Friday, November 7, 2008
Updated: May 19, 9:29 AM ET
By Luke Cyphers, with Elena Bergeron
ESPN The Magazine
If you're interested in seeing a video diary of Blake Griffin's life, please click here.
They're tall, tall enough to see into the future. They peeked over their ivy-covered walls and made their decisions. Not now, they said. Not yet.
They're MVPs, PTPers, game-changers and workhorses—some of the biggest names in last season's college game. But they stayed put, forgoing paychecks for notebooks, to chase one more year of Madness. There's a counter for every trend in college basketball, so of course one-and-done has attracted its opposite. Call it hang time. Or delay the pay.
North Carolina's 6'9" Tyler Hansbrough, the 2007-08 National Player of the Year, has not once, not twice but three times ignored the siren calls and returned to Chapel Hill. Luke Harangody, Notre Dame's bullish 6'8" junior, helped pull the Irish back to national prominence, then chose to stick around for an encore. Oklahoma's 6'10" soph Blake Griffin passed up a possible lottery ticket, saying he wanted "to spend more time with this family." And he meant it; he'll take on the Big 12 this season with brother Taylor. Meanwhile, UConn's 7'3" junior Hasheem Thabeet decided he'd rather refine his offense in Storrs and resume rubbing elbows with the Tanzanian President at the U.N. than trade elbows in the NBA.
But while an extra year in school may expand the mind, it's good business, too. Precocious bigs like Kevin Garnett or Greg Oden or Dwight Howard are rare—and they will always head to the pros as soon as they can. For all the other giants, extra years of college make a difference. "There's no question the curve on most big kids often doesn't reach its apex until 28 or 30," says UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "They've got to grow the game into their body. They have to have patience." "I STUDY PLAYERS FROM BACK IN THE DAY—HAKEEM OLAJUWON, KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR," THABEET SAYS. "REAL BIGS CANNOT JUST OVERPOWER PEOPLE. I WANT TO HAVE SKILLS."
Sure, many of them would have loved to turn pro ASAP, but they're savvy enough to know the NBA prizes "length" rather than traditional notions of size; agility and potential rather than stability and skill. Teams will jump on the nifty 6'10" guy with long arms, a jumper with upside, over a proven college star with a great stat line every time. This season's crop of returning big men are trying to level the playing field by expanding their game even as they fight the tide of history. "Personally, I think the big guys, the centers and power forwards, are going the way of the buffalo," says Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., who coached Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.
For two decades now, the sexiest endorsement deals and highlight reels have featured high flyers who slash to the basket and shoot from outside, not power guys and plodders who toil down low. No wonder big kids today play so much more like KG than Tim Duncan. "A lot of guys today basically learn by watching highlights," says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time scoring leader.
Giants like Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor in his UCLA days) and Ewing once anchored dynasties, but since 1993 only two NCAA titlists, Emeka Okafor's 2004 UConn team and Sean May's 2005 UNC team, had a classic back-to-the-basket pivot who became a high draft choice. In last season's title game, no one in either Kansas' or Memphis' starting lineup dared put a "C" next to his name.
But don't think that size doesn't matter. Shaq, Duncan and Oden may never have cut down a net in April, but they are or soon will be among the top earners in the NBA, and most years, center is the highest-paid position in the league. Even guys like Brad Miller do pretty well for themselves.
No surprise, then, that some bigs are starting to see the value of a more formal hoops education. And, of course, college coaches are happy to oblige. "Every team is still looking for a shotblocker in the post," says Memphis coach John Calipari. "And on offense, if you have that post presence, you force the other team into thinking about how to guard him. It causes problems."
Few players will cause as many problems as Thabeet, but that wasn't always the case. He was a better soccer player than pivotman in Tanzania just four years ago. Maybe that explains why he takes such a long view of his career. "I study players from back in the day—Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," Thabeet says. "Real bigs cannot just overpower people. I want to have skills." Calhoun says the Huskies' big dog could be contributing to an NBA team right now, blocking shots and rebounding. But he probably wouldn't score much. Another year of college, with a focus on decisive post moves and shooting, will hone Thabeet into a fully developed pro center.
Hybrid big men like Griffin, Hansbrough and Harangody do a lot for themselves by staying too. Al Horford, who played both power forward and center at Florida, parlayed an extra year of school into a second national championship, a No. 3 draft spot and a near Rookie of the Year run for the Hawks. "The one-on-one practicing I did with the coaches my last year in college developed my pick-and-roll moves and midrange game," he says. "That really helped me in the pros."
Look for Griffin—whose shotblocking potential and strength make him an excellent defensive prospect already—to follow Horford's example and exhibit more offensive versatility this season. Over the summer, he hit Amaré Stoudemire's Skills Camp and worked in some new wrinkles. "I like facing up a lot more," Griffin says. "Facing up and shooting, driving, spinning. I've worked on it. It makes me hard to double-team because I can see the whole floor, then kick it to another guy or do whatever."
The Jazz' Carlos Boozer and the Heat's Udonis Haslem, both undersized for their NBA positions, also used extra time in school to tack on skills that made for extended and lucrative pro careers in an era of increased competition from do-it-all foreign players. That's the model for Hansbrough and Harangody. Both have to demonstrate they can defend taller foes, even on the perimeter. "If you can't guard your position in the NBA," Calipari says, "you're not going to play." And both have to be able to take bigger players out of the lane on offense, hitting jumpers and putting the ball on the floor. Like they don't already know that. "The players coming over from Europe, they can do everything, even the bigs," Harangody says. "I've been in the gym working on my outside game. I'm trying to expand my skills to be more of that complete player."
The rugged Hansbrough is expanding his range too, and his basketball vocabulary; it now includes the "F" word. "I'm trying to have a little more finesse," he says, "instead of just banging." Psycho Tea? One of this season's joys will be watching these old bigs try new tricks—on each other. If Hansbrough is healthy, he and Harangody could meet early, in the Maui Invitational, while Thabeet and Harangody will resume their Big East battles. Griffin hopes to face one or more of his fellow big fellas during final exams—the NCAA Tournament.
Tall story short, fans this year have a rare chance to see honors students of the inside game strive for both a championship and some extra cred with the NBA. Let the league wait. The best classroom is once again under the college boards.