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Why the NBA Draft has become a young man’s game

NC State's Dennis Smith's massive dunk in victory at Duke

VIDEO: Watch a timelapse of NC State's Dennis Smith Jr's massive dunk after time expired in the Wolfpack's victory over the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.
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VIDEO: Watch a timelapse of NC State's Dennis Smith Jr's massive dunk after time expired in the Wolfpack's victory over the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.

And here you thought you’d grown accustomed to watching top young talents get stripped from the upper echelons of Division I men’s basketball the way a tide scours a beach. Perhaps you were numbed by the last two NBA drafts, in each of which freshmen dominated the top 10 selections, with a smattering of foreign players and even an upperclassmen or two thrown in the mix. Driving home the one-and-done theme, at least a third of the first-rounders were freshmen in both years.

But that was just a warmup – a dribble, so to speak.

In a month, when the NBA draft is held at the home of the ACC tournament, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, chances are good the first 10 college players chosen all will be freshmen. Three of those preeminent picks figure to come from the ACC – Duke’s Jayson Tatum, Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac and N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr., probably in that order. Tatum would be the seventh Blue Devils freshman since 2011 to be among the top 10 selections, despite a Duke shutout in 2013. Only Kentucky has been a more prolific talent provider over those seven years.

A number of respectable sources, including Sports Illustrated and Websites DraftExpress and NBADraft.net, predict at least half of the 2017 opening-round picks will be freshmen. That heavy representation of college newcomers would be unprecedented, driving home the point that, now more than ever, fans are well-advised to quit protesting that a youngster isn’t ready or sufficiently mature when he abandons college for the pros. What matters most are a player’s private goals and his natural gifts and rudimentary skills coveted by the NBA.

Reflecting the new order, veteran observers like Chris Ekstrand, an NBA consultant with 27 years of draft experience, expect the entire first round to be devoid of seniors. That oh-for-30 projection is echoed by several prominent mock draft sites. “This is the headline of the draft,” says Ekstrand, who scouted about 65 college games this season, approximately two-thirds involving ACC members. “The NBA draft was once about performance. Now it’s about potential, it’s no longer about performance. When it was about performance, we were drafting seniors and juniors primarily. Now, seniors and juniors are mostly in the second round, and the first round is primarily freshmen and sophomores.”

That take on the pro paradigm has become increasingly familiar, and inescapable. Consequently, other than which prospect lands where, and who trades with whom for what, the real drama on June 22 may be whether any four-year college player is taken in the draft’s opening round. “It will probably be more of an upset this year if a senior did get picked in the first round than not,” Ekstrand offers. Assuming the ESPN cliché-generating machine is in working order, the absence of senior selections likely will be dubbed a historic moment or, even better, “the end of an era.” More important, it will represent another inducement for premier players to shun staying in college to complete their eligibility.

“The voices of people who will tell players the truth oftentimes get drowned out by voices telling the players what they want to hear,” notes Ekstrand, a lament common among college coaches. “Now, more mature players seek out the voices that are telling them the truth even if it’s not what they want to hear.”

North Carolina’s Justin Jackson is expected to be among the few juniors selected in the first round in 2017, probably midway. Jackson is seen as a prime example of someone who smartly used the current arrangement of noncommital exploration in parts of April and May to assess his strengths and weaknesses (“testing the waters”), then applied those lessons for one more collegiate season to benefit his team and himself.

Hopefully college coaches are among those setting aside self interest to offer their players honest evaluations. Still, a bit of independent confirmation is useful in pointing toward improvement. That is, as long as those with pro aspirations don’t return to school and give primacy to a personal agenda, a malady that predates the one-and-done era.

A player can ignore sage advice and still do well if he’s sufficiently gifted, even at the price of never fully developing his skills. Nor must a prospect be drafted to make it in the NBA, even with a championship squad. Case in point: UNC’s James Michael McAdoo, a rarely seen member of the Golden State Warriors who earned his way via the D-League, where the top pay this season ($26,000) was nearly $10,000 less than that of a starting teacher in stingy North Carolina.

Surely the NBA can spare a few bucks for its minor leaguers now that it’s raking in the proceeds from a nine-year, $24 billion TV contract that sent pay soaring on all 30 team rosters. Salary caps that were $70 million during the 2016 season increased to $94 million in ’17 and project to jump to $101 million per team next year. Meanwhile, as North Carolina’s Dean Smith used to say, perhaps if our society had its priorities straight, teachers would be paid as handsomely as college coaches. Since taxpayers couldn’t afford that, Smith’s equation would probably bring a touch of sanity to soaring coaching salaries, anyway.

The NBA’s riches do trickle down to rookies drafted in the first round and to some in the second. During the season now grinding to an end, the bottom four 2016 draft picks made a shade under $1 million annually, while top gun Ben Simmons of LSU, who made clear he couldn’t wait to escape a mandatory one-year sentence to attend college, started at $4,919,300.

A preordained salary structure protects teams from the need to negotiate large bonuses or other uncertain fiscal situations to secure a prospect’s signature. Then players are essentially tied for as long as five years to the franchise that selects them. Accomplished high school players with satisfactory grades theoretically may attend any school they desire; NBA draftees have no choice unless they care to begin their pro career overseas.

Fair or not to individuals, the draft model in most pro sports generally allots talent to teams according to how desperately they’re in need of help. This unfortunately offers an inducement to the less scrupulous to manipulate late-season performance downward to earn a higher draft position, as Dallas owner Mark Cuban admitted recently. The stratagem didn’t work so well for the Mavericks, given the ninth pick in the NBA’s gimmicky draft lottery. Worse for competitive balance, the lottery resulted in the top pick going to Boston, the Eastern Conference leader during the regular season.

There’s no comparable leveling mechanism in the NCAA, where a Boston College or Clemson rarely lures a highly rated recruit away from a Duke or UNC. Rather, when afflicted this time of year by unpredictable roster openings caused by transfers or early NBA departures – OK, the early departees are predictable once seen in action – high-profile programs utilize their lustrous track records to swoop in and grab top prospects from little guys that courted them for years. That leaves the Eagles, Tigers and other collegiate wildlife beating the bushes to find prep players based more on potential than performance. Just like the pros.

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