And So, Again, They Flee the Nest

Bam Adebayo dunks the ball for 2 of his 13 points vs GA. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

Bam Adebayo dunks the ball for 2 of his 13 points vs GA. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

It’s almost as ritualistic a part of April as the NCAA championship game, the Masters, the baseball openers and the coming of Derby – watching for the signs of spring among Kentucky’s elite freshmen basketball players.

Are they springing? Or aren’t they?

And one by one, they’ve told us what we already knew. They almost always do.

In the spring of 2010, right after John Calipari’s first season at Kentucky, I wondered if a thoughtful young man like John Wall might think about his pleasant college days and the work yet unfinished.

Not for a second, apparently. Wall and four other Wildcats went in the first round of the draft. Even Daniel Orton, who seemed to have so much to gain from another season in school.

But still, every year at this time, my young man’s fancy turns to hope.

Brandon Knight? (Such a smart kid, a chance to polish his point-guard skills and lead the Kentucky freshmen about to come to school?) Anthony Davis? (Is his body too slight for the pounding he’ll face in the pros?) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. (Does he have an NBA jumpshot?)

Karl-Anthony Towns? (Will his thoughtful parents advise him to stay in school?) Devin Booker? (So young, so much more to prove at the college level.) Skal Labissiere? (Surely, this is one player who can see the benefits of another year in school.)

And now this year’s Fab Three.

Malik Monk showed how the wear and tear of a long season affected that once-automatic jump shot. Monk is a fantastic athlete, far more than just his outside shot. But it was that shot that put him on the basketball map. He’s not tall and not especially rugged. Nor does he play much defense. (Yeah, the NBA really cares about that!)

De’Aaron Fox suffered from the wear and tear even more than Monk did. Remarkably gifted but thin and frail, Fox had a trough in the middle of the season – hurt and sick, missing a few games, and not quite the same astonishing athlete after he returned. And then he began turning it on at the end. He averaged 22.4 points per game in the seven penultimate games prior to North Carolina. He scored 39 in that memorable UCLA win. And in the process, he humbled – for the second time, on national TV – Lonzo Ball, the presumptive No. 1 pick.

But he’s still thin and frail. And the NBA season is 82 48-minute games, plus playoffs.

Bam Adebayo has been the oddest case of the three to me. And his decision to keep his options open just proves that. He has an NBA-ready body. He showed often during the season amazing hops and some good moves around the hoop. And he has a decent short-range shot. But the NBA is full of players like that.

What I noticed, particularly in the North Carolina game, was Bam’s inability to assert himself. And much of it came from a freshman tendency to bring the ball low as he moved inside, often to dribble it. Once a big man puts the ball down, everyone else on the court becomes the same size. And so Bam had a tendency to get tied up, to lose control, to get blocked.

Could another season in college polish off his edges? Sure. So could a season in the pros, if an NBA team is willing to pay mid-first-round money.

But what’s the dollar formula on going now, in the low end of the first round, versus having an amazing sophomore season and entering the lottery?

What we can never know is what’s in these kids’ hearts and minds. The confidence to play professionally is certainly there. They know the odds and the rates of failure but assume it doesn’t apply to them. It’s been a dream their whole lives, since the dirt courts of Lepanto, the playgrounds of Houston, the after-school programs of Little Washington, all those high school championships, all those AAU years.

You had to know what they were thinking in the locker room after the big UCLA win, to hear that Booker had just scored 70 for Phoenix. That’s the show! At Kentucky, that same freshman had averaged 21 minutes and 10 points a game. Everyone said he couldn’t put the ball on the floor.

And then there’s the money. Don’t write it off as mindless greed unless you never evaluated your best career moves, your best job offers, while you were in school.

None of us can judge them for the decisions they make. VT