As NBA Factor Complicates Recruiting, Changing Times Lessen ACC's Impact
By Rick Bonnell
Charlotte (N.C.) Observer
May 24, 2004 North Carolina coach Roy Williams never imagined this when he entered coaching a time when his toughest competition in recruiting wouldn't be Duke or Kentucky, but rather the allure of an NBA contract. "When I went to Kansas (in 1988), you could depend on having most of your players for four years," Williams said last fall. "Then it got to the point where several might leave early. Now, when you recruit a kid you think may be the missing piece to the puzzle, he doesn't even show up." Williams was speaking hypothetically then, but now it's come to pass: J.R. Smith, a 6-5 wing player from New Jersey, jumped into the draft after signing with the Tar Heels. Though he may not be a lottery pick (top 14 this year), Smith couldn't resist the lure of a three-year, guaranteed, multi-million-dollar contract. That's what every first-round signee gets under the NBA's rookie salary scale, under which the three-year totals range from about $11.2 million for the first selection to between $2-3 million for the last 10 picks of the first round. Smith, Livingston Joined Trend Smith and Duke signee Shaun Livingston are among the 13 high school players, including eight potential first-round picks, who are expected to skip college altogether this year. The prospects are part of an outstanding high school class that's often called the best since the Ralph Sampson-James Worthy-Isiah Thomas-Dominique Wilkins group in 1979. Smith was no better than a second-round pick, and pointed toward Chapel Hill, until a break-out performance in March at the EA Sports Roundball Classic in Chicago. Fifteen points and a co-MVP award later, it was clear he'd started to change course. "I'm not going to say I won't turn pro," Smith said that night in March, before posting another big-time performance in the McDonald's All-American Game. "I want to be a college player. I want to play for Coach Williams. But it would be great to play in the NBA, because that's everyone's goal out here. You only get so many chances to get there. If that's my chance, I'll take it." Translation: If they're that good, then they're good as gone. A college scholarship once was a goal for these kids, with the NBA serving as a down-the-road bonus. Now, many prospects are locked into the idea of reaching the pros as quickly as possible. Some even worry about having their flaws uncovered at the NCAA level and thus damaging their draft position and, of course, the value of their first pro contract. College often is perceived as an intermediate step, sometimes as more a bother or unnecessary risk than an education. This trend has affected nearly every aspect of college basketball. Some coaches now make preparation for an early NBA exit part of their recruiting pitch. They also tend to recruit over players at key positions once a taboo as insurance against starters leaving early. And playing time, always a touchy issue, is even more contentious now because many players equate today's minutes and exposure to tomorrow's dollars. "All these kids now figure, 'I'm not going to be there long, so I want to play right away,' whether they're good enough or not," said Jay Bilas, a former Duke player who's now a college basketball analyst for ESPN and ABC. "There's no such thing anymore as development." Unlike Smith, Livingston still hadn't signed with an agent at the end of May. That left him the option under NCAA rules to play college ball, even after being drafted. But it seems unlikely that anyone will take that route, because under NBA rules a selected player is locked into his team and draft position for money purposes, meaning he can't improve his stock by re-entering the draft after attending college. Meanwhile, Atlanta big man Dwight Howard didn't even get close to a college campus. A 6-11 power forward with Tim Duncan-like skills, Howard was the consensus top player in the senior class. UNC and hometown Georgia Tech eventually gave up recruiting him, as it was obvious he was headed to the pros, although Howard said he plans to attend Carolina as a part-time student during his NBA career. He signed with agent Aaron Goodwin in the spring, eliminating any chance that he'd end up in the college game. Though UNC's Williams likely sees it otherwise, he ended up with minimal damage at the NBA's early-entry deadline. Smith would have improved the Tar Heels' depth and athleticism, but he's similar in size and skills to swingman Rashad McCants. It would have been far more costly for Carolina had big man signee Marvin Williams chosen the NBA. He is just the sort of athletic leaper the Heels lacked last season. He'll run the floor and finish plays on the break in a way earth-bound center Sean May can't. Also, the three current Tar Heels who are NBA-viable McCants, May and point guard Raymond Felton, all rising juniors stayed in school. In each case, it was a wise decision. Felton raised more questions than he answered last season, McCants needs to improve his shooting consistency, and May must improve his conditioning and become a better defender. In the 2004 field, Felton and McCants would have been in the bottom third of the first round, and May likely would have slipped into the second round, where guaranteed contracts are rare. Of course, all three players remain on the radar of NBA scouts, so they'll face brand-new career decisions at this time next year. Questions Follow Top Prospects The highest NBA pick among prospects with ACC connections is likely be either Livingston or Duke freshman Luol Deng. That could come as early as the third overall selection, after Howard and Connecticut center Emeka Okafor are chosen in the top two spots. It's an interesting question: Would you rather have Deng's seven-foot wingspan at small forward or Livingston's true point guard skills in a 6-7 package? Deng offers size, defense, intelligence and savvy. He showed in one season at Duke that he can hit a 20-footer or drive to the basket assertively. With additional strength training, he'll have both the length and the frame to bump and grind in the lane. There are questions about Deng, most specifically about his speed and quickness afoot. Guarding forwards is one of the greatest challenges in the NBA, because the position includes such a broad range of talents and body types. One night you're chasing New Jersey's Richard Jefferson around screens along the three-point arc. The next night, you're rooting Minnesota's Kevin Garnett out of the post. Deng has the length and seemingly the toughness, but scouts say his foot movement is just fair. He tends to lope, rather than take quick, short steps, which makes it hard to adjust defensively. His long arms will help he's already impressive at closing down passing lanes but he could struggle to avoid fouls while defending NBA isolation plays. Some scouts also wonder if Deng has enough arrogance to be great. Ego is a familiar problem in the NBA, but lack of ego can be, too. Deng often deferred to older teammates in his one season at Duke, and while that's understandable for a freshman, it leaves open this question: Does he have the emotional makeup to dominate? Coming out of high school, Deng sometimes was compared to Grant Hill. But one scout said he's actually more like another ex-Blue Devil, Shane Battier. Like Battier, Deng is long and versatile but has no one dominant skill at the NBA level. Thus, he might be most effective as the third- or fourth-best player on a team full of more dynamic talents. Livingston is a different issue a legitimate point guard in a small forward's body who could be an All-Star some day. Some day is the key term, because right now the 175-pounder has nothing like an NBA body. He's super-model skinny. That's an asset if you're Heidi Klum, but if you're Livingston it could get you pummeled as a rookie. Even as a point guard, Livingston will have to fight through screens, and that's where his lack of upper-body strength will be exploited most. Suddenly, he'll be jostling with players weighing 30-60 pounds more, and that difference will be muscle, not fat. Livingston admitted in March that gaining weight is a problem for him, that food just seems to slide off his bones. He also acknowledged that he hasn't done much weight training. In an attempt to correct that, he recently began working out with Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's Chicago-based trainer. Strength isn't the only question concerning Livingston. There's little arc in his jump shot it's almost a line drive and that will become more of an issue when he stops being the tallest guy in the gym. Still, there's plenty to like. Livingston could be what Penny Hardaway promised but never delivered: a true point guard both in skill and disposition in a small forward's body. Livingston's handle and passing are exceptional. On the fastbreak during an all-star practice, he launched a behind-the-back bounce pass that hit a teammate in perfect stride for a dunk in traffic. It was a showy play but not a selfish play, because it worked with such precision. Any team drafting Livingston needs to understand that he's a point guard and nothing else. He isn't particularly effective off the ball or posting up, so the best advice is to simply accept what he is and enjoy the ride. The comparison of Smith to former UNC star Vince Carter is legitimate to a point. Smith is nearly as good a leaper as Carter was in college and a better long-range shooter. (Carter improved his shooting dramatically as a pro.) Both are awesome athletes. One of the knocks on Smith is his mid-range game. His handle is shaky; if two dribbles don't get him to the rim, he's toast. He also needs more of a pull-up jumper to exploit the space defenders will give him to guard against drives to the basket. Like most high school players, he also has a very long way to go defensively. Finally, Smith needs to demonstrate some maturity in the job interviews leading up to the draft. Fairly or not, some scouts wonder if Smith's big March left him with a big head and a too-much/too-soon sense of entitlement. He needs to correct that impression. Several Seniors Have A Chance For the first time, then, the ACC signees likely will outnumber the ACC players in the first round. Assuming Deng is the only one chosen, this could be just the second time since 1988 that the conference fails to place multiple players in the first round. Florida State wing guard Tim Pickett and Duke point guard Chris Duhon both first-team All-ACC selections, a status that once held a direct correlation to very high NBA draft status probably will be drafted, but they're longshots for the first round. Pickett is a dynamic shooter and fearless driving to the rim. He's not afraid to take a game-deciding shot and has made plenty of them, and everyone loves his defense, work ethic and enthusiasm. However, he's charitably listed at 6-4. He doesn't have the height the NBA wants in a shooting guard, and his skill set is nothing like that of a point guard. It's not impossible to make it in the NBA as an undersized shooting guard, but you either need Allen Iverson's limitless talent or David Wesley's rugged frame. Pickett doesn't meet either of those descriptions. If he keeps working hard and finds the right team, though, he could settle in as a career backup. Unlike many of the top-rated players, including Livingston and Smith, Pickett plans to attend the invitation-only pre-draft camp held June 8-11 in Chicago. There he will have a chance to impress pro scouts and general managers while playing against other quality draft-eligible prospects. Like most others, Pickett also recently began private workouts with more than a dozen NBA teams. Through it all, he's relied heavily on FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, formerly the head coach of the Washington Wizards. "Having Coach Hamilton on my side has really helped," Pickett said. "With his NBA background, he's prepared me for what to expect at the workouts and in the interview process. Shooting drills, screening, pick-and-rolls. The (FSU) coaches have spent a lot of time working with me since the end of the season, and I really appreciate that." In retrospect, Duhon might have been better off leaving when Duke teammate Jay Williams did. Back then, it was even possible that he would have squeezed into the first round as a combo guard. As a senior, Duhon was solid in every facet. His leadership, decision-making and clutch plays were crucial to the Blue Devils reaching the Final Four. However, he simply doesn't have the athletic gifts of greatness. He isn't quite explosive enough on the drive or creative enough with his passes to wow the scouts. That shouldn't be much of a surprise. As an NBA prospect, Duhon was no better than the fourth-best point guard in the ACC last season, behind Wake Forest's Chris Paul, UNC's Felton and Maryland's John Gilchrist. All three of those playmakers likely will be first-rounders down the road, and Paul and Felton could be lottery picks. "Sometimes I feel like being a senior counts as a negative against me," Duhon said. "Everyone wants the next (high school-to-NBA story), like Kevin Garnett or Tracy McGrady. It's like, if they know too much about you, they don't want you as much." The rest of the ACC's most prominent seniors, including N.C. State forward Marcus Melvin and Maryland forward Jamar Smith, may or may not hear their names called during the two-round draft on June 24. The same uncertainty applies to Virginia Tech forward Bryant Matthews and Miami forward Darius Rice, both All-Big East selections in recent years, as well as Western Kentucky center Nigel "Big Jelly" Dixon, formerly of FSU. Even if some of those accomplished four-year college players are selected, it's likely to happen in the second round. That's what the invasion of preps and foreigners has done to this process. It comes down to this: Given a choice between a 6-7 college senior and a 6-11 Slovenian teenager, NBA teams will bet on height and upside every time. Rick Bonnell writes regularly on the NBA in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. Some of this reporting originally appeared in the Observer. ACC Sports Journal editor Dave Glenn also contributed to this article.