Should Andrew Wiggins skip the NCAA?

Andrew Wiggins

Canadian high school phenom Andrew Wiggins — who has several awards touting him as the top high school basketball player in the US — has apparently narrowed down the list of college programs he will consider to four schools: Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Florida State. While we don’t know which way he’s leaning, or when he’ll make his decision, I’d like to offer up an alternative option for Wiggins: skip college ball and go straight to the pros.

Of course, due to the NBA’s ridiculous minimum age requirement, Wiggins has to wait an entire year before he can enter the NBA draft. But nothing’s stopping him from playing in a professional league that doesn’t have that requirement. This is exactly what Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks did back in 2008.

For those of you who don’t remember, Jennings was a highly touted high school basketball player. In his final year of high school, he averaged 32.7 points, 7.4 assists, and 5.1 rebounds per game. Like Wiggins, he won the 2008 Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award and the 2007–08 Gatorade Player of the Year (Virginia). He was also named Parade Magazine’s Player of the Year for 2008 and EA Sports’ 2008 Player of the Year. He was rated as the #1 high school basketball prospect in the class of 2008 by both Scout.com and ESPNU 150, and the #4 prospect by Rivals.com. Originally, Jennings was planning on attending college; he initially chose UNC but switched to Arizona in order to play with Jerryd Bayless. But after doing poorly on his SATs, Jennings reconsidered. As written by William C. Rhoden of the New York Times:

Jennings was pushed into action by the N.C.A.A. After doing poorly on his first standardized test, he did well on the second, but because of the difference in the scores, the testing service asked him to take the test a third time. He relented, but at that point Jennings decided that he was through with the N.C.A.A. Why jump through hoops to go to Arizona, endure the charade of an academic regimen, then switch into N.B.A. mode the instant the season is over?

The coach receives adulation, the university receives tournament money, the nonrevenue sports receive funding. What does an elite player get? An “extra benefit” could land the program on probation and have the player declared ineligible. You can’t say the player receives a free education because he is leaving after a year.

So Jennings surveyed the landscape and concluded it may make more sense to play professional basketball in Europe than to play semipro N.C.A.A. basketball free.

In July of 2008, Jennings signed a deal with Lottomatica Roma of the Italian Lega A worth $1.65 million. Because he was free of the NCAA’s rules about “amateurism”, he was also free to sign sponsorship deals. Before playing a game in Italy, Jennings signed a four year, $2 million deal with Under Armour.

While in Italy, Jennings wasn’t exactly impressive. In Italian league play, his per 40 minute stats were: 12.9 points (TS%: 44), 3.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 5 steals, 3.5 turnovers, and 4.7 fouls in 17.0 minutes per game. In Euroleague play, he was even less efficient: 15.5 points (TS%: 48), 3.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.4 steals, 2.4 turnovers, and 4.7 fouls in 19.6 minutes per game. Despite this, the Milwaukee Bucks picked him with the 10th pick in the 2009 NBA draft.

So, to recap: Jennings didn’t have to worry about falling afoul of ridiculous NCAA rules, made a nice chunk of money, got professional coaching and training, played poorly, and still got picked with the #10 pick one year after he graduated from high school. In the NBA, he’s been a below average player, but some team will end up giving him a huge contract this summer. Would Jennings have been any better off if he had gone to college?

We’ve written a lot about the NCAA and why its “student-athletes” should be paid (in fact, if you type “NCAA” into the search box in the upper-right, you’ll find 16 pages of articles, many of which tackle this issue). If Andrew Wiggins signs up for NCAA ball, all that money he’d bring in would go to other people. He’d also have to follow strict rules about receiving gifts, can’t make any sponsorship money, can’t train as much, have to pretend to go to class, and might have to cover the hospital bills if he gets injured while playing. Oh, and the NCAA will own the rights to his likeness in perpetuity, which is a fancy word for ‘forever’.

Boy, I don’t know. This sounds like a really tough decision.

So Andrew, if you’re listening: Europe beckons. You’re already a Canadian basketball pioneer. Why not take it to the next level?

- Devin

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