Commentary

The Kyrie Irving conundrum

His decision to go pro makes perfect sense … unless you care about college hoops

Originally Published: April 9, 2011
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Kyrie Irving is going pro, and it stinks. It stinks on a thousand levels. It makes the college game substantially poorer and the NBA game only marginally richer. The pros have lots of guys like Kyrie Irving, no offense intended. He'll be another good player, perhaps someday a very good one, in a league chock full of good to very good players. He could've been a god at Duke.

And yet, he is making a justifiable, perhaps unassailable and certainly a financially prudent move. Depending upon whom you ask, it's a classic no-brainer.

And that, of course, is the part that stinks.

Several years ago, I had the most interesting and disturbing conversation with the general manager of a Western Conference power in the NBA. This GM told me what I've since heard repeated so often, it makes my eardrums bleed: The flood of callow college players to the pro ranks has deprived the NCAA of potentially transcendent talents and teams, while simultaneously making the NBA game worse.

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThere is little doubt that Kyrie Irving will find a home in the NBA. But that might not mean he's ready for the pros.

"For the most part," the GM said, "these guys are unprepared to play in the league, and we're going to spend a few years trying to get them up to speed. Not only that, but they're killing the college game by leaving it."

He paused, then straightened up in his chair. "But if that kid's talent is available in the draft and I don't take him just because I know he's not ready yet, I'll get fired in five minutes."

Right again. (I knew his team's owner a little bit.) And so here's the situation: The player isn't necessarily, or even remotely, prepared to step up to the NBA. The league knows it. Deep down, the player probably knows it. But in a draft predicated on potential rather than developed talent, that player is likely to get chosen anyway -- and once chosen, the money and the ambition speak. Despite misgivings all around, the deal gets done.

And while that might not be the case for Irving, a guard of such abundant promise that 11 college games were more than enough to convince NBA scouts they were seeing a pro player wrapped up in NCAA clothing, allow me this moment to wallow in the self-pity of a college fan. It happens way too often, the under-developed guy moving on too soon. At least give me that much.

At least give me a concession that "one and done" has proved a blight on the college game. It's one of the worst things that has ever happened to college hoops, unless you consider the college "experience" to be nothing more than a ski jump to the pros.

And if you follow the sport at all, you don't need a single fresh example to prove the point. You just know. You can see it. It cheapens the experience -- and no, it's not rampant. But everywhere it happens, it cheapens the thing. And this is a development worth resisting.

I have no attachment to (or even particular interest in) Duke, but it's still weird and disheartening to see a coach like Mike Krzyzewski bid goodbye to a player after one year. Not that Irving is the first to leave Duke early, but what was he doing in college at all? The university uses the player; the player uses the university. Some would say that's scholarship athletics in a nutshell, but on a one-year plan, where does that leave the college fan?

[+] EnlargeKyrie Irving
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIrving helped cut down the nets at the ACC tournament. That'll have to suffice for his "college experience."

Rooting for the laundry and thinking about next year's one-season wonder, is where.

At one point, explaining his decision to leave, Irving credited Duke seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler with demonstrating for him the effort that is required of the elite, adding, "When you come to an institution like Duke and play at such a high level, you're going to have to play like a professional and prepare like a professional."

Actually, Smith and Singler are symbolic of an almost bygone era in college basketball: athletes who stay to the finish, improve their overall contributions year over year, and get stronger and smarter as they go on. Along the way, they become recognizable figures for their schools, players worth rooting for. I'm not sure "play like a professional" was a part of their lexicon, but "play like a national champion" may well have been.

They're part of the institutional fabric of college sports, and no, I'm not about to wax poetic about the grandeur of ye olde game. No waving of pennants here. But the guys who stay are the guys who matter. It's not a knock on Irving, just a fact of the college experience.

Having spent years around the NBA, I would describe the NCAA's relationship with the pro league as an uneasy one, and it's still surprising to me that college and university administrators won't step up more forcefully to claim their turf. There's a rule in place that keeps college football players around until their junior year. There's a rule that keeps college baseball players around until they're 21.

Is college basketball afraid to campaign for its own heritage? Let me ask the question less reverently: Is two years of mutual commitment too much to ask?

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His coming book, "The Voodoo Wave,"from W.W. Norton, is available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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