The High School to College Jump Debate… Righting the Ship

March 1, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

The NBA may be peaking in terms of popularity right now, but make no mistakes – it is an organization in very serious trouble.

The league has been hijacked by players, it is hemorrhaging money, and now the limited population of truly talented athletes in the league have all decided to migrate east, creating what is sure to be an extremely top-heavy NBA.

The league is enjoying a spike in popularity, but how long can that popularity be sustained? There are only so many superstars that are worth the media attention lavished on LeBron James and Dwayne Wade during this past off-season. Now that Carmelo Anthony has signed on with the Knicks, the only thing left for the talking heads in the sports world to talk about is, “Where will Chris Paul sign?

Things just aren’t like they used to be.

Comparisons to the “good ol’ days” often point to the fact that the league’s biggest stars from back in the day would have never teamed up to play on the same team. The notion that Magic would have taken his talents to Boston to team up with Byrd, or that Jordan would ever put on a Knicks uniform to share the same court with Ewing is just absurd. These were hyper-competitive athletes who wanted to share none of the glory.

There has clearly been a change in mentality between the stars of yesterday, and those of today. It has completely altered the climate of professional basketball.

That change has been the talent level of the B and C class talent.

Superstar talent may be comparable to the golden days, but supporting casts in the NBA are a shell of what they once were.

NBA Lite

Thanks to the miracle of NBA expansion, the league has officially reached its saturation point. The league has outgrown the boundaries that would have allowed it to remain competitive, and the limited pool of real NBA-worthy talent is not enough to stock the ocean that is the current NBA.

Talent is watered down to such a point now that the current NBA draft format (which is only two rounds to begin with) is completely irrelevant. With the exception of a small handful of lottery players, most of the draft class from each new season spends the first two to three years of their professional careers either in the D-league, or playing foreign ball. It is not until after some REAL development has taken place that a player (no matter how promising they might be) will actually get an opportunity to test their mettle in the big leagues.

Where in previous years a team might have three or four role players with genuine talent, the teams of today are lucky if they have one guy who can truly hold his own in helping to hoist the elite up.

So who can blame the athletes with REAL talent from wanting to team up?

Guys like LeBron James are no longer expected just to be great players, they are expected to act as mentors and trainers who must take on the responsibility of developing those players around them. They cannot focus solely on their game, because they have to make everyone else better.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets are the perfect example of this fact. Before their superstar saviors came to town, they were the bottom-feeders of the league. While those superstar saviors were in town, they realized elevated levels of success, but nothing truly satisfying. Now that those superstar saviors are gone, they have sunk back into the depths of irrelevance.

They enjoyed a boost in winning percentages because they had a difference-maker on the court, but that boost was short-lived because those difference-makers didn’t want to have to do everything. While they want to be the best guy on the court, they don’t want to be the ONLY guy on the court. So they have sacrificed their shot at EXCLUSIVE glory so they can at least have a shot at glory.

Fixing the problem

The good news for NBA fans is that the upcoming CBA expiration provides the perfect opportunity to fix the league’s problems. Who would have thought that inspiration for that fix would come from the same organization blamed for the overhyped condition of sports in America today – ESPN?

Last weekend, analysts Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis, following one of their broadcasts, discussed a recommendation that was so well received that Michigan State’s head coach, Tom Izzo, has decided to propose it to the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

The recommendation was that the NBA should implement an ultimatum of sorts to prospective NBA draft entrants. For those who feel they are truly ready to make the immediate leap from high school into the pros, they deserve that opportunity. The one-year waiting period will be waived, and they can follow in the footsteps of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and several others who have gone on to superstardom.

For those who are not ready, though, they will have to commit to a THREE-year (as opposed to one) stint in college.

This is actually a brilliant proposal that would boost the level of play, not only for the NBA, but also for college basketball (although the benefits for the NCAA are irrelevant to the topic at hand today).

For starters, this would actually not be an unprecedented policy. In fact, it is exactly the same policy held by the MLB. Although the NFL does not offer an immediate entry into their ranks, they still require a three-year wait.

The greatest benefit that the NBA would realize is that it would no longer have to assume the responsibility of developing athletes who are SUPPOSED to be NBA-caliber talent. As evidenced by the current state of talent in the league, it is obvious that the league stinks at developing talent anyway. Why not let players grow-up in college, at someone else’s expense, so that when they DO join the professional ranks they do so as matured athletes who are ready to hit the ground running.

This elevation in entry-level talent coming into the league would help boost the level of competition across the board. Teams would be able to populate their rosters with a better class of athlete, and the support-starved stars of the game today will feel less pressure to take on the role of team savior.

The end result is that all of the teams in the league would get better. The depth of talent from the five starters to the pine-riders and the D-leaguers would make the game more competitive, and stars of the league might be more compelled to resume the competitive nature of their predecessors, staying put and striving for individual glory, rather than a shared piece of the ultimate prize.

This proposal, which is now being championed by one of the most respected coaches in basketball today, is one that will benefit the entire game of basketball. It will make the players better, and it will make the league better.

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The Scariest Three Words in Sports Debate… You’ve Been Traded

August 9, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan and Loyal Homer.

The three scariest words in sports are undoubtedly, “You’ve been traded.”

Yes, I realize that’s more like two words and a contraction, but you get my point. The simple utterance of this phrase has the ability to make or break an entire career. A trade can mean the difference between playing for the Los Angeles Lakers or the Utah Jazz, the New England Patriots or the Detroit Lions, the New York Yankees or the Kansas City Royals.

Every season in every professional sport trades are made, many of them advantageous to the players involved. But that is not always the case. Sometimes up and coming stars are relegated to obscurity. As a lifelong Yankees fan I have watched this happen to plenty of young guys in the farm system. Obviously not every prospect is going to make it, but an untimely trade to the wrong team can be disastrous. A player’s future can be derailed because a new team uses them ineffectively or at the wrong position. Or maybe the new team simply overworks a young star so much that their body breaks down.

Obviously trades can be beneficial. But, they also have the infamous ability to marginalize burgeoning stars and established veterans alike. Nomar Garciaparra is a case study. Nomar was Boston’s answer to Derek Jeter. He was a Red Sox Nation fan favorite if there ever was one. He was a rookie sensation that blossomed into one of the fiercest hitters in the league. He was respected and liked by his teammates. But his career took a dramatic turn for the worse because of a trade.

Once the face of the Boston Red Sox, Nomar’s entire legacy was undermined by a 2004 trade to the Chicago Cubs. He was dealt at the trade deadline in one of the most pivotal seasons in Red Sox history, the year the ended the 86 year drought and finally won another World Series. It was a campaign for the Red Sox that meant so much more to Boston than just winning the most coveted prize in baseball, it was a rebirth. The team finally won, but more importantly, they vanquished the New York Yankees to get there. It must have been an indescribable feeling for the Red Sox, one Nomar Garciaparra would never fully know.

Nomar continued to play, but both his skills and his star power seemed to diminish rapidly. His power numbers fell first, followed by his batting average, health, and, ultimately, playing time. He ended his career less auspiciously than it began, playing in a limited role for the Oakland Athletics. Nomar went from one of the most recognizable faces in baseball to Mr. Mia Ham. His fall from greatness was swift and painful to watch, and it was triggered by a trade.

No one is safe, no matter how iconic they appear to be or how much the media likes them. Donovan McNabb is proof. While he had a wild ride and somewhat of a love-hate relationship with Philadelphia since he was greeted to boos in the 1999 draft, he also went on to take the Eagles to new heights. With McNabb under center Philly made eight playoff appearances – including four consecutive NFC East championships from 2001-2004, five NFC Championship appearances, and a Super Bowl appearance. You would think those kinds of results would keep him safe from criticism and second guessing, but alas, no. McNabb’s fate was a trade within the division to a much less appealing Washington Redskins team.

Although McNabb figures to use this slight as motivation to succeed, he faces immense obstacles. Thus far he has remained optimistic even comparing his relocation at age 33 to John Elway in Denver, when Elway received a new head coach – and a big change – at age 34. But, as writer Matt Mosley points out, “Elway had Terrell Davis at running back and a stable offensive line,” something McNabb doesn’t bring with him to Washington. In fact, he doesn’t even have the young receiving corps of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant that he had back in the City of Brotherly Love, meaning this trade could be the abrupt punctuation on an otherwise impressive career.

Modern sports superstars wield considerably more power in controlling a career than those of the past. Since the advent of free agency, these privileged pros have literally gotten to choose the team of their liking on a semi-regular basis. Contemporary stars may even have an entourage of agents and publicists that work to secure even more career control. These players have their own dedicated staff working around the clock trying to place their client in the most lucrative situation possible–with full no trade clause and 4th year option, of course. But even when athletes land in scenarios they deem unfavorable they can still use a variety of tactics, including everything from holdouts to a highly publicized war of words, and try to get what they want. Unfortunately for players, however, this is not the reality for all professional athletes. Some still live and die by trades.

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The 2010 NFL Rookie Impact Debate… The Raiders Got it Right, Finally

July 29, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Sports Geek.

The Oakland Raiders are notoriously bad at selecting personnel.

Draft picks like JaMarcus Russell, Derrick Gibson, and Robert Gallery (although lately he is stepping up his game), or failed free agent experiments like Randy Moss, are just a few recent “bad” acquisitions that have doomed Raider Nation to a life of obscurity since their Super Bowl appearance in 2003.

But if I am going to criticize the poor choices that Oakland has been known for I must give credit where credit is due. And when the Raiders took Alabama’s standout linebacker, Rolando McClain, with the eighth pick in the 2010 draft, I had to tip my hat.

This wasn’t just a good selection by the Raiders, it was a GREAT one. McClain will be able to provide an immediate upgrade to the Raiders’ defense.

McClain was the defensive leader of the Crimson Tide’s national championship team. In addition to helping lead his team to the BCS Championship, his performance earned him the 2009 Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, and garnered him a consensus first team All-American selection.

While at Alabama McClain demonstrated a very high commitment to his football team, and he held his teammates accountable to that same level of commitment.

Off the field he developed a reputation as a guy who was always in the film room, studying non-stop in preparation for the next game. During games he then applied that knowledge he learned from in the film room so well that Alabama head coach Nick Saban relied on McClain to call audibles and make on-field adjustments during games, directing his teammates based on what he saw from the opposing offense. Saban actually credited that contribution by McClain as being vital to the team’s success last season.

McClain was a coach on the field.

So, how will all of that collegiate success translate into success as a linebacker for the Raiders?

One of Oakland’s top priorities this off-season was to upgrade the rushing defense. Last season, the Raiders finished with one of the worst defensive performances in the league. On the ground, they allowed more than 155 yards per game, placing them at 29th out of 32 teams in rushing defense. They also allowed more touchdowns on the ground (24) than any other team in the NFL.

Rolando McClain should be the perfect antidote to that problem in 2010.

In addition to McClain’s great instincts and decision-making ability on the field, he is outstanding in defending against the run. Last season he recorded 105 tackles, 14 of which were for losses, and at 6-4, 258 pounds he should have no problem at all stopping running backs now that he has reached the next level.

The one criticism that has been raised about Rolando McClain has been his lack of speed, and many people were surprised that Oakland took McClain specifically because he appears to lack the natural athleticism that seems so prized by Al Davis’ Raiders. The Raiders are confident that McClain will be able to apply his football knowledge to compensate for that lack of natural speed, and he should still find himself in the right place at the right time.

Expectations are that McClain will start right away for the Raiders’ defense. He possesses the perfect combination of size, skill, leadership, and intelligence. He could quickly develop into a superstar that will be the anchor for the Raiders’ defense for many years to come.

I can’t believe I am writing this, but: “Nice job, Oakland. You drafted the right guy!”

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The Questioning the NBA Lottery Fairness Debate Verdict

May 28, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Loyal Homer.

One of the most overused and misappropriated words in the entire sports lexicon is “fair.”

Sure, there are times when it is appropriate. When athletes are caught using performance enhancing drugs, they have given themselves an un-FAIR advantage. Or when a baseball is hit in between the chalk lines, it is a FAIR ball to play. But when the discussion turns to what teams “deserve” or “earn” the word “fair” loses a lot of its punch.

There may be a lot of reasons why the New Jersey Nets front office can argue that they “deserve” the first overall pick, and that a lottery style draft is not “fair.” But as I read Loyal Homer’s argument, I just couldn’t buy in. So, the verdict is awarded to Babe Ruthless.

I would not subscribe to the Babe Ruthless method of corporal punishment for in-game failures, and I do not share his sympathies for the uber-talented, and soon-to-be uber-wealthy, athletes who are selected and grossly overpaid in high draft selections for nothing more than unproven potential. But his concerns about teams tanking to get a better draft pick are extremely valid (now THAT is unfair), as are his notions on the ideals of competition.

Loyal Homer talks about how the Nets “earned” the first pick in the upcoming draft, and that they should be “rewarded” with the top spot. This is one time, though, where I agree with Babe Ruthless’ assessment that losers don’t EARN anything, and do not DESERVE to be rewarded, simply for losing. I would hardly consider the fact that the Nets lost more than 85 percent of their games (for example) as deserving of reward. It may be arguing semantics, but I cannot agree with the notion that a losing team deserves anything. As Babe Ruthless points out, rewarding failure is contrary to the essence of competition.

I do recognize the value in encouraging parity and creating an environment where the teams who need the most “help” can get it. In regard to the business of sports, EVERYBODY wins when the level of competition is relatively even across the spectrum of the league. For its part, the NBA still recognizes the value in that.

The NBA lottery does not blindly spin a wheel of justice to determine at random the order in which teams will draft. There are safeguards in place to still recognize that a team with a greater perceived need has the greatest opportunity to quickly rebuild. A team which reaches the playoffs, for example, is ineligible for the lottery, and cannot pick before the first half of the first round has been completed (unless having traded to get there). Additionally, those teams at the far end of the losing spectrum are still granted the most chances at a high draft selection.

What the NBA lottery does is recognize a gradual need for rebuilding across ALL of its losers, not just the BIGGEST one. In the eyes of the NBA, a team which misses out on the playoffs by only four games is no different than the team that falls 50 games short. Both still failed to win enough games to reach the postseason, and therefore both are in need of improvement. While the need is gradually less as you climb in standings, it is nonetheless still a need, and the NBA gradually increases opportunity to correspond with that need.

The NBA model for determining draft order may not be perfect, but that does not automatically qualify it as being unfair.

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The Questioning the NBA Lottery Fairness Debate

May 27, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Loyal Homer.

The St. Louis Rams finished the 2009 NFL season with the worst record. As consolation for that performance they were guaranteed the first pick in the NFL draft. Likewise, the Washington Nationals had baseball’s worst record last season, and now the corresponding first pick in the 2010 draft.

The NBA, though, does things a little differently. This season the New Jersey Nets earned basketball’s worst record, losing 70 of 82 games. They were not, however, granted the first pick in the upcoming draft. Instead they were granted the most OPPORTUNITIES in a lottery for the first pick in the NBA draft.

The NBA draft is structured to give every team that missed out on the playoffs at least a CHANCE at the first overall selection by using a lottery format. Weighted by their standings, teams with worse records are given a proportionally greater number of lottery chances. As fate would have it, the Nets would lose out once again, as two teams were pulled in the lottery BEFORE them, leaving the third draft pick to the Nets.

Through the NBA draft lottery, more teams (that ALSO need a great deal of help) have a shot at the first selection in the draft, but that comes at the possible expense of the “worst” teams – who may not have access to the “best” players coming out of the draft.

Which brings us to our question of the day: Is it really fair to use a lottery format to decide the order of the NBA draft?

Babe Ruthless will argue that the lottery does bring fairness with it, while Loyal Homer will argue against the current format.

Now, if we can just come up with a way for ME to win the lottery…

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The Questioning the NBA Lottery Fairness Debate… Why Are Winners Punished?

May 27, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

As Babe Ruthless’ Universal Truth #1 clearly states, “A loser is a loser, is a loser!”

It is an undeniable fact that there are winners and losers in life, regardless of what your mother, guidance counselor, or therapist may have told you. Winners find ways to rise above their circumstances, while losers notoriously snatch defeat from the jaws of victory even when the odds are stacked in their favor. So why is it that the sports world, one of the last strongholds of unadulterated competition, finds it necessary to continually reward bad teams (i.e. losers) with the best player in drafts? Is it out of pity, or maybe out of a misguided sense of parity? Either way, it is wrong. Record based drafts reward weak teams for losing, punish great players for excelling, and rob sports and their fans of true competition.

You might be asking, “So, Babe Ruthless, what should we replace a records based worst-to-first draft with?” Personally I would like to see the losing team’s front office personnel punished using corporal punishment. Public paddling for team management members would be a fitting punishment considering it was their failures which allowed other franchises to spank their team all season long. Or better yet, we could water board team owners until they confessed the reasons why they hate their fans so much that they would field such an embarrassing team in the first place. Unfortunately the participation-award-loving-hippy-one-worlders who actually call the shots would probably complain that my solutions weren’t “legal” or that it qualifies as “cruel and unusual punishment.” So, I guess I will just have to settle for a lottery draft.

A lottery system allows teams to acquire players in the most fair and equitable manner possible. Providing an opportunity for most teams in the league – good or bad, rich or poor – with a shot to draft the best players is a great and fair strategy. After all, isn’t equal opportunity true parity? A system that actually rewards poor performance is in direct opposition with the ideals of competition in sports. Sports should reflect life. In life, more often than not, to the victor go the spoils. But in sports that employ a worst-to-first draft it is “to the losers go the draft picks.” This rob from the rich and give to the poor mentality (or in sports terms, rob from the successful teams and give to the losers) stinks of the wealth redistribution of communism, and I won’t stand for that type of Bolshevik! In fact, I won’t even watch Robin Hood movies because of this thinly masked socialist doctrine. That’s right Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, and Disney cartoon fox, I, and homeland security, have got an eye on you.

But I digress. Forcing a record based draft on teams in order to achieve a sense of equality accomplishes anything but the parity they desire. It allows bad teams to temporarily acquire good players, which they will no doubt lose to free agency anyway. So why reward them for poor play at the expense of the teams who could help them reach their full potential?

Non-lottery drafts often punish the best players by placing them on the worst teams. Sam Bradford ended up in St. Louis where he will no doubt struggle being the team’s only legitimate option at quarterback. (A.J. Feely does not count; just ask the Dolphins and Eagles). Instead of potentially being drafted by a team that could help Bradford develop into a star, he will receive a trial by fire with a franchise that does not have the receiving game or roster support to fully utilize his talents. That clearly does not serve Bradford’s interests, and in general does not sit well with my sense of fairness.

Unfortunately, Bradford is not alone. The struggles of other top tier picks in the NFL – such as Matt Stafford in Detroit, Darren McFadden in Oakland, JaMarcus Russell, formerly in Oakland, and Alex Smith in San Francisco – can be attributed in part to their relegation to terrible teams. Certainly the worst-to-first system did little to help them develop and reach their full potential. Draftees are typically powerless to determine where and to what circumstances they will be selected. At least with the lottery draft players might have luck on their side.

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals serves as another example. He was the best pitcher in his draft class. What did he get for all his skill and hard work? He was sentenced to a terrible team with limited roster support. Washington nearly failed to altogether when concern about whether the Nats could even sign the rookie emerged, which again proves the system has inherent flaws. Do I think Strasburg should have been awarded to the Yankees for winning the World Series? Not necessarily, but I do think that he does not deserve to be punished by playing for the Nationals, either. A lottery draft would at least give him, and other players in similar situations, a chance.

Probably the greatest flaw plaguing the worst-to-first system of drafting is the way it undermines the integrity of the game. Instead of encouraging teams and players to continue to try their best, record based drafts dangle the prize of better draft position before the eyes of teams. Anyone who has ever played in a keeper fantasy football league with a worst-to-first draft knows that there is a huge temptation for team owners to intentionally shave points and take a dive or two in order to move up a couple of picks in the draft. While that certainly falls under the unsportsmanlike behavior category, since its just fantasy football no one gets hurt. The major problem, however, is when these type of shenanigans creep into the real deal. Before Mario Williams was taken with the number one overall draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft there was speculation and criticism that the Texans may not have given it there all in some of the late season games in order to lock up that pick. If there is even a modicum of truth to these allegations, then something must be done immediately to fix the flaws in the system before the credibility of the sport is permanently marred. It already frustrates fans to see starters benched in preparation for the playoffs, but when teams start taking dives to move ahead in the draft, then there is real crisis that must be addressed. Lottery drafts eliminate this danger altogether.

Lottery drafts are the way to go, and worst-to-first drafts should go the way of the dodo.

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The Raising the NBA Minimum Age Debate… Youth in Revolt

May 20, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

According to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wants the NBA to up its minimum age requirement to 21, players like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Tracy McGrady were unprepared and too immature for professional basketball when they were drafted.

Kareem refers to his college experience as helping him to develop both physically and emotionally. That fact may have been true for him, but that does not mean it is true for the entire league. You can’t blame youth, for example as being the culprit for players demanding multi-million dollar contracts. For that, you must blame the market. I can assure you that LeBron James would be demanding the highest contract in this upcoming offseason whether he played college ball or not. Why? Because he is good enough to demand it!

Playing basketball does not require a college degree. If a player does not NEED a college education to play the game, then why require it?

There is also no guarantee that a college education will bring maturity. Latrell Sprewell played college ball from 1988-1992. How did that help HIS maturity? Ron Artest played college ball from 1997-1999. Clearly, college isn’t doing THAT much to help with developing a player emotionally!

As far as physical maturity goes, Ed O’Bannon led his UCLA Bruins on to the NCAA Championship, came out of college as a top-ten draft pick, and then was out of the league in two years. Likewise, players like Adam Morrison and Michael Olowokandi had very successful college careers and entered the NBA with a great deal of expectation, only to disappoint. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant skipped college, hit the NBA running, and is on track to be one of the greatest players of all time.

Some athletes will excel in the NBA, others will struggle. That fact is just as true for 19-year-olds as it is for 23-year-olds.

The NBA cannot dictate the terms of attitude and emotional maturity for the players that come into their league. Instead, they can only dictate the terms for whether or not a player is qualified to compete in the NBA.

Consider the shared accomplishments of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Tracy McGrady in their seasons before they were old enough for Kareem to deem them prepared:

  • SIX All-Star selections
  • ONE NBA Championship
  • ONE Rookie of the Year Award
  • ONE All-NBA First Team selection
  • TWO All-NBA Second Team selections
  • ONE All-NBA Third Team selection

If that is Kareem’s perception of being UN-prepared, then he may need to rethink his expectations of preparedness!

Kareem’s proposed vision of the NBA is one that today would still not include Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant (both of whom have already earned All-Star selections). Likewise, it would have shaved three years off of Moses Malone’s Hall of Fame career.

The fact is that NBA success has little, if nothing at all, to do with age. Players don’t go to bed on the night before their 21st birthday and suddenly wake up the next morning NBA-ready. If Michael Jordan decided to skip college and join the professional ranks out of high school, he would have been JUST as successful.

For the NBA to up its minimum age requirement to 21, a STRONG case would have to be made that younger athletes simply are not capable of competing in the professional ranks until they have developed themselves – both physically and mentally – through several years of college or international play.

Unfortunately, that case cannot be made when guys like Garnett, Bryant, and James CONTINUE to perform as the best players in basketball. They (along with many others) have already proven that success can be achieved for players YOUNGER than 21.

You can talk about the ideals of player maturity and development. You can argue about the values of the college experience and the need for something to fall back on if the NBA doesn’t work out for you. What you can’t, do is deny the fact that the BEST players in the game today skipped college and found success IMMEDIATELY in the NBA.

The choice is simple. Either allow for the possibility of a player being drafted too early or outright deny the possibility of a superstar in the making from stepping on the court – EVEN when history has proven -that 18- and 19-year-olds are fully capable of success in the NBA.

I don’t know about you, but if the only price for getting players like LeBron, Kobe, and KG into the league as soon as they are ready is that Kosta Koufos ALSO gets to come along, then bring on Koufos!

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