NBA Glory Lures Marginal Players

Michigan’s Trey Burke (3) has an NBA career ahead. AP photo

Now that the NCAA basketball tournaments are complete with men’s champion Louisville and women’s champion Connecticut, we begin that annual period where underclassmen declare for the NBA. As always, there is considerable debate about the merits of the individual aspirants and a more general discussion of the NBA’s requirement that a player wait one year after his high school career before being eligible for the draft, leading to the phenomenon known as one-and-done.

As a matter of principle, I believe that any player good enough to play in the NBA should be able to do so. I actually don’t believe that they should be forced to complete high school. If a player satisfies the legal requirements to work and avoids breaking truancy laws, he should be able to seek his livelihood. That strikes me as consistent with the American concepts of liberty and freedom.

But that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good thing. Rare is the 16- or 18-year-old who is ready to deal with the on-road lifestyle of the NBA with a wheelbarrow full of bucks. And for those who prove not to be good enough for the league, their scholastic and collegiate eligibility is shot. It is popular now to decry the encouragement of these athletes to graduate as paternalistic, but the statistics are quite clear: There is an undeniable connection between levels of academic achievement and income over a lifetime. Even in the strictly vocational sense, where one study claims that more than 60 percent of parents and students believe that the primary purpose of a college education is to get a better job and make more money, failing to earn a college degree disqualifies a person from many career avenues where that B.A. or B.S. is just an educational starting point. And nothing screams a life sentence of poorly paid labor like dropping out of high school.

So when you see players of marginal NBA quality like Louisville’s Russ Smith or Pittsburgh’s Stephen Adams leaving school to go pro, you almost can’t help but shake your head and hope they’re not making a mistake that will last throughout their lives.

Kansas freshman Ben McLemore will do well, and so will Michigan’s and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, respectively. Many others will have overestimated their talent and receive bad advice. And while it’s always possible to go back to school, most do not. When pro baseball teams sign high-schoolers, they’re always willing to include a college education after the career, because they know how it goes: Life gets in the way with family and responsibilities, and there just isn’t time for school.

There are no easy answers here, but I’d sure be more comfortable if the NBA required a submission to an advisory group for any player who has not completed college eligibility. The league has one now, but participation is voluntary.

At least then the decision made would be reasonably informed.”