For many NCAA student-athletes, the overarching goal of playing collegiate sports is to turn pro. The better ones are given scholarships to play for universities, which provide a platform and spotlight for athletes to showcase their skills. But here is where the end games contrast: Schools want their student-athletes to stay all four years, to commit to an institution that committed to them.
Athletes, however, understandably have an urge to head to the draft. They want to chase money and fame while escaping the hindrance of going to classes. Plus, a freak injury could cut their career short — a career ending as an amateur without making a single penny.
USC, like other major athletics programs, has seen its fair share of student-athletes forgo their college eligibility before graduating. Next season, the football team will lose two of their best players in Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, both juniors who declared for this year’s NFL draft.
In the past few weeks, however, the men’s basketball team has seen a couple of its players declare for the draft prematurely. Last week, redshirt sophomore guard Shaqquan Aaron decided to turn pro — although he didn’t hire an agent, which would allow him to remain with the team if he chooses. Sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright did the same on Wednesday, and fellow sophomore forward Chimezie Metu is expected to follow suit.
The two forwards make up the Trojans’ starting frontcourt, and losing them — along with a quality bench player in Aaron — would be a big blow for a basketball program on the rise. And for them, deciding to turn pro early might hurt these athletes in the long run.
It’s understandable, of course, for each of these players to pursue a career in the NBA. That’s the goal for any Division I college basketball player, and the hard work that they put in throughout the season helps to build a portfolio for future success in the league. But both the players and the team would fare better in the end with a few more years spent together.
Take Boatwright, for example. His explosive 24-point performance fueled the Trojans’ comeback against Providence in the first round of the tourney, and his impact on this year’s team was undeniable. But Boatwright spent half of his sophomore year riding the bench and nursing a knee injury, which limits his experience on the court. Subsequently, Boatwright isn’t even in the picture in experts’ mock drafts — CBS Sports doesn’t have him in its top 75 and DraftExpress left him out of their top 100 prospects.
The same goes for Aaron, who came off the bench last season to average just 7.6 points per game and not score a single point in three NCAA Tournament games. There’s very little chance he draws much interest from NBA teams. The only USC player who could be selected — if he declares for the draft — is Metu, who both CBS Sports and DraftExpress put at No. 39.
The simple fact is that only 60 players are drafted into the NBA each year. The percentage of men’s college basketball players who turn pro sits at an astoundingly low 1.1 percent. For every kid thinking he has a shot at making the NBA, unless he’s UCLA basketball phenomenon Lonzo Ball, there’s likely another kid across town with a skillset equal to or greater than his.
For student-athletes, staying in school all four years benefits both them and their team. At age 18, 19 or even 20, players who aren’t projected to be top draft picks are raw, with plenty of potenial but lacking in experience — experience that playing for our years in college can provide. And graduating with a degree is never a bad idea, as it provides a backup plan if sports falls through.
For the team, having players commit to the full four years of their careers provides continuity and experience to the program. Few successful programs — save perhaps Kentucky — can survive the “one-and-done” scenario of freshman leaving for the draft after just one year in school.
USC can’t keep players from leaving, but it would be in all parties’ best interest if everyone stayed to propel a program on the up-and-up. The pre-season rankings released this week might be way too early, but they do reflect the impact that the Trojans’ run in the NCAA tourney made throughout the nation this year. It’s a big deal for any Pac-12 team to be predicted in a slot for the top 15, and it’s an especially big deal for a team that struggled to consistently qualify for the Big Dance.
Now, as the Trojans are gaining noteriety for their basketball prowess, two of their best players and a third pivotal bench contributor might jump ship, robbing head coach Andy Enfield of three upperclassmen who could provide invaluable experience to what is still a young team. And likewise, Aaron, Boatwright and Metu will benefit from another year or two of development, in which they might land higher on mock drafts in 2018 or 2019.
It’s a win-win scenario, one that players on the current roster can talk about with former basketball players Nikola Jovanovic and Julian Jacobs, who both declared for the draft last season after their junior years. Neither was projected to be selected, yet they both went for it. As of today, they’re both in the D-League — the NBA Development League — and neither has made it to their NBA dreams.