Joakim Noah has been facing the same dilemma I faced five years ago.
If he goes to the NBA, the carefree days of college life at Florida are over. If he stays in school, he's costing himself a lot of money and a chance to be one of the top picks in this year's draft. I know the feeling.
When I was a 20-year-old sophomore at Duke, I seriously considered putting my name in the NBA draft. A lot of people were telling me I should -- they told me I could be the No. 1 pick. Michael Jordan, who held the No. 1 pick as the president of the Washington Wizards, told me later he would have picked me. That's right, a Tar Heel was going to draft a Blue Devil.
The past few weeks, Joakim probably has been hearing from a lot of people. Some of them have his best interests in mind, and some don't. He's probably hearing from his family and his coach -- and from a bunch of people who are looking to make some money off him.
He's hearing from some that he could be the No. 1 pick, and it's true -- the NBA is ready for him, whether he's ready for the NBA or not.
Fortunately, Joakim doesn't need the money. His family has enough to keep him comfortable while he stays in school.
When I talk to players in his situation, I draw on my own experiences, and think back to my decision.
At Duke, my main advisor was Coach K -- Mike Krzyzewski. I was lucky in that Coach didn't put a lot of pressure on me.
Coach said, "Son, you could be the No. 1 pick in the draft right now. But the thing that makes you special is that you have a chance to do something different, to show that you're a different kind of person."
He talked to me about Tim Duncan, who had gone to nearby Wake Forest all four years despite several opportunities to come out early.
But Coach made it clear the decision was in my hands: "Whatever decision you make, don't be scared. Whatever decision you make, go with it."
Considering what Coach had gone through just two years earlier, with Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette all leaving Duke early, the way he approached my situation showed how thoughtful he was.
I talked to my parents, and I thought about the promise I had made to my mom to graduate.
I loved being in school at Duke, even when I was getting a lot of peer pressure, with students and others around Durham telling me over and over, "I can't wait until next year. We're gonna win a national championship."
But at the same time, I was feeling a strong tug to go to the pros. Playing in the NBA was a dream of mine, and there was a lot of guaranteed money at stake. I knew I could get hurt if I stayed in college, and it could cost me a lot of money and even my entire career.
That year, my sophomore year, there were people coming out of the woodwork that I had never seen before. People talking to me, sending me Web site links and clippings showing that I had a chance to be the No. 1 pick, detailing my strengths and weaknesses, telling me all kinds of things.
In North Carolina, everybody is so nice, holding doors open, saying yes sir, no sir, and so on. But all of a sudden, everybody wanted something from me: "What you gonna do? What you gonna do?"
Ultimately, I decided to take a chance and go back to school. I realized that I already was living my dream.
Jump ahead two years, to my motorcycle accident in June 2003, right after my rookie season with the Chicago Bulls. That's when I discovered what a good decision I had made to stay in school for an additional year.
At Duke my junior year, and even after that, I was able to form a lot of connections, and that turns out to be the one of the most valuable things I got by staying in school.
When I got hurt, I automatically was able to reach out to people and find opportunities and find something to do with myself. I was able to use my degree from Duke (I had graduated after my junior year and entered the NBA) and I had so many sources of support and contacts that I don't think I would have had if I had left after my sophomore year.
I didn't know I would need those connections so soon. When you're a kid (though I'm still only 24 now), making millions of dollars, you approach life as if you're invincible. You're kind of careless. Ballplayers have to practice and play intensely, but that still leaves a lot of free time, and that empty time can get you in trouble. In my case, I ended up with even more empty time than expected, after my accident.
That's when I realized the importance of my college years.
If I were advising players now -- and I do have a lot of conversations with prospects in a variety of situations as I go around the country broadcasting games for ESPN -- I would tell them the following:
If they need to go to the NBA, they need to go. Some are ready, some are close enough, and some need the money. I understand that. College is not for everybody.
And, you know what? A lot of them make it just fine.
At the same time, I think about all the players who didn't make it, whether for physical shortcomings or other reasons. I think about the situation I'm in right now, as I try to make it back to the league.
Not everyone who has declared for the draft this year will make it. A lot of them think they're first-round picks, and that they can overcome the odds, but not all of them can. Some will wash out, some will sit on the bench, and others will do OK but not have the kind of career they expect. Some of them were big high school stars, and they think they're going to be another Kobe Bryant or another Sebastian Telfair. But for every Kobe and Telfair, there are 20 other kids.
The NBA is such an elite group to get into. I'm finding out as I try to get back just how perfectly fine-tuned you have to be, not just physically but mentally. It's a very, very difficult place to get into and thrive in.
The next level is the business world. It's cutthroat. Guys are going to do what it takes to keep you down.
It's a long way from the carefree environment of college basketball.
I know from experience that kids going to the NBA don't grasp that concept. They think, "This will be fun. I'm playing basketball." They're not approaching it like a veteran does: "I've got a wife and kids at home. I've got to come out here and put that rookie on his butt."
In my rookie year, even though I was coming in as the No. 2 pick in the draft (after Yao Ming), I found out that the NBA wasn't necessarily welcoming me with open arms. My teammates were really my competitors, fighting with me over playing time. Sometimes the guys you lived with and ate dinner with were quoted in the newspaper ripping you, and you're standing beside them in the locker room, saying to yourself, "I can't believe you're saying that about me."
Coming from college, that's not something you're used to hearing. You want to be buddy-buddy with everyone, like you were at school, but the NBA doesn't work that way. Instead, you're surrounded at least 82 games a year by guys who want to take something from you. Likewise, the media are behind you one minute and they're killing you the next, especially if their expectations are high. You have to be mature enough to understand all of that.
So for me, the decision to stay in school was the best thing I ever did, and that's what I would tell anyone who asks. You don't get a second chance at those college years. You have to take advantage of that opportunity and every single facet of it.
Even if there is an injury risk, or even if your "draft stock" might go down, my attitude is that you can't worry about those things. You have to just live life.
I understand the realities for most kids. In the end, most players jump to the NBA as soon as they can, and I understand the temptation. I just wanted to be a little different. And it sounds like Joakim Noah wants that, too.
Jay Williams, the 2002 NCAA Player of the Year, played for the Chicago Bulls and works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.