Aquille Carr, Overseas Pros and Major League Basketball


If you’re surprised Aquille Carr is skipping college to play pro basketball overseas, you shouldn’t be. Reports that an Italian club had offered him $750,000 first surfaced in 2011, not long after the 5-foot-6 dynamo used a dazzling array of crossovers, stutter-steps, blind passes and dunks (yes, dunks!) to become a viral video sensation and this writer’s new favourite point guard.

Besides, Carr’s off-the-court struggles are nearly as well known as his on-court success, and the school work only gets more difficult in college. Against that backdrop the decision to circumvent academics and get paid for doing what he loves and what he does best makes sense. Now the only book he needs to study is the playbook, and that might be best for him.

If you think the move is a gamble, you might be right. But when you’re a basketball player who isn’t much bigger than a jockey either option is fraught with risk.

Injuries can happen anywhere. If Carr, god forbid, blows out an Achilles tendon next year, better that he do it for $750K than for tuition and books. And if his high-octane game doesn’t translate to high-level basketball, at least learns that harsh lesson while being paid handsomely.

But if you think the final outcome of Carr’s overseas apprenticeship provides a definitive answer on the wisdom of skipping college, you should broaden your sample size.

Yes, for every Brandon Jennings, who skipped college for pro ball in Italy and returned to the U.S. as the 10th pick in the 2009 NBA draft, there’s more than one Jeremy Tyler, who turned pro at 17 and has struggled on every team he’s joined since then.

But phenoms who don’t blossom into NBA stars fall short for several reasons.

Specifically, Tyler was a raw teenage prospect who headed to Maccabi Haifa with deficits in strength and skill, while lacking the self-assurance required to stand his ground against the hardened pros populating the Israeli league.

And generally, players don’t make it because everybody’s not supposed to make it. That’s why elite leagues are elite and other are secondary circuits,  housing players rising to or falling from the big time. When hundreds of thousands of prospects compete for a handful of jobs the attrition rate will always hover near 100 percent, and there’s not much any individual player can do to affect it.

Not if he plays three years at Duke, not if he hoops at a junior college, and not if he perfects his craft in Italy.  Carr can improve his chances by staying healthy and fine-tuning his game, but making the NBA means someone else doesn’t. He’ll have found success but the failure rate remains unchanged.

So if Carr flames out in Italy, we can’t use it as evidence that skipping college doesn’t work any more than we can point to Hasheem Thabeet’s NBA struggles as proof the draft process is irrevocably flawed.

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Truth is, the entire system could use a makeover.

Major League Baseball doesn’t force high school players to wait a year before becoming draft eligible, nor does it see a problem with sending talented but raw teenagers to minor leagues for refinement. Teams draft equally from among high school and college prospects, and players can return to school and re-enter the draft later if they’re not satisfied with where they’ve been picked. The practice isn’t perfect, and college baseball becomes a lower-wattage enterprise without Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers , but giving players options hasn’t damaged the on-field product at the highest level.

Pros become pros as long as they have a place to develop.

You can do that when each club has a network of minor league teams. As the NBA’s D-League has matured it has also grown into a place where, increasingly, teams feel comfortable sending young and unvarnished talent. But it’s still not the same as having a comprehensive farm system.

Right now the NCAA plays that role, and thus stands to suffer most if more players like Carr decide to serve basketball internships in lower-level pro leagues. The NBA would still receive rookies ready to play by age 22, but if they’re developing elsewhere the NCAA can’t profit off them along the way.

That’s a problem for a multibillion-dollar business that depends on the labour and star power of “student athletes.”

This time next week March Madness will have its hooks in many of us, our bottomless appetite for its games and Cinderella storylines turning the tournament into a must-watch TV, and a massive money-maker for CBS and Turner Sports. In 2010 the NCAA agreed to a 15-year, $10.8 billion sale of the broadcast rights to March Madness.

The tournament is compelling television no matter who plays, but even more electric with stars like Carr.

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But that’s not Carr’s problem, and let’s not pretend it is.

He has a career that doesn’t require that he enrol in college, just that he find a place to help him bridge the skill gap between high school and NBA ball. People who worry about what will become of him if he forsakes education better ask the same questions about Usain Bolt, Georges St-Pierre or any other pro in a sport that produces no  revenue at the college level.

If more guys make the decision Carr did college sports will still survive. College isn’t for everyone, and every player who skips school will replaced with a guy who actually wants to be there. Schools will still field teams, Michigan and Michigan State will remain rivals and the best of the best will still graduate to the NBA.

Star power will suffer, but if you’re worried about superstar athletes’ education you can’t also argue that producing superstars is the goal of college sports. You should be happy the average “student athlete” will more closely embody whatever that term is supposed to mean.

The only losers here are the NCAA, who realize that the more college and pro basketball resemble college and pro baseball, the less lucrative the TV rights and sponsorships become.

But if college sports really are about something more fundamental than money the folks in charge shouldn’t mind taking this loss for the team.

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