Big weekend for college hoops, so here are two related pieces for you:
Calipari’s detractors delight in noting that he has always left town one step ahead of the sheriff, even if he was cleared by the NCAA of any personal culpability in the UMass and Memphis messes. And what do the message-board cynics make of his $1 million donation last June to Streets Ministries of Memphis, or his washing of poor kids’ feet in Port-au-Prince and Detroit last year, or his organizing a January 2010 telethon that raised $1.3 million for Haiti’s earthquake victims? They cite ESPN analyst Bob Knight, who in December 2009 called Calipari the embodiment of the sport’s ills. “Integrity is really lacking [in college basketball],” Knight said in a speech in Indianapolis. “We’ve got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation, and he’s still coaching. I really don’t understand that.”
Never mind that the General, no pillar of rectitude himself, had his facts wrong: Only Memphis went on probation. Knight is the bulldog eyeing the cat as it lands, again, on its feet, and he’s not the only one perplexed. Calipari once declared that rather than competition or education, “everything in this game is marketing,” and it’s a constant struggle for rivals and the hoops commentariat to decide where his sell begins and ends. “John’s out there,” says Larry Brown, one of his coaching mentors. “The way he dresses, the way he talks nonstop. A lot of people look at that shtick and say, That guy is not real.”
Even while he was still at Duncanville High School in suburban Dallas, the Web sites that track such things had already projected Jones as a lottery pick — one of the first 14 players selected — in the 2011 N.B.A. draft. A couple of the more authoritative ones predicted that he could be the No. 1 pick in the entire draft — the best player available from the college ranks and from the ever-deeper pools of international basketball talent. “Devastating first step . . . ability to beat most big men off the dribble with ease,” is how the Web site DraftExpress described him in a recent evaluation. “Potential superstar,” the Hoop Doctors said, speculating that he could be “the next Tracy McGrady.” HoopsHype said that the “upside he possesses is unparalleled at the college level.” The respected ESPN.com analyst Chad Ford has had him at or near the top of his mock draft from the start of the season.
The paradoxical thing, though, about Jones’s status is that he was never a truly great high-school player, certainly not a dominant one or one who scored a lot of points. But just about everyone assumes that he will be a one-and-done player at Baylor, a pure rental who stays for a single season. That has become the norm for top college players. In fact, in some projections, as many as six of the top 10 picks in this spring’s N.B.A. draft are college freshmen. The trend has changed the college game: teams with top talent do not stay together long enough to cohere, sometimes leaving opportunities for less-talented but more-experienced teams, like Butler last season and George Mason in 2006, to advance to the Final Four. And it has changed the N.B.A., making it, at times, utterly unwatchable, because the rosters are stocked with too many players who were never fully taught the game and are learning on the job. (Players can no longer enter the N.B.A. straight out of high school, as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and many others did.)
[Photo Credit: AJC.com]