- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004

Shaun Livingston was headed to Duke. J.R. Smith was bound for North Carolina. Sebastian Telfair was committed to Louisville.

Once heralded recruits, none of these McDonald’s All-Americans will play a minute of college basketball. These days, top programs are left wondering whether they should bother ordering from the menu at all, considering their Happy Meals often wind up without a prize.

Elite programs like Indiana, Southern California, Arkansas and DePaul saw their top recruits, nattily attired, saunter across the stage in New York on Thursday on their way to becoming the NBA’s latest teenage millionaires.

More and more high school basketball stars are bypassing college and entering the NBA Draft, and this year’s prep-to-pros road resembles K Street at rush hour. Seven of the nation’s top 12 high school players were in the draft. Eight were taken in the first round, all in the first 19 picks. In previous drafts four high school players — in 2001 and 2003 — were the most chosen in the first round.

The high school parade has forced the NBA to become an expensive training ground for talented teenagers and has compelled college coaches to revise their recruiting strategies.

“If I really believe there’s a great chance [a player is] going to go right to the NBA, then I’m going to try my best not to waste my time there,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said earlier this year. “Right now, if a youngster is in the top 10 [of his recruiting class] … I’m probably going to make the decision not to recruit him.”

Williams apparently has backed off pursuing Andray Blatche, a 6-foot-11 center from Syracuse, N.Y., because Blatche said he might turn pro after his final prep season. The Tar Heels coach isn’t alone in trying to read the tea leaves.

“You have to hedge your bets,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who has not lost a recruit directly to the pros. “You must have a backup plan. The philosophy of stockpiling the best players is over because they could deplete the program [by leaving early]. You have to recruit both solid players and those who can develop NBA skills. The days of recruiting already made guys are over because they are going to the NBA.”

Not long ago — as recently as last year — it was easy to predict which high school players would jump to the NBA. Not anymore.

It used to be only big men or those assured of extremely high draft positions bolted for the pros. Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James gave strong indications they would enter the draft, allowing college programs to move on to realistic prospects. These days smaller players like 5-foot-11 point guard Telfair (drafted 13th by Portland) out of Brooklyn’s Lincoln High and marginal first-rounders like DePaul recruit Dorell Wright, who surprisingly moved up to the 19th selection by Miami, are fastbreaking to the NBA without so much as a stutter step in college.

Livingston, a Peoria (Ill.) Central High School point guard, and Smith are among several high school players who signed a letter of intent and gave every inclination of enrolling at their respective schools, only to execute a last-minute crossover to the NBA. Smith, out of New Jersey’s St. Benedict’s Prep, made the decision after several strong performances at postseason all-star games. The 6-foot-6 swingman was taken 18th by New Orleans.

“The three games I played in, after talking to players, they were like, ‘Man, you should come out,’” Smith said while announcing his decision at his Newark, N.J., prep school. “I was trying to be humble and not get a big head and keep working hard. My friend [LSU-bound Glen Davis] said it best: ‘Work like a slave and think like a master.’ And that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”

Livingston told Coach K to move to Plan B. The wispy 6-7 point guard was chosen fourth overall by the L.A. Clippers.

“I told [Mike Krzyzewski] that I never committed to Duke thinking I wasn’t going,” Livingston said when he announced definitive plans to skip college at a pre-draft workout last week.

Smith left Carolina in a lurch, and similar instances have coaches rethinking their recruiting strategies. It was considered a coup for Indiana when Josh Smith signed. Instead, the 6-8 forward will play for the Atlanta Hawks after being chosen with the 17th pick.

“You are trying to decide whether guys are going to go right to the pros or go to college first,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “It’s not an exact science, that’s for sure. Some guys surprise you with their decision to go to the pros.”

College coaches were well aware that this season’s version of James, Atlanta schoolboy Dwight Howard — the No. 1 overall pick by Orlando — was going to the NBA and did not pursue him. Some, such as Southern Cal signee Robert Swift (12th, Seattle) and Telfair, were expected to go pro, but others, such as Livingston and both Smiths, were surprises.

Despite the setbacks, many college coaches will continue to wade in the increasingly murky recruiting waters.

“I still think you have to recruit the best possible players,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who led the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA championship game last season. “Obviously, there are some situations where you know somebody is going to be an early draft pick, and it may be a waste of time. Coach [John] Wooden at UCLA used to say, ‘The team with the best players almost always wins.’ So you have to recruit the best possible players. It’s getting to the point where most kids you are recruiting in the ACC figure they are going to be in the NBA — it is just a matter of when.”

When is becoming sooner and sooner.

The targets are the same, but coaches have made adjustments to limit the effects of losing players. Instead of hoping a star will stick around for three or four seasons, coaches are recruiting in one- and two-year cycles.

“You are probably going to lose [a recruit] once in a while, but I feel you have to recruit the best players you can,” said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, who is making contingency plans should star freshman guard Chris Paul leave after next season. “It is to the point where you can’t say we are set at this position for four years or three years. You have to cover yourself.”

Or use the year or two with a star the way Syracuse did in 2003, when freshman Carmelo Anthony led the Orangemen to the national title before turning pro. Freshman Luol Deng helped Duke get to the Final Four this past season before leaving early and becoming a first-round pick (seventh overall) by Chicago.

The most successful program in the new recruiting era has been national champion Connecticut. The Huskies landed Charlie Villanueva, the second-highest rated prep player behind James in 2003, and the 6-11 forward surprised many when he decided to return next season. In fact, UConn sold Rudy Gay — the top rated high school player not going to the NBA — on the strong possibility Villanueva would be gone. The Huskies lost juniors Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon to the NBA but should maintain their lofty status.

In contrast, Duke was considered the favorite for the 2005 title before defections left it vulnerable. The Blue Devils lost their best player in Deng and brightest prospect in Livingston. It’s not the first time something like this has happened to Krzyzewski. After his team’s runner-up finish to UConn in 1999, underclassmen Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette left for the NBA.

Many coaches would like to see the NBA adopt a rule similar to Major League Baseball in which all high school players are eligible, but once that player attends college, he can’t be drafted for three years. Few expect anything like that to happen anytime soon despite NBA commissioner David Stern’s suggestion of a 20-year-old age limit for players.

“I think the NBA encourages [early departures],” Self said. “There are few like Carmelo and Luol. There are probably a lot more that won’t work out. There is going to be a lot more heartbreak than success. I don’t think some of them are getting the best advice.”

NBA benches are littered with prep-to-pros first-round disappointments like Kwame Brown, Jonathan Bender and DeSagna Diop, not to mention discarded busts like Leon Smith.

The problem stems from the irresistible lure of fame and fortune in the NBA. For instance, Telfair signed a $15million endorsement deal with Adidas after he stood up Rick Pitino.

“Telfair signs a shoe contract,” Maryland’s Williams said. “How about making the NBA first? That’s not the way it works anymore. … Recruiting has always changed through the years. You just have to change with it. As long as the system says there is no age limit in the NBA, this is going to be the system.”

Meanwhile, college coaches will have to react to the whims of talented teenagers who can immediately elevate their program or leave them holding the bag, prizeless.

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