A few months ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in the Indianapolis airport. Struck up a conversation with one of former Butler star Gordon Hayward's family friends.
The crux of the convo centered on Hayward's NBA future. My new buddy swore that Hayward would pass up a chance to go pro, regardless of where he was projected in the draft or how his team played in the NCAA tournament.
Plus, money wasn't an issue for his family, he told me.
I tried to warn him.
I told him that Hayward represented the typical NBA prospect in the 21st century: talented, young and raw. He was going to go pro. "You watch," I said.
Hayward has announced that he's not just testing the NBA waters ... he's all in, baby.
And in spite of my proclamation at that airport steakhouse, I'm still surprised.
He's the one guy in this draft who could preserve the outdated perception that staying in school for another year is worth it.
He's a good athlete with unique skills for a 6-8 forward. But he has a questionable motor. He didn't attack the basket in the national championship game the way a projected lottery pick should have. He's a solid shooter, but he could use a year to work on his midrange game. Plus, who will he guard at the next level?
I still think he'll turn out to be a solid player in the NBA but he didn't have to leave now.
But Hayward, like the rest of the early entrants who have to make a final decision before the NCAA's Saturday withdrawal deadline, realizes that there's no reason to go back to school if a player has a reasonable shot of grabbing an NBA contract.
His decision also challenges the socioeconomic boundaries that often come into play for early entrants. A lot of young college players leave school before their senior seasons because they need the money, their families need the money.
As if college basketball hasn't experienced enough instability since the implementation of the one-and-done rule, the decision of a pro prospect to leave school, despite his team's opportunity to win a national title, might inspire others in a similar boat to drop college ball and go pro.
Hayward is not willing to wait another year to pursue his dream. Why? An extra year is not an extra year for NBA officials to find out what they like about a player. It's an extra year for those same squads to discover and magnify a player's flaws.
Why did he go 2-for-11 (12 points) in the national title game? Why did Duke's Kyle Singler look like the better player that night? If he's this great shooter, then why did he hit just 29.4 percent of his three-point attempts during the 2009-10 season?
Hayward won't give the NBA another year of college ball to seek those answers.
Iowa State's Craig Brackins was a potential lottery pick a few years ago. He'll be lucky to crack the first round this summer. Tulsa's Jerome Jordan wowed scouts at a LeBron James camp in 2008. Now, they question ... everything about him. Look for him to go somewhere in the second round.
Michigan State's Kalin Lucas took the Spartans to the Final Four last year, graced the cover of national publications and was considered a possible first-rounder after many figured he'd never get drafted because of his size. Lucas stayed another season and suffered a season-ending injury in the NCAA tournament. His draft stock is certainly in question as he enters his senior season and recovers from that crucial Achilles injury.
Thanks for the commentary, Myron. But what's your point? And what does this have to do with Gophers basketball?
For the first time in Tubby Smith's tenure at Minnesota, the Gophers might have a few players who will consider their pro options before graduation.
Ralph Sampson III has the height, the skill set and pedigree to play at the next level. We're all waiting, however, for him to put it all together and add a little aggressiveness to his game so he can fulfill his potential. A big year by Sampson will certainly get the scouts talking even more than they are now. Plus, consider guys like Hassan Whiteside, Jerome Jordan and even, Cole Aldrich. The year before they hit the NBA radar, few knew much about them. It doesn't take much for a big man to raise his draft stock.
If Devoe Joseph adds some muscle to his frame and builds on his All-Tournament worthy performance in March's Big Ten tournament, he'll have a shot at the next level. Down the stretch, Joseph ran the team. I think he's a point at the next level, if he gets there. And I think the Gophers will play him at point guard next season, too. He needs to be consistent. But he has raw skills that were on display during that magical run in the Big Ten tourney. He's not there yet, but he could be the next Big Ten guard to land on the NBA map.
Rodney Williams should be a different player next season. During a short stretch his freshman year, he lived up to the premature hype about his pro potential. He was a top-5 pick on nbadraft.net's 2011 mock draft at the start of the season. But he struggled throughout the year and didn't play much during the Big Ten season. He should've redshirted. But when he was on the floor, he pulled off some above-the-rim maneuvers that are hard to describe. He needs to prove that he can handle the ball, hit a 15-foot jump shot and defend on the perimeter. But he has all the makings of a poor man's Wesley Johnson. If he cracks the starting rotation, a possibility with Minnesota's lack of depth at small forward, and plays well during the Big Ten season, Williams will move up on a lot of real NBA draft boards.
Different people say different things about Trevor Mbakwe. A few days after he signed with the Gophers in 2009, he told me that he'd already talked to Tubby Smith about going pro after his junior season. Legal issues prevented him from playing last year and they might keep him off the floor next season, too, depending on the outcome of his trial in June. One person close to the program told me that he doesn't think Mbakwe will start for the team. Others think he'll lead the Gophers to big victories over their toughest opponents. The 6-8, 240-pound forward certainly has an NBA frame. If he showcases pro-level skills next year, he'll get NBA looks, too.
Save the emails. I'm not saying that Williams, Joseph, Sampson and Mbakwe will all go pro after next season. But they might have a shot at the next level, depending on their performances next season. They have the building blocks for pro careers.
Next year's Big Ten might change Saturday
The Big Ten has been one of the most successful conferences in college basketball in recent years. Since 2007, three Big Ten squads have repped the league in the Final Four.