pick after his freshman season at Ohio State, ahead of Kyrie Irving. Instead, he stayed another season and was taken 21st, which became the difference between making $5.1 million his rookie year and $1.08 million. One more year of room, board and cafeteria privileges in Columbus turned out to be worth basically $4 million.
Hibbert’s story is more refreshing because he parlayed the confidence gained his senior year at Georgetown into his second NBA contract, a $55 million maximum deal. As a formerly uncoordinated 7-footer who morphed into an NBA all-star, he could be a role model for Len.
But should a still-raw 7-1 kid such as Len take that chance to buck the odds and become the next Big Roy? That’s a much bigger gamble for a player with a finite number of earning-power years than for the NBA front office executive who’s taking the chance, an official who will get another job after he’s fired.
Len isn’t a transcendent talent, but he had to leave school early simply because the NBA said he had to go.
Has Len developed the necessary back-to-the-basket skills to be a competent center in a game that barely employs any true big men anymore? No. Is he rugged enough to withstand a forearm in the throat from Metta World Peace and still come up with a loose ball? No. Can he put a couple of shots in Row D and make enough jump hooks and 10-footers to tantalize his new general manager into believing he can become the NBA’s next premier pick-and-pop guy? Definitely.
Because a relative unknown grew up to be Dirk Nowitzki and because a few great young Americans — many of whom, such as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, jumped to the league straight from high school — ruined the draft curve the past 15 to 20 years, NBA front offices became infatuated with overseas potential and child stars.
Hence, the NBA draft has become like investing in a Greek mutual fund: In both cases, you have no idea whether your Euro will be worth anything in three years.
Once a millennium, such as 2003, it all works out, and LeBron James is the one coming out of high school and Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh are the freshmen leaving early. (Even then, Darko Milicic was the No. 2 overall pick.). Much more often, you end up with classes such as 2000, when Stromile Swift, Darius Miles and Marcus Fizer left college eligibility on the table, were picked second through fourth overall . . . and were barely heard from again. In hindsight, one group was ready and one was not. But the message to both was the same: Turn pro and you will be picked high and paid well.
Is Porter going to be special? Eventually, yes. He intuitively knows the game like few young players. But the guess is the frenetic pace of the league is going to take a while for even his loping strides to catch up to. By his third year, a young man who hadn’t taken an airplane ride until he came to Georgetown for his recruiting visit could be on an all-NBA team — or, who knows, playing behind Martell Webster. Either way, it was time for him to leave.
Len looked as if he was big for nothing at Maryland a year ago and, if we’re being honest, in several ACC games this season. Now, a Ukrainian kid who speaks halting English is months away from being a millionaire after averaging fewer than 12 points and two blocks per game in college.
They didn’t set the market for themselves; they’re only taking advantage of imperfect talent evaluators, whose predecessors decided in different years to use No. 1 picks on Pervis “Out of Service” Ellison, Joe Barely Cares and Kwame Brown.
You want to blame someone for Maryland not having a shot-blocking monster in the middle in the next season? Blame Michael Jordan; blame his front office ilk. They made it possible for everyone to leave early and believe they could get Kwame money.
For more by Mike Wise, go to www.washingtonpost.com/wise.