Commentary

College coaches think that Jennings to Europe is the exception

Originally Published: July 9, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The future of the game was somewhere on the two courts, dunking and dribbling in the annual audition that is summer ball.

It is part of the rhythm of college basketball. Kids crisscross the country, playing before bleachers stuffed with a who's who of coaches -- all four coaches from the Final Four were at the Reebok All-American Camp in Philadelphia on Wednesday -- and eventually take their games to college, the de facto minor leagues of the NBA.

Brandon Jennings is about to upset the rhythm.

It's not going to happen. You're talking about a select few kids, the elite player who also can't get his test score. I don't see this becoming the next big thing. I just don't.

--Jim Boeheim

Originally targeted for Arizona, Jennings is bypassing college and instead taking his talents across the pond. He'll avoid the NBA's one-year college requirement by turning pro in Europe and then, in theory, come back to the states, where in June 2009 he'll become a lottery pick.

It sounds like a flawless plan, one sure to be the latest way kids can circumvent NBA age restrictions to cash in on their skills instantaneously without all those pesky textbooks and midterms.

But college coaches culling Philadelphia University's gyms for talent weren't so sure Jennings has begun a new trend.

"It's not going to happen," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "You're talking about a select few kids, the elite player who also can't get his test score. I don't see this becoming the next big thing. I just don't."

Boeheim's prediction could turn out to be wishful thinking, but if it is, many in his profession are wishing the same way. Most coaches, while wishing Jennings well, believe there are more risks than potential rewards for Jennings. And they believe that players who opt to follow his path will be the exception, not the rule.

No one is unsympathetic to Jennings' situation. Without the SAT scores to be eligible, the top-rated player in the country was destined to be a young man with a ton of talent and nowhere to use it. NCAA rules would force him to sit out of college ball. The NBA age limit would keep him out of the league.

If anything, Jennings' new plan adds yet more fuel to the coaches' fire that the NBA's age limit is little more than indentured servitude, forcing kids who can't get into college or have no interest in attending to spend a year as hypocritical student-athletes.

"If a player is ready to be drafted and the NBA is ready to draft them, then they should be drafted," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "There are kids who are ready. Look at Kobe Bryant. You don't think Michael Beasley was ready to play this year?"

That said, no one is certain this latest loophole will be clogged with players anytime soon.

The coaches point to the obvious concerns -- potential injury and lousy play, either of which would cripple a player's NBA draft value. Europe, after all, isn't exactly the ugly stepchild to America's game it once was. Boeheim pointed to Danilo Gallinari, the sixth pick in this year's NBA draft, who was considered an elite player in Italy yet averaged only 14.9 points and 4.2 rebounds there.

And if a player fails, by injury or lack of production, there is no safety net. An NBA dream can quickly turn into a European journeyman's course.

"It's a gamble, a big gamble," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.

Of course kids, blessed with that "it won't happen to me" armor, will insist they can avoid lousy play, that injuries won't happen to them.

Still coaches argued there are plenty more unavoidable pitfalls in this new frontier.

They point to the players' daunting task of traveling across the ocean, landing in a country where they're not likely to speak the language or understand the culture, and joining a team full of locals, all while still in their teens.

Cross-Atlantic flights have long been filled with college graduates who tried to play overseas but were either too homesick, too shell-shocked or too disenchanted to stay.

There is also the question of whether this route is the lucrative windfall many think it will be. Most European teams aren't going to be interested in babysitting 18-year-olds for the NBA for a year. They want players who are proven commodities, and they want them for more than one year.

Players may be able to cash in for six figures -- certainly a nice gig for a teenager -- but the big money will have to come from shoe companies willing to gamble that the kid will blossom into a superstar when he returns to American soil.

"The question you have to be able to answer is, 'Will I be OK if I'm not able to come back?'" Calipari said. "If this is your career, can you accept that?"

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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