It’s easy to look at the decision of top 2014 recruit Emmanuel Mudiay to bypass college basketball in favor of playing one year overseas and rattle off a sarcastic remark or two about this one player in particular or about college basketball as a whole.
It’s a bit more difficult to debate whether that decision signals a sea change in how the nation’s top high school players choose their intermediary step between high school and the NBA.
There was the predictable chatter about how he could make more money in the ostensibly unpaid American college basketball system than he could as a professional. There were the cynical comments about the role of Mudiay’s sport-centric but scandal-ridden high school, Prime Prep Academy, the Dallas charter school co-founded by Deion Sanders. There were even some unfair, unkind jabs at Mudiay’s academic performance after Yahoo! Sports and FOX Sports 1 NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski reported there were concerns about whether the NCAA would clear him to play his freshman year, either because of academic eligibility or because of a possible NCAA probe on his amateur status. (SMU said Monday Mudiay had been admitted to the school and it was not an academic issue.)
But I’m less concerned about this one young man’s personal decision than about whether this signals some sort of tipping point for elite teenage basketball players skipping the entire college experience in order to cash in.
Here’s what SMU’s head coach, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, had to say about his five-star recruit’s decision: “Emmanuel Mudiay has decided to pursue professional basketball opportunities. This is not an academic issue, since he has been admitted to SMU, but rather a hardship issue. After talking to Emmanuel, I know he really wants to alleviate some of the challenges his family faces and recognizes that he has an opportunity to help them now. While I believe that college is the best way to prepare for life and the NBA, Emmanuel’s situation is unique. We were excited about having him at SMU, but we understand this decision and wish him the best.”
And here’s a statement Mudiay’s family provided to several media outlets: “I was excited about going to SMU and playing college basketball for coach Larry Brown and his staff and preparing for the NBA, but I was tired of seeing my mom struggle. After sitting down with my coach, coach Brown, and my family, we decided that the best way for me to provide for my mom is to forgo college and pursue professional basketball opportunities. … This is in no shape or form because of the NCAA or any eligibility issues.”
Believe it? Don’t believe it? I don’t care. I don’t know whether his decision has everything to do with eligibility concerns and nothing to do with money or if this is an honorable decision of a young man who escaped a war zone in the Congo and resettled in the U.S. and actually just wants to play professional basketball to help his struggling family. I don’t think it matters much; I do know that one coach who recruited him told me the idea of his family having financial hardship is very true.
Instead, what I’m wondering is something bigger. I’m wondering which of the following Mudiay will become …
Will he become the next Brandon Jennings, who in 2008 was the first American basketball player to skip college and play professionally in Europe – but became more anomaly than trend?
Will he become the next Brandon Jennings, who in 2008 was the first American basketball player to skip college and play professionally in Europe – but became more anomaly than trend? Or will he become the next Kevin Garnett, whose 1995 jump from high school to the NBA signaled a decade-long shift in how elite high school players weighed their post-high-school options?
Or will he become the next Kevin Garnett, whose 1995 jump from high school to the NBA signaled a decade-long shift in how elite high school players weighed their post-high-school options?
Given how much Americans’ attitudes toward amateurism has shifted in the six years since Jennings skipped college, my guess is Mudiay’s decision is more tipping point than anomaly.
I don’t blame Mudiay. Whether it was the purely sympathetic reason of wanting to provide for his family or the more morally complicated reason of having bent or broken the often-arcane NCAA amateurism rules or eligibility processes, are you really going to call out this kid for trying to match what Jennings did in his one overseas year – which was earn $1.65 million from an Italian team plus a couple million more in endorsements?
It’s not like that decision jeopardized Jennings’ future. He still was selected in the NBA lottery a year later.
I’ve seen Mudiay play, and believe me, this decision won’t jeopardize his future one bit. He’s a dynamic, athletic 6-foot-5 combo guard who is exactly the type of high-ceiling player NBA teams drool over. He’ll go in next year’s lottery, likely higher than Jennings did in 2009.
The most obvious truth here is the also biggest-picture truth. The NCAA’s amateurism rules are broken and under assault, evidenced by the Ed O’Bannon case and the Northwestern football players trying to form a union. And it seems everyone – from college coaches to NBA commissioner Adam Silver – agrees the NBA’s rule that forces high school players to wait a year before declaring for the draft is broken, too.
Until both of those change, don’t be surprised when more teenagers do what Mudiay did, forgoing the Big Ten or the ACC for the Euroleague or the Chinese Basketball Association.