As preps flood draft, odds of success fall
Before LeBron, Kobe and KG, there was Schea Cotton.
Cotton was a phenom who was far and away the best eighth-grader in the country. Standing 6-foot-4, left-handed, skilled off the dribble, possessing a quality stroke from 3-point range and as athletic as any high schooler, Schea was projected as the first high schooler since Moses Malone to declare for the NBA draft.
However, after playing at two high schools, committing to UCLA and then Long Beach State, failing to qualify, going to prep school, attending Alabama for a year and then leaving for the NBA, Cotton's pro career has taken him to Europe, Venezuela, the Harlem Globetrotters and, most recently, the USBL.
He never played in the NBA.
Cotton's saga seems particularly star-crossed given today's age limit debate. If he came out today, he would be a lottery pick. Cotton, essentially, was punished for being born too early.
He's not alone. I wonder what Chris Burgess is thinking right now.
Two years after Kevin Garnett made waves by being picked fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves (and a year after Kobe Bryant was picked 13th overall by Charlotte before being dealt to the Lakers), Burgess was, by some accounts, the best high school player in the country.
Ultimately, he signed at Duke, along with two other very well-regarded big men Elton Brand and Shane Battier. While those two flourished, Burgess regressed offensively, eventually transferring to Utah to finish what was a decent but disappointing five years in college.
If he were leaving high school today, he never would have headed to Durham.
Tales such as these are far more plentiful than the Kobe/KG/LeBron success stories. Remember Charles Hathaway (at Tennessee)? Winfred Walton (Syracuse)? Marcus Griffin (Illinois)? Exactly. All were elite high schoolers who fizzled in college.
Even better-known "name" players like Casey Sanders (Duke), Taliek Brown (UConn) and Mustafa Shakur (Arizona) have failed to live up to high school billing that almost certainly would have gotten them first-round status in today's draft.
Have you looked at the number of high school kids declaring for the NBA? It's a complete joke. A year ago, there weren't any discussions about prep players declaring this year, yet 12 high schoolers have submitted their names.
It shouldn't be enough to be "the best high schooler." Gerald Green will be the first prep drafted and is virtually a lock to be a lottery pick, but if you compare him with last year's entrants, he simply does not measure up to J. R. Smith, Josh Smith or even Dorrell Wright.
While Green is incredibly athletic and has great range on his jump shot, he has very little "game." Compare him with Rashad McCants, whose body says NBA, who is a prolific shooter and whom Roy Williams called the best one-on-one player he has ever coached. Or to Texas A&M's Antoine Wright, who also has ridiculous "upside" with great leaping, scoring and long-range shooting ability.
Yet Green undoubtedly will go ahead of both of these two guards. Why?
The facts show you should almost never draft a high schooler. First, the failure rate is significantly higher than that of bona fide college stars. Second, and probably as important, many of the high schoolers who ultimately become stars, do so after a significant adjustment period.
Tracy McGrady? It took until his third season for him to really blossom ... and then he forced his way to Orlando. So what did the Raptors get for drafting and cultivating him?
Jermaine O'Neal? Slogged through four disappointing, frustrating seasons in Portland before landing in Indiana and becoming a franchise-type player.
Look at the Bulls' situation. They traded Brand to the Clippers, received a lottery pick in return and selected Eddie Curry and Tyson Chandler in the same draft four years ago. Was it worth it? Does one playoff appearance (and first-round exit) mean Chicago should now re-up both of those guys for tens of millions? Very questionable, which means one (or maybe both) will end up somewhere else. Again, the team that developed the talent loses.
There is no perfect science to the NBA draft, but the players and the NCAA need to do something profound such as work in concert with each other and make sure almost all high school players go through some part of a college program.
After all, how very watchable was the NCAA Tournament this year? Are we not blind to the fact that so many college players returning for an extra year (and developing as players) was a huge reason why?
It's not hard to see, but if the NBA still doesn't get it, maybe guys like Burgess can use the skills they learned in school to explain the shame of being born five years too late.
Doug Gottlieb is an analyst for ESPN and co-host of GameNight on ESPN Radio.
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