- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In general, I'm not a huge believer in the idea that injury worries should be a major factor in most players' NBA draft decisions. Sure, it's always a risk, and it's always easy to favor hindsight if a player is indeed burned by his decision to play college basketball. But injuries happen. They're possible every time a player steps onto any court under any circumstance, from October walk-throughs to the Final Four. And besides, if you're good enough, even severe injuries won't scare the NBA away. Nerlens Noel tore his ACL two months ago and might still be the No. 1 pick.
The point is, the risk of injury prior to a payday can often define draft decisions. It can occasionally allow short-term fears to override other emphases, like maturity and long-term career development, particularly for players whose families aren't suffering from desperate economic circumstances. In the end, "the risk of injury" should just be one more factor in a group of dozens, from personal to professional, from ability to timing.
Let's be clear here: That's not exactly what Shane Larkin did. When the Miami sophomore point guard announced his decision to leave for the NBA draft Sunday night, it did not elicit loud questions over what Larkin was thinking. Indeed, I think most would have to agree with the crux of his reasoning, which is that after Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, a likely top-five pick, decided to return to school, Larkin effectively became the third-highest ranked point guard on the board (behind Trey Burke and Michael Carter-Williams). Despite his lack of size at 5-foot-11, sheer positional need could push him higher in the first round -- or at the very least help seal a first-round selection -- which may not have been possible before. And with so many teammates graduating this season, Larkin's return may have only held him back. As his father, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, told the Associated Press, "It's a business decision at this point." It was time to go.
Still, the most interesting thing Shane Larkin said to reporters in Coral Gables, Fla., Sunday night did have to do with injury -- Louisville guard Kevin Ware's injury, to be exact:
When Miami lost to Marquette in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament, Larkin -- who spent the day before that game fighting through an illness -- thought he would absolutely return to school because he didn't want his college career to end on such a bad note.
He then saw the devastating leg injury that ended the season for Louisville guardKevin Ware.
"I just thought to myself, if I did come back to school and something horrific happened -- even though it's a one-in-a-million chance -- if something horrific happened to me like that, would I be able to live with myself, seeing that my dream was right here for me to take," Larkin said. "That was just one of the main things I was thinking about."
Were all of those aforementioned factors (team composition, the rest of the draft field, and so on), the impulse would be to be less than convinced by this argument. Fear-based decision-making is almost never a good idea. But really, who could argue with Larkin? Who would honestly try to talk him out of worrying that he could blow his one shot at his dream?
Which is how we get back to the everlasting argument about personal agency in college sports. Unless and until working out with a trainer for a year is as viable a strategy for high NBA draft selection as is playing in college, the NBA's draft eligibility rule will continue to force players like Noel into at least one year of unpaid pre-paycheck injury risk.
Yes, players can buy insurance. Yes, the NBA will still draft you if you're good enough, even if you have an injury in your past. But there's no way of getting around the temporary lack of agency the current NBA/NCAA setup foists upon its 18- and 19-year-old athletes. Maybe there's little reason to fear injury, but are you going to tell Larkin -- or anyone else -- otherwise?