Transfers can tip chemistry either way

Originally Published: December 17, 2003
By Jay Bilas | Special to ESPN.com

I don't have any problem at all with a player who transfers from one school to another. Actually, I often think transfers get a bad rap simply because they chose to cut the cord on their initial choice of school.

But, transferring from one school to another should not be undertaken lightly. I just believe that if a situation isn't working out to the mutual satisfaction of the player and the school, the player should be able to leave and pursue his education and career elsewhere; with the only "penalty" being the player must sit out a year for reasons of competitive balance.

Similarly, the school should be able to jettison a disruptive player without fear of the 5/8 scholarship rule, and not be taken to task for its decision. There are many valid reasons to transfer from one school to another. Whether it is playing time, a players' role on the team, personality differences with the coach (irrespective of who is "at fault"), a coach being fired, homesickness, or wanting to play at a higher level, a kid's freedom of movement should not be unduly restricted.

The truth is, the game is changing and transfers represent another quality talent pool. With players leaving early, ready or not, and the pool of foreign players drying up (the foreign players most coveted are essentially prohibited from playing because of connections they have with club teams and professionals), coaches may need another pool of quality players to consider.

Will Bynum played his first game for Georgia Tech this past weekend, while James White (Cincinnati) and Jason Conley (Missouri) join top 25 teams this weekend. Wesley Stokes (San Diego State), Brendan Plavich (Charlotte), Odartey Blankson (UNLV), Erroll Knight (Gonzaga) and other transfers this season have used the past month to find out their new roles with new teams.

Robert Jackson
Robert Jackson left Mississippi State to help Marquette reach the Final Four.
And, as history has shown, many transfers work out really well -- on both sides of the equation.

Ryan Humphrey and Danny Miller were great additions to Notre Dame after transferring from Oklahoma and Maryland, respectively. Byron Mouton was really good for Maryland, after transferring in from Tulane. Dahntay Jones was terrific for Duke, after leaving Rutgers. Heshimu Evans won a title at Kentucky after leaving Manhattan. Robert Jackson was vital to Marquette's run to the Final Four after transferring in from Mississippi State.

It can work, and work well, if the player throws himself into the team, and doesn't worry about himself first. One great thing about taking in a transfer for the team is that player has to make his new situation work, because it is the last chance he has at the Division I level.

On the flip side, however, there are countless examples of transfers who become poor fits, distractions, and negative impacts on team chemistry. Expectations are usually high for transfers, with observers seeing only the positive impact a kid can have, but there is significant downside risk.

Clearly, the decision a player makes when it comes to where he will attend college, and for whom he will play, is an important one. Equally important, if not more so, is the school to which he may choose to transfer. However, the most important decision in the process is the decision of whether a coach takes in the transfer to his team. Sometimes the best transfer is the one a coach decide not to take. Transfers can be seductive to college coaches, and the positive possibilities seem to be endless, but there are also negative possibilities that seem to be endless as well.

For a team that needs immediate help and quality bodies who can play, a transfer may be a risk well worth taking. For a team that is truly competitive and an established program, greater care needs to be taken.

It is now en vogue to transfer at the semester of a year in which things are not working out, giving a player "an extra half season" if he pulls the plug early in the season. These midseason transfers can further complicates things at their new schools because a coach must integrate that player into a team that has already been developing without him. It can be tough to integrate a player coming back from injury, let alone the new blood of a transfer.

With rare exception, a player that transfers brings baggage with him. He couldn't make it work at another place, for another coach, and is looking for a new start. If a coach is considering taking a player who has had a problem someplace else, he had better be prepared to finesse those situations, and be equipped to deal with a transfer's psychological baggage.

In many cases, the transfer looks first to the places that recruited him the hardest initially out of high school, and those he feels will value his skills. In other cases, the transfer shops the best fit to fill his needs, whether it is playing time, position, shots, or level of play. Because of the 5/8 scholarship rule, there are fewer options for a kid to transfer, and that means that the best fit may not be available the second time around.

The term "team chemistry" is used quite often when it comes to adding a transfer to a team. And, how a new player fits into his new surroundings is really important.

When evaluating a transfer, a coaching staff needs to clearly evaluate exactly what the potential transfer will bring to the team, and what he may take away from the team. How will the transfer be accepted by the players currently on the roster? Clearly, if he is a good player, he should be expected to compete for and take playing time away from a kid who committed to the program from the beginning. All coaches talk passionately about commitment. What message would a coach be sending to a kid after that kid invests time and effort into your program from the very start, and you later take a convenient transfer over him?

Fair or unfair, meritocracy or not, that can be a tough sell to a kid on your roster. By taking a transfer, will a coach have another player transfer out of his program in response? It has to be factored into the decision.

Finally, what does the transfer expect once he becomes eligible?

Does the kid need to ball to play? How will that affect the new team dynamics and the climate of the locker room? A coach has to put himself into the shoes of the players that will be affected by the transfer, and determine what the response may be and how it can be dealt with. Whether a kid is selfish or team oriented, accepting of coaching or difficult, willing to fulfill the role the coach sees him in or stubborn, all of those things are important considerations.

A transfer, even if he is a good kid and a willing kid, can disrupt the chemistry and make-up of a team, and can affect recruiting. Maybe a coach risks losing a recruit because of a transfer he decide to take. It all has to be considered.

So, whether any or all of this year's midseason transfers make positive contributions to their teams still remains to be seen. I know they will not be judged by intelligent basketball people by the minutes they play or the points they score, but by whether they make their teams better and are positive additions rather than negative ones. Every transfer looks great in the year he is sitting out, because he is working on the scout team and playing with nothing at stake. The transfer's practices are his games, and his only outlet for competition.

The real test of a transfer is when the he is eligible to play, and to compete for minutes. A coach can't assume that it won't work with a transfer, he can't just assume that it will. It takes a good decision by the coach and the player, and a lot of work after that.

Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Jay Bilas

College Basketball analyst

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