When LeBron James was an 18-year-old NBA rookie, he averaged 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds in 39.5 minutes per game. It was by far the worst season of his career -- by the time he was an NBA "sophomore" he was well on his way to putting up legendary season splits -- but it was more than enough confirmation that the dude should never, ever have been forced to step foot on a college campus. It would have been insane and silly. Awesome, too, of course, particularly for Ohio State fans. (I mean, can you imagine that dude playing college basketball?) But mostly just silly.
So, no, James should never have played in college. I'd say his career has worked out pretty well as it is.
That said, guys who jumped straight to the pros did miss out on a few things beyond the carefree fun of a college campus. Most notably, perhaps -- and this is something Steve Kerr argued effectively this spring -- they miss out on the unique form of mentorship that comes from a truly vaunted college coach. Everyone's experiences are different, but there's no question a truly legendary college coach can command a level of respect, credibility and even fear that a lot of the nation's most talented players often (but not always) fail to experience until they get to the college level. This is not enough of an argument to justify forcing someone as talented as James to go to college for eight months, but it is a worthwhile point all the same.
Proof enough, perhaps, is this story in Tuesday's Miami Herald, in which James and his Miami Heat teammates discuss the relationship James has formed with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski since the two first competed together at the start of Coach K's USA Basketball tenure. Over the past seven years, Coach K has apparently taken on the same role Indiana coach Tom Crean fulfills for Dwyane Wade, as a type of surrogate basketball mentor:
“[Krzyzewski] understood him and Kobe [Bryant] and those other guys who didn’t go to college,” said Wade, who was with Team USA in 2006 and ’08. And if you can pick one college coach to play for, obviously, Coach K tops that list for many. They took their relationship personal; he pushed him. And [James] didn’t get that experience. You can tell they both really loved it.”
James and Krzyzewski have stayed in contact over the years, with James crediting Coach K for helping him mature into a vocal leader with Team USA. [...]
“We have a great relationship,” James said. “We’ve been together since ’05, and our relationship has grown every year. I’ve grown from a young man into a man into a leader of that team. He’s helped me develop that. I give a lot of credit to him.”
That's interesting in and of itself, I'd say. But another angle is what it does for Coach K's Duke ability to recruit.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has made his relationship with Jay-Z and William Wesley and (by proxy) LeBron James no secret, because it provides a recruiting advantage. The Olympics have inarguably provided Coach K with a similar trump card. He didn't necessarily need one; before 2005, he was already Coach K. But when you can say that you've coached the world's greatest (and wealthiest, and most famous) basketball players to two gold medals, and that you took a key role in helping the world's greatest basketball player become who he is today, you have something truly unique to offer the promising 17-year-olds of the world. That kind of endorsement resonates. Heck, it blows minds.
Oh, and on the lighter side, here's Coach K's story about the first time he met James:
“He is a massive human being. And a gifted athlete. Those guys all have tattoos like crazy,” Krzyzewski said. “In one light moment, he had his shirt off in the locker room, and I said, ‘chosen one?’ And he said ‘yep.’ And I said, ‘I think I’m going to get one of those.’ And he look at me and leaned over and says ‘No, coach, there’s only one chosen one.’”
Even if you don't care about the whole mentorship thing, or the bonus recruiting angle, you now have a mental image of Coach K with a "Chosen One" tattoo on his back. So, you know, you're welcome.