As the upcoming NBA season quickly approaches, the basketball community is abuzz again with the much asked question: is it better for an athlete’s career to play in college for the full four years before entering the NBA draft, or is it better to enter the NBA draft, if given the chance, before graduating from college? In light of this question, high profile rookie players who left college early to turn professional in the NBA are being scrutinized and analyzed by fans and the media who wonder if staying in college longer would have helped them adjust to the pressure of playing in the pros. As a former college athlete who turned pro after my sophomore year in college (I played overseas), I would like to share my opinion as to why I believe that in most cases players should take advantage of the opportunity to turn pro even if that means leaving college early.
Once In A Lifetime Opportunity
Players who spent years training to try to make it to the professional level have dedicated a major part of their life to basketball. It is hard to imagine the amount of time and effort that goes into trying to turn their dream into a reality. Elite players with the aspiration to play professionally eat for basketball, sleep for basketball, and even study for the sake of their basketball career. When their friends are out at the movies or hanging out, they are in the gym pushing themselves to tears. The intensity, dedication, relentlessness, and work ethic that are characteristic of committed athletes are hard to come across in other fields, especially at such a young age. The chances of actually signing a professional contract is so rare that if the opportunity does actually materialize, it should be seen as a once in a life time opportunity and as the reward for countless hours given over to basketball.
I suffered a major knee injury during my second professional season, that same season would have been my senior year in college. Fortunately, I was able to rehabilitate my knee and managed to play professionally for several years after the injury. However, had the injury occurred during my junior year at college, I do not think that I would have been able to sign a professional contract immediately coming out of college being that I had suffered such a major injury that required a complicated surgery. I remember when I signed my first contract there was a clause that I had to sign that stated that I had never suffered a previous major injury. Although my career was cut short due to my knee and other subsequent injuries, I am happy to say that I was able to fulfill my lifelong dream of playing professional basketball. As for graduating college, it has taken me longer than usual to graduate, but I am happy that I will be graduating with a BA degree in communications in December. For me, even though I took a break from my studies, I was able to apply the work ethic and drive for success that I learned on the basketball court to my academic career as well, and I believe other athletes could do so to under the right circumstances.
As the world in general moves at such a quick pace, so are today’s athletes. In a recent conversation with a pediatrician, she told me that because kids are exposed to so much at such an early age, they are actually physically maturing earlier than they did years ago when the world was more slow paced. The same holds true for young basketball players today. Players today are exposed to such a high level of training at such a young age. They participate in tournaments, travel around the world, and are being ranked at such a young age that they are reaching their mental and physical prime earlier. Mentally, they deal with intense pressure that has the effect of strengthening their mental toughness. They know that every game is being filmed and every move could be posted on YouTube. In the past, players did not have to deal with this type of pressure until high school or even college. Physically, players’ off the court training has increased dramatically, especially in the area of core strength and agility. Today players are peaking in their late teens to early twenties whereas years past players peaked in their mid to late twenties. Also, one of the major arguments of people who advocate that players should stay in college is that players would learn to play within a system for four years. While players could potentially grow by being in a system for four years, most programs are not structured like that anymore. Players are peaking at an earlier age and if they are mentally and physically ready then they should be encouraged to make the jump to the next level while they are at the top of their game and have the chance to do so.
Obviously, the chance of making it to the pros is very small, yet some players actually do. Given this, coaches should simultaneously encourage their players to train as if they will indeed make the pros, and prepare the players for “real life” in case they do not. This way, the lessons learned from the years of dedicated training will not be wasted, but rather will be incorporated into whatever career path the athlete decides to pursue after basketball. It may be easy for people on the outside to say that players should simply commit to playing for the full four years in college. The same critics though should also consider how hard these athletes have worked to get to the level of even considering being able to turn pro. If these players have the chance, let them go for it before it becomes too late. Hopefully, if for any reason their professional career does not turn out well, these athletes will be able to take the perseverance and dedication they learned from years of training and use it to return to school to complete their degree at a later stage.