Myths of the Near Future

I’m currently burnt out on the NBA after fabricating trades and dealing with unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s back to the college beat for me. Specifically, I’d like to tackle this recent column by The Sporting News’s Mike Decourcy in which he reaches the “unavoidable” conclusion that that the college recruiting “class of 2008 stinks.” Decourcy states that after watching seven of the top eight players in the class in a few AAU camps, (as ranked by rivals.com and scout.com, the two biggest recruiting services) “each [player] has some sort of design flaw.” He also makes the claim that this class could end up even worse than the 2003 and 2005 classes, which are supposedly the down years of this decade. (Before I start, I want to make it clear that I usually like Decourcy’s work. If it sounds like I’m continually knocking him here, it’s only because his name is the one currently at hand. This is primarily a post about a way of thinking, not a particular writer.)

To put it lightly, I think Decourcy’s unnecessarily hating on this class, but his comments say a lot about how we tend to judge recruits and what might have to change in the future.

Let me start with AAU tournaments themselves. It seems silly to boil this topic down to a few paragraphs, but consider this more of a shot across the nose than anything else. Forgetting for a minute that Decourcy wrote this column after only watching two camps (adidas It Takes 5ive Classic and Nike’s LeBron James Skills Academy), the AAU setting itself thrives on individual talent in a freeflowing environment—how many AAU coaches run a Princeton offense?—but the college game is one of systems. Players obviously still have to be good, but saying that a class has a lack of star power (does that mean no one on the level of Oden or Durant?) shows a lack of consideration for how many college stars get created in the first place.

Additionally, the AAU game most closely resembles the NBA style of play, with isolations taking up a decent portion of the possessions. (I commend Decourcy for not turning this article into a “right way” diatribe against the lack of team play in today’s game; at least he keeps his analysis confined to the ’08 class. That argument doesn't make sense given that the '06 class proved to be so polished.) It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that an increased focus on AAU ball ran concurrently with the greater presence of high school players in the NBA Draft. If a player impressed on the AAU circuit, he became not only a great college prospect but a bona fide NBA first rounder, an option that has now closed with the institution of the age limit. I doubt that AAU play will become any less of a yardstick to measure high school talent, but it’s arguable that the quality most necessary for an NBA player (athleticism) should take on less significance now that the circuit is back to being more of a showcase for the college game. (Note: AAU ball will always primarily serve as a way for shoe companies to advertise themselves to the Stars of Tomorrow.)

The draft rule changes also point to an issue with Decourcy’s criticism of the other poor classes in this decade. In 2003, LeBron (#1 at scout.com), Ndudi Ebi (#3), Dorell Wright (#16), and James Lang (#12) all skipped college to go to the draft. Not a huge number given some of the other recent classes, but a sizeable chunk nonetheless. No one doubts that LeBron would have torn up college for as long as he’d chosen to stay; DeCourcy says as much when he asserts that the best “10 players this year combined won't have [his] kind of impact.” But imagine last year’s freshman class without Kevin Durant. Would they have seemed nearly as impressive, even with players like Greg Oden and Brandan Wright laying waste to their respective conferences? Of course not, and the ’06 class has been considered one of the best ever for quite some time now. Durant would still be thought of as a member of the class, but he’d be evaluated on a completely different set of criteria than everyone else. Mild success in the NBA is impressive, but pantheon dominance in college looks like something entirely different. Decourcy judges the ’03 class poorly based on only having two players make First or Second Team All-American in their careers, but that’s beside the point when so many guys leave early.

Trying to imagine LeBron in college is a pleasant diversion, but players like Ebi, Wright, and Lang are the ones I’m most interested in. All three have hit scores of roadblocks on their assumed paths to NBA stardom, of course, yet what would have happened if they’d attended college? Recruits rarely match their rankings right off the bat, but Ebi was rated above both Leon Powe (collegiate wrecking ball) and Charlie Villanueva (generally considered an underachiever at UConn, productive in the NBA) at his position, so he would likely have done something right. Maybe that wouldn’t have translated into becoming a lottery pick right out of college, although I have a hard time believing that he wouldn’t have made strides and ultimately been more prepared for the association. Justly or not, high school early entry candidates unfairly skew the way we look back on old classes.

The ’05 group suffers from the same problem. A sizeable portion of the Top 100 has crapped out; this is a fact. Looking at the Top 10, though, an astounding seven (Monta Ellis, Gerald Green, Andray Blatche, Louis Williams, Martell Webster, Andrew Bynum, and CJ Miles—Amir Johnson was #13) of those players went straight to the draft. Do you think that might have had some effect on the class’s performance in the NCAA? The lack of depth in the class suggests that some of those guys would have busted in college, but every one of them has shown some serious flashes in the NBA, so why couldn’t several have terrorized college, too?

If the ’03 and ’05 classes are actually better than they initially appear, then why can’t the ’08 group do the same? The players that would have bolted for the NBA will stay, which should strengthen the overall depth of the class.

The main issue here for me here, though, is how Decourcy rates these players in the first place. As I’ve said previously, he uses both the All-American teams and the vaguely defined category of “star power” (e.g. the LeBron comparison he makes to this class’s Top 10). These methods are problematic, though, in that they’re two completely different ways of rating players. As I said in my first college post on Plissken, there are two types of stars in the NCAA: the NBA-bound one, for whom the college game is a stepping stone, and the college star, for whom college is the climax before the epilogue (although sometimes long-running—let us not forget that epilogues cover many years) of the pro career.

The star power system applies exclusively to those headed to the NBA, the ones for whom college only adds to the greater narrative. The All-American system, though, can apply to both. The college star can eclipse the NBA-bound star within the college ranks; it is, after all, his home turf. Yet the college star cannot be judged solely by All-American teams, because his place is largely within the system, which may or may not maximize the statistics that catch the eyes of the A-A voters. (When you get right down to it, All-Conference teams are probably a better method of rating classes.) Decourcy makes several concessions to the unique situation of this sort of player, specifically the underrecruited and perfect-fit-at-UCLA Darren Collison, but the point is that these guys aren’t exceptions. We cannot make blanket statements about entire classes when the players within them cannot be judged on the same criteria. Collison will likely turn his success in Westwood into a first-round contract in next June’s draft, but he is a college star—NBA stardom will be a sequel, not the first climax.

NBA success is only consequential to college programs insofar as it helps them recruit. The supposed lack of star power in the '08 class will not matter so long as the players fit their programs. The NBA doesn't care when a group of players comes into college; they care when they come out. So let's stop evaluating each high school class on the criteria of a level the players won't reach for several years, if ever.

Before I go, I want to make one quick point about Decourcy’s claim that every player in the Top 10 has a “design flaw” that keeps him from being a true star. These guys are rising seniors in high school. Before Kevin Durant’s senior year of high school, scouts said he needed to “develop more nastiness” and really learn to go for the throat of his opponents. That sounds silly now. For that matter, LeBron and Dwyane still don’t have consistent jumpers. Let’s give these guys some time. I’m sure they’ll turn out fine.


Ben Q. Rock said...

The AAU is overrated, I think. There's too much stock put into how players perform in that situation, when it by-and-large has no bearing on professional success.

Wearing no. 88 is FD.

Ty Keenan said...

Definitely overrated, but the fact that it looks vaguely like the pro game causes some people to project wildly, I think.

Unfortunately, having David Stern pronounce your name as "Doodie" is not FD.