Jared Sullinger is a 6-foot-9, 280-pound freshman forward from Ohio State whose physique and inside game are NBA-ready. Many believe he would be the first pick in the 2011 NBA draft. But Sullinger says he’s not turning pro this year. He’ll be back on the Buckeyes’ Columbus, Ohio, campus for his sophomore season.
That’s a smart move. Other gifted underclassmen like North Carolina freshmen forwards Harrison Barnes and John Henson and Duke first-year guard Kyrie Irving would be wise to follow Sullinger’s lead. Why? There may not be an elite pro league for them to play in this fall.
NBA team owners and the players union aren’t making any progress toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) before the July 1 deadline. That means a lockout is looming, and it could shut down the NBA for part of the 2011–2012 season, if not all of it. Don’t scoff. NBA franchises appear to be facing the same financial woes that prompted National Hockey League owners to lock out players and cancel the 2004–2005 season. The rows upon rows of empty seats at many NBA games are real, not Photoshopped.
As long as NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver insists about three-quarters of the league’s 30 teams are losing money, and players union head Billy Hunter insists he hasn’t seen evidence to prove that claim, a lockout is almost certain. A college underclassman has until April 24 to apply for the NBA draft, which will be held June 23. Sullinger shouldn’t be the only underclassman smart enough to say, “I pass.”
Sullinger will benefit from another year in college. His game will mature, and he will as well. The Buckeyes will benefit from having him around for another season. And college basketball fans would see a higher quality of play in 2011–2012 without the annual exodus of elite underclassmen to the NBA. Since Sullinger is smart enough to avoid the NBA until the league gets its financial act together, it’s safe to assume he’ll take out an insurance policy to protect his valuable body from a potential career-ending injury while playing college ball.
If there’s a lockout, underclassmen bent on leaving school early could play pro basketball abroad. But that would be like spending a year in exile, away from family and friends and daily media exposure. Better to stay in school until the NBA eventually hammers out a new CBA—one that almost certainly will increase the draft’s minimum age from 19 to 20. Why raise the minimum age? The NBA wants to draft more mature players. This year’s college underclassmen would show their maturity by avoiding the 2011 draft.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
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