One of the benefits of writing about college basketball pretty much every day for three years (and change) is that you get to see players develop, and careers blossom or implode, on both macro and micro levels.
One of the drawbacks is that it's easy to jump to conclusions. It was especially easy with Royce White.
Just two years ago, White became a poster child for the immaturity of collegiate freshmen. During his freshman season at Minnesota, he pled guilty to theft and disorderly conduct after he was accused of shoplifting and pushing a security guard at the Mall of America in 2009. A few weeks later, university officials extended a previous suspension when he was linked to a laptop theft case on campus. (White denied that allegation.) Then, in the coup de grace, he released an infamous YouTube "retirement" video. He made his way back to Minnesota's program team eventually, but soon after announced his withdrawal again, citing his distrust of Minnesota campus police as the reason.
The entire saga was baffling, sure, but more than anything it looked like a troubled young kid without the good sense to recognize an opportunity when he had it. Nothing less, but nothing more.
But then things began to turn around. White transferred to Iowa State; when Cyclones fans watched him play summer ball, they could barely keep from squealing. They were right. This season, White burst onto the college hoops scene, flashing a rare blend of athleticism, size and skill. All of a sudden, the strange kid with colorful tattoos and the retirement video was the leader of an emerging team. How did that happen?
In January, our own Myron Medcalf got White to detail the reasons for his erratic behavior: Since he was a kid, White admitted, he had suffered from anxiety disorder and a fear of flying, which grew so bad he cancelled a plane trip to visit Kentucky and John Calipari (and really, what prospect does that?). It was a brave revelation: White surely knew he would be facing the NBA draft questions sooner rather than later, and rather than hide his problem -- one that could give NBA teams a reason not to draft him -- he came clean and encouraged other anxiety disorder sufferers to do the same.
From that point forward, White was an easy player to root for. He was a nigh-superhuman basketball star -- one who gave the Kentucky Wildcats everything they could handle (on the offensive end, at least) in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- suffering from a very quotidian human problem. Nothing is easier to cheer on in our sports figures than endearment.
Now, White is arguably the most intriguing player in the NBA draft. He's also been the subject of two excellent recent profiles. The first came from Sports Illustrated's excellent Pablo S. Torre; the second came from Grantland's excellent Jonathan Abrams. In both, White opened up -- about music and John Lennon, about his disorder and his past, about honesty and what it means to be truly alive. In a world full of bad quotes and boring people, White is decidedly neither.
This is his story. In the matter of two years, Royce White has gone from an 18-year-old waste of talent to one of the most interesting and human figures set to join the NBA. He has come full circle, and college basketball fans have been there every step of the way.
There's something thrilling about seeing a player like White make this journey. And, as always, there's the reminder that first impressions are only that -- impressions.