It has become unseemly and self-indulgent to tell young athletes they should stay in school. Today the money is so large, the NCAA so broken, the celebration of independence so loud, questioning a player’s decision is derided. But watching last night’s NBA Draft reminded me how shaky much of their “guidance” turns out to be. Timing is everything in life, yet it seems like the only timing anyone respects is fast-forward.
Take Skal Labissiere, Kentucky’s slender seven-footer from Haiti. His story is an amazing tale, narrowly surviving an earthquake in Haiti that rocked his town and his family, moving to the US at the age of 14. He has the size and body style American coaches drool over. But his freshman season with the Wildcats was uneven at best. He had a high water mark early against NJIT, tallying 16 points and 5 rebounds. As the competition got better, Skal became less effective. He ended up averaging just 6.6 points and 3 rebounds per game, often looking hurried, confused and uncomfortable around the basket.
Like most Wildcats he left after just one year of college hoops hoping to be a lottery pick. Instead he slid all the way to 28th, chosen by the mediocre Kings. Skal may simply need the money now to support a family that just six years ago dealt with unthinkable hardship. According to Forbes, over the next two years Labissiere will earn about $2.4 M, with a maximum earning potential of $6 M if the team picks up his third and fourth years. But taxes will take a chunk out of that, along with agent fees. When the dust clears on Skal’s next two seasons he may bring in less than $500K per year. That salary is nothing to scoff at, many Americans would love to make half a mill. But for an NBA player trying to support multiple family members it’s not Scrooge McDuck’s money pit either.
It was impossible to watch Labissiere this season and not come away with the impression he had so much to gain by returning to college for at least one more season. He could work on his fundamentals, footwork, and post moves against talent his age, not full-grown adults far older than him, who have far more years of advanced American coaching and weight training. At UK he would have the benefit of familiarity of coaches, facilities, competition, and teammates. But now Skal will be forced to adapt on the fly inside a head-scratching organization which has rolled through head coaches like J.Lo does husbands, and has been rudderless for more than a decade.
Labissiere’s teammate Tyler Ulis and Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead met the same fate last night. Two more players who had visions of first-round contracts in their heads, but are now not guaranteed anything. Both had dynamic moments last season, left college after their sophomore seasons, and could’ve benefited from more experience. Ulis fell to the Suns at #34, Whitehead to the Nets at #42. There are potential bright sides to both situations. The Suns have allowed young point guards control of an up-tempo offense, and Whitehead gets a chance to play in front of his family and friends in his hometown of Brooklyn. But most second round picks do not receive guaranteed contracts, meaning they may not even make the team to open their careers. They are expendable, and may be stashed in the D-League, which comes with a $25,000 salary for the season. You read that right. Ulis and Whitehead could end up making less than a fast food employee in 2017.
There is an understandable push not to question these players’ motives for leaving. No one tells a budding tech entrepreneur he can’t leave Stanford before he gets a degree. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg are celebrated for chasing their dreams before getting a diploma. For most of these players, it’s an opportunity to jump into your industry of choice without having to pretend your interested in algebra or chemistry. But it’s also about making savvy employment choices, and if that young app developer joins a start-up that fails in its first year instead of staying at Stanford until a more stable situation popped up he made a poor decision too.
Tyler Ennis rode a magical freshman season at Syracuse into the draft two years ago and was selected 18th by the Suns. Orange fans knew there was plenty of room for Ennis to grow and SU caught lightning in a bottle with some miracle finishes putting him on the national radar. He only played in 8 games with Phoenix, was demoted to the D-League, and then sent to Milwaukee where he has averaged about 14 minutes per game. He has worked hard to find more playing time earning the respect of his coaches, and signed a three-year deal worth about $5 M. But his employment status has been shaky and he’s been merely a role player on a non-playoff team.
Compare that to Kris Dunn, a year older than Ennis. The Providence guard had flashes just like Ennis did in college, and some implored him to come out and test the draft waters. He decided to stay, telling his coach Ed Cooley his goal was not his first professional contract, but the second. Dunn wanted to perfect his game at college to enhance his draft stock and prepare himself to be a better player down the road where the real money is made.
“Kris wants to come back to graduate,” Cooley told me. “Kris, to his credit, said, ‘I don’t just want to be a draft pick. I want to be an NBA player. I got a long way to go to do that. I got to continue to work on my skill set, work on my strength, work on shooting, work on ball-handling.’ So give him credit for knowing that he wasn’t ready (despite) what all the other people are saying.”
The long-term thinking worked beautifully for Dunn. He was selected by the Wolves at #5 last night, meaning he’ll earn more than $7 M for his first two seasons, and more than $17 M for the entire four year contract. This is called investment strategy. Yes, some execs favor grabbing younger players. But Dunn set himself up to make three times what Ennis will, and Dunn projects to be a fantastic guard in this league for a long time. Ennis will have to keep fighting for a roster spot.
Telling other people what they should do with their money has always been considered distasteful, and with a modern undercurrent of encouraging people to follow their hearts instead of falling into traditional patterns we are not supposed to question these players’ decisions. They are not getting paid by an NCAA cartel that rakes in billions of dollars off the backs, so why not allow them to jump to their financial freedom as soon as they can? That’s fine, but we should realize it’s not an either/or proposition. It’s investment strategy. Let the market place work for you, make sure you allow your skill set to be properly recognized and cultivated. Because jumping at the early money can often mean leaving much more of it on the table late. Resist the fast-forward and embrace just pressing play.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.