Emmanuel Mudiay was projected to be a diaper dandy, one of those freshman phenoms who shine in college hoops’ spotlight momentarily before cashing out as a lottery pick.
Widely considered the nation’s top guard entering next season, Mudiay first sent shockwaves by choosing SMU over bluebloods Kentucky and Kansas. It was a tremendous coup for coach Larry Brown and positioned the Mustangs as a Top 10 preseason team.
But now, Brown joins John Calipari and Bill Self in lamenting the 6-foot-5 point guard as another who got away.
“Emmanuel Mudiay has decided to pursue professional basketball opportunities,” Brown said Monday in a statement. “This is not an academic issue, since he has been admitted to SMU, but rather a hardship issue.”
Mudiay assuredly isn’t the only top-rated recruit facing economic “hardship.”
The Supreme Court used that term while ruling in Spencer Haywood’s favor and allowing underclassmen to turn pro in 1971. Five years later, the NBA decided anyone was eligible for “early entry,” regardless of financial status, before the league instituted its current policy in 2001 and mandated that players be at least 19 and one year out of high school.
Your family has trouble staying above water and making ends meet? Too bad. NBA teams will pay you millions to begin a pro career right away? Tough. You have absolutely no interest in college and won’t take it seriously if you attend? Fake it.
Or go directly from high school to the NBA D-League and pull down a cool $18,000-$30,000.
Mudiay is opting for a different route. It’s available to few and unlikely to start a trend, but it’s symbolic and significant nonetheless.
According to multiple reports, he’s headed overseas, possibly to China. He would be just the third elite recruit to make such a move, preceded by Brandon Jennings (Class of 2008) and Jeremy Tyler (Class of 2010). Jennings was the tenth pick in the 2009 draft and made first-team All-Rookie. Tyler, a second-round pick in 2011, has bounced around to appear in 104 games for three teams.
Mudiay is projected to be a lottery pick next year, a fact that won’t change no matter where he plays.
“I was excited about going to SMU and playing college basketball for coach Brown and his staff and preparing for the NBA,” he said in a statement. “But I was tired of seeing my mom struggle. And after sitting down with coach Brown and my family, we decided that the best way for me to provide for my mom was to forgo college and pursue professional basketball opportunities.”
The motivation for bypassing college really shouldn’t matter.
Whether it’s academic problems based on standardized test scores, eligibility issues based on NCAA “amateurism” policies, or money trouble based on a lack of income coming in, players need options. And the need is about to grow.
New academic requirements in 2016 will make it more difficult for some recruits to play as freshmen. Also, there’s a great chance that the NBA’s next labor agreement mandates at least a two-year gap between high school and the league.
Meanwhile, the NCAA will continue to rake in nearly $1 billion per year on March Madness and retain its position as prospects’ primary path to the pros.
“Emmanuel … really wants to alleviate some of the challenges his family faces and recognizes that he has an opportunity to help them now,” Brown said. “While I believe that college is the best way to prepare for life and the NBA, Emmanuel’s situation is unique.”
His choice is somewhat unique but his circumstances are ordinary: He’s going from high school to the workforce.
We would root for him if he played baseball or a bass guitar. We would offer best wishes if he read lines by day and waited tables by night. We would congratulate him if he planned to apprentice as a plumber instead of a point guard.
However, Mudiay is on the verge of shooting hoops for a living, which typically means playing for free in college or peanuts in the minors before paydays begin. Overseas opportunities are too scarce and too daunting to fundamentally alter the system.
But this move is another step toward an inevitable sea change.
The more stringent eligibility standards, coupled with the NBA’s expected transition from “one-and-done” rules to “two-and-through” (or “three-and-flee”), will cause more elite players to seek alternatives. Those would include the D-League, conveniently in line for a revamped salary structure to coincide with the aforementioned changes.
By then, the NCAA might be forced to cut checks for players.
It will be too late for Mudiay.
But when we look back at these turbulent times, his decision won’t go unnoticed.