The teenage superstar was all set to accept his Division I scholarship and play college ball. At the last minute, he spurned the American game and signed a pro contract in Europe. He soon became the target of NBA scouts' affection.
Brandon Jennings? Nope. Jeremy Tyler?
Try Jonas Jerebko. The son of a former Syracuse star who moved to Sweden to play professionally and ended up living there permanently, Jerebko had signed with the University of Buffalo for the 2006-07 season. Instead, he decided to turn pro and played one season in Sweden before signing with a top Italian team.
His decision didn't make waves in Europe, where talented high schoolers turn pro on a regular basis. After two productive years in Italy, his stock was at an all-time high entering this year's NBA Draft, where he was selected No. 39 by the Detroit Pistons. It's hard to imagine things working out much better if he'd chosen to play in the Mid-American Conference.
"Had he gone to Buffalo, maybe he's still an NBA player, but he took a different road," former college coach and current ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla says.
In the U.S., the preps-to-pros road appeared closed as of 2006, when the NBA instituted its age minimum requiring potential draft picks to be at least a year removed from their high school class' graduation.
Then along came Jennings, who was struggling to gain eligibility at Arizona after graduating from Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) in 2008. Frustrated with the process, he signed a contract with an Italian team and an endorsement deal with Under Armour.
In April, Tyler took it a step further. He dropped out of San Diego High (San Diego, Calif.) in the middle of his junior year and eventually signed a $140,000 contract to play for Maccabi Haifa in Israel this year. Tyler will need to spend to years overseas before entering the 2011 NBA Draft.
But while things couldn't be going better for Jennings -- the NBA's most dynamic rookie scored 55 points in a game this weekend, the most by a first-year player since 1968 -- Tyler is struggling.
According to a New York Times story by Pete Thamel, Tyler has clashed with teammates and coaches, who view him as immature and unaware of what it takes to be a successful pro player. Tyler has plenty of time to get things turned around, but he's not off to a good start.
To be fair, Jennings struggled at first in Italy. Of course, he had his mom and brother with him (Tyler lives alone) and Jennings' maturity was never an issue.
Are the moves of Jennings and Tyler the inevitable next steps in the globalization of basketball? Just as Kevin Garnett's success opened the door for more preps-to-pros in the 1990's, will Jennings' immediate impact send more players to Europe? Or will Tyler's problems be a reminder that it's not for the faint of heart?
For years the United States has been the world's basketball superpower, and the best professional players from overseas continue to flock to the NBA. At the prep level, a reverse migration is taking place in which a select few American teenagers are willing to endure culture shock and a language barrier to get paid and hone their skills without NCAA restrictions.
Jennings got the idea for a year in Europe after listening to Sonny Vaccaro on a radio show. Vaccaro has been a trendsetter in grassroots hoops for years. He changed the way the shoe game is played by signing Michael Jordan to Nike, and he later inked Kobe Bryant while at adidas. He started the ABCD Camp, which was the pre-eminent summer all-star showcase for high school talent until Vaccaro retired in 2006.
With Vaccaro acting as an advisor, Jennings signed pro and endorsement contracts worth about $1.2 million.
While Jennings' decision made headlines in the U.S., he was just another role player in the Euroleague. He had to accept coming off the bench. He had to work on his defense. He had to practice twice a day in grueling sessions unlike anything he'd experienced back home.
"Whatever's thrown at him (in the NBA) will be second nature after playing in Italy," Fraschilla says. "He wasn't babied like he would have been at some top Division I programs. His first NBA camp will be infinitely easier than his training camp in Italy."
"Brandon benefited, even though he got beat up," Vaccaro adds. "Even though he's not a name in America like Tyreke Evans or Jonny Flynn, he's going to do well."
So too will Ricky Rubio, the Spanish point guard prodigy who began his Euroleague career three days after turning 16. Two years later, he was one of Europe's best and a top-flight NBA prospect.
The thought of developing more players like Rubio has the NBA on board with this trend, according to Vaccaro.
"I've had more compliments from people in the league, high-ranking officials who can't speak publicly, who say we're doing the right thing," Vaccaro says.
"It's a case-by-case basis," says Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, whose son Austin is one of the nation's top prospects in the Class of 2011. "Some will be successful and others won't. But Brandon Jennings didn't hurt his draft stock at all."
Don't think Tyler didn't notice. His family first approached Vaccaro last year to talk about possibly playing overseas for one year after graduating from high school. But then Tyler dominated at the Nike Global Challenge in Portland, Ore., against several European teams. Foreign coaches expressed an interest in Tyler and he started thinking about skipping his senior year of high school.
A nightmarish junior season convinced Tyler it was time to go. First, three of his teammates were ruled ineligible in a recruiting scandal that led to the dismissal of his coach. With that firepower gone, the Cavers struggled to a 15-11 record as Tyler was constantly double- and triple-teamed.
Vaccaro first suggested a private school such as Oak Hill. But Tyler was ready to move on from the high school game. And given the feedback Vaccaro was getting -- he had floated the names of about a dozen high school prospects from the classes of 2009 and 2010, and Tyler was the most intriguing name to European clubs -- the Tylers were ready to make a deal.
When Tyler's plans were made public, a few questioned the wisdom of his choice.
"I guess it's the next step, but I'm just not sure it's the right step," says St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.) coach Bob Hurley, a 24-time state champ and a member of the National High School Hall of Fame.
From the perspective of a coach who has worked with several preps-to-pros players in the NBA, Rivers stresses the importance of college and would like to see kids stay in school for at least two years. But as a practical matter, he knows it's more complicated.
"I have a hard time with that because I believe people should have a right to earn a living," Rivers says. "But if you're not doing it for financial reasons, you should definitely go to college."
Whether because of an increased appreciation for the European game or alleged scandals at USC and Memphis featuring prominent one-and-done players, the reaction to Tyler's decision was mostly positive.
"Two years ago this would have been blasphemous," Vaccaro says. "But a lot of people are rooting for him because they know the system is flawed."
"When people start to moralize about college basketball, they lose me after 10 seconds," adds Fraschilla, who coached in college for 23 years.
How does this affect the next crop of high school stars? It's too soon to tell. But one thing's for sure: The trend isn't going away. As Rivers points out, Jennings spent a year getting paid without hurting his draft stock. If Tyler does the same, it's a good bet to assume more will follow.
"It will become a really big trend if those guys have success," says Austin Rivers, a rising junior at Winter Park High (Winter Park, Fla.). "If Brandon does well in The League, if Tyler gets drafted, then in the player's mind it's, 'Why not? Why would I go to college when I can get paid and do well?' It depends on pioneers like Jennings and Tyler. If they pan out, a whole bunch of others will do it."
Vaccaro says at least eight underclassmen have already contacted him about following Jennings and Tyler to Europe. It's safe to say Rivers isn't on that list.
"I like the college route," says Rivers, the No. 4 player in the Class of 2011. "Getting my education is important to me, and I've always been a big fan of college ball. But you could gain a lot by living in a different culture."
To Fraschilla, calling an elite high school player an amateur is a misnomer anyway. From shoe-company-funded AAU trips around the country to high school teams stocked with transfers, this isn't your father's prep hoops scene.
"Out of the 1,200 or so Division I players going to college every year, the top 100 are essentially pros by the time they were 14," Fraschilla says. "Agents, runners and shoe companies have had their hooks into them. Whether the kids accepted anything illegal or not is beside the point. They are more professional than a kid in Croatia making a few hundred bucks a month."
"For all the doomsday people saying kids are missing out on high school, high school sports aren't what they used to be," Vaccaro adds.
As for the college game, don't expect much to change. Just as it survived without KG, Kobe, T-Mac, LeBron and the rest of the preps-to-pros stars, it will endure this. Everyone from Hurley to Rivers to Fraschilla agrees that the NCAA should allow college coaches more time to work with their players in the summer. In Europe there are no such rules, allowing players to really improve in the offseason.
Because of those restrictions, Doc Rivers says the biggest benefits to attending school come off the court.
"I believe in college, not for the basketball, but because going helps you grow and mature as a person, which in turn helps you as a basketball player," the Celtics coach says. "As far as playing, you'll learn in the NBA because that's all you do. But in college you learn how to grow up."
Then again, the one-and-dones in the era of the NBA age minimum often have the appearance of just passing through. First-round prospects this year like Jrue Holiday, B.J. Mullens and DeMar DeRozan weren't stars in college (Mullens only started two games), yet their draft stock was roughly the same as it would have been if they'd entered The League straight out of high school.
"Special kids are special," Vaccaro says. "They don't need to go to Duke and Carolina and UCLA to become that way."
Vaccaro says his hero is Nick Bollettieri, who created the first elite tennis boarding school in the country. His protégés include Grand Slam winners and legends like Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Boris Becker, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis. Vaccaro says if he had the money, he would create a similar academy for basketball. With classes during the day and practice and weight training at night, it would be more in line with the European model.
It's an idea at least one of today's top prospects can get behind.
"I think it would be really interesting if they could put an academy together," Austin Rivers says. "You could have everyone work and grow together."
His father, meanwhile, likes the idea in theory but doesn't think it's practical.
"There are just too many players," the Celtics coach says.
Fraschilla favors something modeled after baseball, where kids can go pro out of high school, but if they enter college they must stay for three years (or until they're 21). But until that's the case, he sees nothing wrong with Tyler getting paid to play overseas -- an approach that's produced some of the game's biggest stars.
"The system is good enough for Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker," Fraschilla says. "Why can't it be good enough for a kid from San Diego or Brooklyn?"