Thursday, November 5, 2009
Making history today: Latavious Williams
I was once part of an event with Dan Shanoff. It was great when they introduced us. There was Will Leitch from Deadspin. Henry Abbott from TrueHoop. And Dan Shanoff from DanShanoff.com.
You see what happens there? It's like he's twice as famous.
You probably know him as the former author of ESPN.com's Daily Quickie. You can follow his work at his website.
(And, by the way, at that reading he killed it with an account of appearing on ESPN TV, blind without his glasses, high on green room candy, and sweating profusely.)
In any event, he has been kind enough to write a post for TrueHoop about Latavious Williams.
With a lot less notice than it deserves, Latavious Williams will make history tonight.
Williams -- a 6-foot-8 small forward rated among the top high school players in the country -- will become the first player to jump from high school to the NBA's D-League.
Why is this such a big deal? Let's back up one second:
A year ago, Brandon Jennings made his own history when he became the first prep player to spend the traditional "one-and-done" year not in college, but in Europe. So far, it's worked out nicely.
Why did Jennings go to Italy? Well, he didn't qualify academically for Arizona, for starters. And Italy presented a pretty good economic proposition. And the competition was very good -- good enough that, despite his modest stats, it was a terrific preparation for the NBA.
Jennings had the right idea: Players with every intention of playing in the NBA -- and no intention of spending more than a year in college basketball -- have no business in college hoops. Their year -- or even two -- is cynical, as are the coaches who recruit them.
The reason why the top (i.e., NBA-ready-ish) preps spend that cynical year in college is not to get better -- it's because they have no other viable options.
Jennings changed that, but it still wasn't ideal: European basketball doesn't want to be the one-and-done way-station for precocious American teen players that the NBA won't let in. Jennings was talented enough, but a novelty. The Europe option simply doesn't scale.
But what if there was a domestic alternative? A U.S.-based league whose entire reason for being was to train players to succeed in the NBA?
Oh, that's right: It's called the NBA, through their D-League.
And while the NBA has made it clear that they do not want players going straight from high school into the NBA Draft -- LeBron, Kobe, KG, et al notwithstanding -- the NBA has made it clear (if not in bright lights) it is in the business of supporting, directly, the training and development of future NBA players, straight out of high school.
This is a terrific development.
It is in the best interests of the player. Instead of playing for a college coach more concerned with winning games (or maintaining his job security) than the professional development of any individual player, the player is given instruction from pro coaches whose entire job and incentive structure is to prepare and develop players for the NBA. (Here's a great piece of trivia: 1 in 5 NBA players have spent at least some time in the D-League, and the percentage is growing, not shrinking.)
And while the player won't make European millions, it is payment to play basketball -- and prepare for a year before entering the NBA Draft, presumably increasing their draft value and, ultimately, money they can make. (And, if the player is good enough, shoe money is there immediately.)
It is in the best interests of the NBA. The NBA is better off with a pipeline of the most talented prep players taught how to play and compete in the pro game (against pro players, most of whom have some pro future), rather than players with a year or two being taught how to play the college way (against college players, most of whom have no pro future).
The notion that the NBA needs college hoops to "market" the players through the NCAA Tournament is overblown; ask Bucks fans if, four games into the season, they are excited about Brandon Jennings, even though almost none of them had heard of him -- let alone seen him play -- before draft night.
Plus: With top preps going pro immediately, the TV exposure for the D-League will increase, and fans will have plenty of chances to see the best one-year wonders before they hit the NBA Draft.
It is in the best interests of college basketball. The one-and-done players might be supremely talented, but ultimately, their college careers are a short-lived -- creating an unhealthy dependency on one-year wonders who really don't care about college basketball. Instead, college coaches can focus on the players who want to play 3-4 years of college basketball -- with a pro future an end-game for some, but a "normal" career the result for most.
Don't worry: College basketball will always survive, thanks to its playoff format -- it doesn't matter WHO is playing; the bracket doesn't care about the name on the back of the jersey ... or the front, for that matter. And even if you remove the Top 50 most pro-worthy freshmen from each incoming class, there is plenty of star power that develops over time.
So let's use an example: If John Wall's No. 1 priority is a career in the NBA, he is better off spending a year in the D-League than he is spending a year at Kentucky, even if he wins a national title (which is irrelevant to Wall's goal of a successful NBA career -- just look at Kevin Durant's Tournament experience).
It simply makes more sense: If your goal is an NBA career and the NBA is willing to give you an earnest path from high school straight into the NBA (albeit the NBA's minor league), why would you spend a year (or even two) NOT doing that, instead going to college -- where the priority is on a half-dozen things that end up as obstacles to your goal of a pro career?
For decades, college basketball has been the best available route to the NBA. But that wasn't because college basketball actually IS the best route to the NBA; it was because there was a lack of any other viable (or superior) alternatives.
With the D-League, not only is there a viable alternative -- I would argue it is superior. Maybe not on Day 1, but I think that as more players realize this is a viable alternative route, more will take advantage of it. You will see that college hoops will not implode, and the NBA development pipeline -- through the D-League -- will get much much stronger, translating into better prepared young players and a healthier future overall, for the NBA, for college hoops and especially for the top tier of prep players.