Columns, Sports

Shaw ’13: Four-year players face extinction

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Sports Columnist

Taking basketball from a childhood passion to AAU stardom to D-I dreams to a career is a journey very few ever complete. Almost everything has to go right — you essentially need to take the best qualities from Jude Law and Ethan Hawke’s characters in “Gattaca” — perfect genetics and unrelenting drive. But just as important as individual ability is the college program that will showcase your talents for NBA scouts. Unfortunately, I grew up about a foot too short to have a chance to make that decision, although I guarantee I outpaced every current NBA hopeful in hours spent practicing piano as a kid. As March Madness approaches, it’s interesting to look at the major college programs that will be featured, as well as the likely draft picks that populate them.

Recently, a friend described Duke University’s Mason Plumlee as “a true Dukie.” It’s easy to take that to mean unrelentingly obnoxious, but the idea of a true four-year college player is intriguing in today’s one-and-done world, especially when the player is as talented as Plumlee. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find competitive teams rolling out with the same core starters for two- to three-year runs without changing the word competitive to borderline Division III.

There’s a reason the phrase “basketball factory” is quickly overtaking “major college program” as the preferred descriptor of traditional powerhouses including Duke and Kentucky (RIP Nerlens Noel’s ACL. More on this later).

While it’s rare enough to find a player who could have entered last year’s draft lottery and decided to stay another year, it’s rarer still that he has a backcourt counterpart in Seth “Chucks 3’s like Steph” Curry. I’m far from what anyone would call a Duke fan, but this team is poised to make a deep run in this year’s tournament. Mason Plumlee is a beast on both sides of the ball, and, more importantly, the team is balanced. Most contending teams have good enough defenses to take away their opponent’s first and second options, but every Duke starter is capable of carrying the offensive load and making their shots.

What happens to Plumlee after this year when he joins the league is anyone’s guess, but Duke fans should consider themselves lucky to have witnessed an American Dirk Nowitzki in action for four years. Sidenote — some sites are comparing Plumlee to Shelden Williams and Yi Jianlian, so it’s equally likely he will become an utterly forgettable player for a bunch of teams and possibly an Asian guy who hates Wisconsin.

Before his ACL tear Tuesday night, Noel was projected to have an even greater impact on the NBA hardcourt than Plumlee. Hailing from what may be the premier basketball factory that is Kentucky, Noel singlehandedly dragged an underachieving Wildcat squad into the conversation as Anthony Davis 2.0 (now with two brows and arguably the best haircut in college basketball).

An injury of this nature is terrible and we should all wish him the best, but it helps highlight the risks of modern college basketball. There’s no doubt Noel’s injury will weaken his draft stock and might even force him to play another year at Kentucky to ward off injury concerns, but either option will definitely decrease his future earning potential. While I don’t think Noel had previous knee issues, there’s no question that college players will hide injuries in order to present a more favorable outlook for their professional success.

It’s a catch-22 — you’re expected to play through injuries to avoid being labeled “soft,” but doing so can cascade into more serious injuries down the road. There’s no easy solution for this problem, but it certainly deserves more consideration.

Jared Sullinger is a recent example of this issue at the next level. After forgoing potential lottery status in 2011, he returned to Ohio State to play out a spectacular season, but with the wrinkle that teams discovered he had a bad back which dropped his draft position from surefire lottery pick to Boston at pick 21. We all laughed off our worries through his strong rookie season until he recently underwent season-ending lumbar spine surgery.

What’s more concerning is that this was a one-time fix-all solution that he knew he would eventually need way back in 2011 but he chose to play through the injury for almost two years. I’m not saying he made the wrong choice. In fact, faced with the same decision, I think most people would choose to play through some back pain and make millions rather than fading into obscurity for a year and hoping for recovery.

So with Noel out as the consensus number one pick, who will have the honor of tanking games for the Charlotte Hornets next year? Enter Kansas freshman Ben “McSwaggy/Tiny Dancer/Thrift Shop” McLemore. So what if the Jayhawks happen to lose all talented players to the Monstars whenever the team travels beyond the Oklahoma border? The Kansas State Wildcats (the only name that might rival the popularity of the Wildcats is the Bears — Ra Ra Brunonia!) played as well as a no-show Dartmouth squash team during last Tuesday’s McSwaggy-led curbstomping. The Jayhawks controlled the game wire-to-wire on Swag’s 20th birthday, which was highlighted by a last minute three-pointer to bring McLemore’s point total to 30 on the night.

Cherish the moment, Kansas fans, because if you’ve been reading, playing another year for free is a terrible decision. Kansas isn’t traditionally a one-and-done program with all of its recent marquee NBA picks (Mario Chalmers, the Morris twins, Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor) all having played at least three years at Kansas, and fellow NBA-bound Jayhawk Jeff Withey will hope to continue that pattern. The big man is an absolute blocking machine on the defensive end and somehow uses his wiry frame to finish on offense, too. Paired with McLemore roaming the perimeter, at least one of the duo commands a double team, creating all sorts of scoring opportunities. Throw in solid contributions from the other veterans and you’ll see why this team always has a target on its back.

Though I’ll do what I do every year and pencil them in for a championship, Kansas is going to need its role-players to have breakthrough games in the tournament if they hope to reach Atlanta in April. Unlike Duke, most of the scoring load falls on the three-headed monster of McSwaggy, Withey and Travis Releford. Throw in one lockdown perimeter defender like Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Kansas is going to struggle, but a wise woman recently told me, “There’s a fine line between faith and denial. It’s much better on my side.” Welcome to the Phog.

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