Skipping school to outsmart NBA rules

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

A year from Thursday, Brandon Jennings will be, barring injury, an NBA lottery pick.

This Thursday he is expected to receive his standardized test scores that will help influence – but not make – his decision on where to play basketball in the meantime.

Jennings is a blazing fast 6-foot-2 point guard from Compton, Calif. He is one of the top-five high school players in America, having just set single-season scoring marks at hoops powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.

The only reason he will not be drafted this week is the NBA's age limit that prohibits teams from drafting players until they're at least one year out of high school. Like every other top player, Jennings, should he qualify academically, could go to college (in this case Arizona), pretend to be a student (all he'd need are two D's in the fall semester) and then bolt to the NBA next spring.

Only Jennings isn't any other player. He looks at this entire charade for what it is, a system designed to help the NBA and the NCAA make money, but not necessarily provide much for guys such as him (a fit of worldly logic that ought to define his intelligence more accurately than the college boards).

As a result, he just might turn the thing on its ear. Even if he does academically qualify, he is strongly considering telling college hoops, "no thanks," and either spending the year playing professionally in Europe or Israel, or signing with an agent and working out with personal trainers and coaches.

"For a person that plays ball, our dream is to get to the NBA," Jennings told The New York Times. "College is like, 'OK, we'll do this one year, but our real mind-set is that we're trying to get to the league, take care of our families.'

"They're making us do college … I told my mom that (going to Europe) was something we should look into. Going overseas, it seems like a good idea. I think people just develop better over there."

They also get paid in Europe, which doesn't happen, at least above the table, in the NCAA. In making money, Jennings could also make history.

That said, Arizona is still the most likely destination; Jennings plans to enroll in a summer high school next week to help with his eligibility. All options are on the table though.

Jennings could be a trailblazer, much like Kevin Garnett, who became the first high school player in two decades to declare for the NBA draft after failing to qualify academically in 1995. At the time, Garnett was written off as a rare phenomenon. Soon enough though, the draft was filled with preps-to-pros candidates.

NBA commissioner David Stern, eager to return to the days when college basketball promoted his future stars for free, worked the age limit into the collective bargaining agreement and forced kids to school. The NCAA, willing to sell its soul for talent, gleefully accepted these "student-athletes."

For the past two years, it's been the only way.

Now here comes Jennings. And don't think this is just the wistful talk of an 18-year-old. Jennings has not only discussed this with his mother, but is surrounded by some experienced advisors and some savvy basketball people.

The greatest challenge, they say, will be finding the right coach and team for Jennings in Europe. The money is there – a six-figure Euro contract. His stick-it-to-the-system move will likely pay off in a shoe endorsement deal.

Whether this will happen remains to be seen. That it can happen is undeniable.

Even more intriguing, Jennings may set a trend immediately. One powerful basketball insider said at least two other top-20 national prospects are considering Europe with Jennings.

"It'll be a good thing for the kids and a bad thing for the college coaches," Jennings told The Times.

The question for Jennings is whether it is best for him. If the goal is the NBA, then what's the best route?

While there is an appeal to being a pioneer, this is foremost about protecting his draft status. Even with its duplicity, the NCAA system may be best. Arizona has sent dozens of players to the NBA, including the guy Jennings would replace in Tucson, freshman Jerryd Bayless, a sure-bet lottery pick Thursday.

That said, college basketball is littered with top prospects that struggled with the system, clashed with their coach or got injured. And while the college game can do wonders for a player's marketability, it can hurt, too. O.J. Mayo may never live down allegations he took money from an agent at USC, a small-time "crime" that's cost him in endorsement revenue.

In terms of basketball, after talking with five NBA teams Tuesday, the consensus is there is no consensus.

Player personnel directors and scouts throughout the league, who are prohibited from speaking publicly about high school players, say that playing professionally in Europe would likely help Jennings' long-term development since he would be competing against grown professionals. He would also have no limit to his practice time or interaction with coaches (which the NCAA has) and would have to learn and adapt to a different style of play.

He'd have to find the right coach though. And it would likely cause him to struggle at times.

Playing at Arizona would be the easy route and Jennings would likely dominate the weaker competition in 90 percent of games. So he'd look better even if he learned less.

"I think he's better off going to Arizona because he's playing against boys rather than men," said one Central Division player personnel director. "The better you look, the more highly people think of you."

Said a Central Division scout, "With Jennings I think it could go either way. If he plays well, obviously it would really help him, but if he played poorly it would be interesting to see if they would give him the same kind of leeway as young Euros get.

"Some of these young foreign players hardly play, and then get drafted on potential. It would be a little hypocritical not to give an American who chooses to go over there so young the same type of leeway."

Said a Southwest Division scout, "We know he's fast and great in the open court. That's (not changing). So punishing him for trying to expand his game would be stupid. He's a lottery pick no matter what."

Then there is the third option, having an agent pay him to spend the year working out with trainers and private coaches. Agents already all but run many recruitments of elite players – they send them to a favored college coach who promises to keep other agents away until the player can officially sign.

It's how the NBA age limit has managed, with no less than the NCAA's blessing, to do the impossible – make recruiting more ridiculous.

Would cutting out the college coach work? Jennings would certainly improve his individual skills and add bulk to his slight, 170-pound frame. However, since the NBA now prohibits the scouting of high school and AAU games, there would be no body of game work for the NBA to form an opinion.

"That would be way, way too risky, nobody would have seen him play," said one player personnel director.

For Jennings, these are the questions he needs to answer, the risks he has to factor and the daring decision he may have to make. The NBA and NCAA want to shoehorn him into college basketball. He's trying to at least consider if there is a better and more lucrative way.

Pioneer or just another college prospect, one way or the other Brandon Jennings will soon choose the path to navigate his mandated year of basketball purgatory.

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