By Nazr Mohammed, a former 16-year NBA veteran who’s a regular contributor for SportsBlog.com, a content partner of the NBPA that focuses on first-person stories with pro athletes
Every morning before breakfast I do my uphill cardio walk on the treadmill to start my day. I’ve discovered that this is when I do some of my best thinking. I usually take calls, review emails, listen to audio books or motivational speakers to pass the time. Sometimes I find myself reviewing my career in my head, evaluating what I would change if I could do it all over again, and what I think I did well, etc.
This morning was kind of strange because I was thinking back to my 1998 NBA Draft experience and the decision to leave college after just three years. I’ve always thought that I made the right decision leaving early, but today I’ve come to the conclusion that I wish I had stayed in school for my senior year. Of course hindsight is always 20/20, and many may think when reading this, “Why in the hell would you change anything after winning an NBA Championship, making millions of dollars, and playing 17 years in the NBA?” Having a much better grasp of how the NBA works and what it takes to succeed in it has led me to this unexpected revelation.
Let me explain…
My NBA journey has been full of ups and downs. One of my greatest ups and down happened at the 1998 NBA Draft (lol) where I was projected to go in the first round somewhere between pick 8 and 15. I was coming off another NCAA Championship (two in my college career) with three straight Championship appearances. I felt like I was ready. People were telling me that I would be a lottery pick and have the opportunity to accomplish my dream of playing in the NBA and make a lot of money in the process. That’s all you had to tell this young kid from the south side of Chicago…the kid who walked to school in the snow with plastic bags over my socks inside of my shoes because I had holes in the bottom of my soles which were also my game shoes. I was ready to bolt.
As a Draft prospect, I worked out for a lot of teams, most of which were telling me what I wanted to hear. I had three or four teams tell me, “If you’re there at our pick, we’re taking you.” Fast-forward to Draft night. I’m sitting there with my family waiting for my name to be called. Michael Olowokandi went first. Jason Williams (who wasn’t projected high on the Pre-Draft boards) went seventh. Paul Pierce, who was projected to be taken with the second pick, slipped. Now we’re at the 10th pick and everybody assumed the Celtics would take me because Coach Pitino coached me at Kentucky and everyone thought they were drafting size. But Paul Pierce was available, and you don’t have to be a genius to know what happened and that they made the right choice lol.
I’m sitting in the green room, watching pick after pick go by, watching teams who told me “If you’re there at our pick, we’re taking you.” A few of those same teams had multiple picks and still passed me up. I didn’t work out for any teams after the 21st pick, so when that went by, my agent starts working the phones. He calls every team with a pick left in the first round and is trying to figure out what’s happening. It’s just Rashard Lewis and me left in the green room now and I can see that he’s getting a little emotional (especially since he was coming straight out of high school).
I start thinking that I just left college early to get drafted in the second round AND there’s about to be a lockout on top of that. Great decision, Naz smh. Luckily, I was drafted 29th by the Utah Jazz (the very last pick in the first round). I didn’t work out for them, so I was surprised and relieved. I later found out they drafted me to trade me to the Philadelphia 76ers. At the time I could care less where I was going. I was just excited to be selected in the first round because that meant a guaranteed three-year deal, which would give me an opportunity to prove myself.
After recently reminiscing about Draft night with my agent and a friend over dinner, I started thinking more about what would have happened had I stayed in school. It’s not about wishing my career were different. I’m proud of my accomplishments, but there are a few things I would tweak. I believe that if you are leaving school early, it should be to become a lottery pick. I understand that the opportunity to achieve your dream and support your family is tough to turn down, but sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture.
There’s a big difference between being “the man” in college and being the “15th man” on the end of an NBA bench. Lottery picks have a better opportunity to establish themselves because teams have a vested interest in their success. That player is given more opportunities, as well as a support system, to ensure that he attains his full potential. A lot of hours and manpower were used to evaluate the decision to draft him. The media/fans are watching and the people involved in the selection will be judged for their decisions, so they want to look like they chose the right guy.
Early lottery picks will be given every chance to succeed. Late first-rounders usually go to a veteran and established team, so the opportunity to play immediately will be slimmer. There’s not as much pressure or judgment about their selection. There’s less of an investment and a different level of support around their success. Don’t get me wrong…they want you to be great, they would love for you to exceed their expectations, they love to find value where others don’t. But the percentages aren’t on your side the later you are drafted. If it comes down to cutting a guaranteed contract or a second-rounder, chances are the second-rounder gets released.
That said, I don’t believe it makes sense to leave school when you have the chance to play heavy minutes in an environment where you’re the main man. Playing is the only way to improve your game. The more you play, the better you get. The more polished you are when you reach the NBA, the more of a chance you’ll have to play right away. I’m not against early entry into the draft. I’m just against leaving a great college environment where you can flourish just to be drafted in the second round. There’s nothing wrong with being a second-round pick. I was one pick away from being one and there are tons of second-rounders who have had amazing careers. I just think their road can be a little harder.
For me, I believe that extra year at UK would have helped in the development of my skills and knowledge of the game. Barring any injuries, it could have helped me get my body more ready for the rigors of the NBA, as well as provide me with the opportunity to learn more about the connection between diet and performance. To this day, I feel that I lost some of my natural scoring ability in the post by sitting on the bench for my first two and a half seasons. Sitting out during that time I lost some of my ability to feel the defense with my body while scoring through contact. That happens from lack of live basketball reps. No one is going to give you enough opportunities to get your feel back during games.
Practices during the season are limited and live action almost never happens in NBA practices. There was no NBDL when I entered the NBA. I had to learn to limit my game to the things I could do well without making many mistakes whenever I got opportunities in games. As for most big men, that is rebounding and defending. For a young player it’s important to get game reps to improve, especially post players considering the limited number of touches we get during the natural flow of the game. To add salt to my already festering wound was the fact that the next NBA Draft lacked perceived quality centers.
This would have improved my chances to become an early lottery selection, thus improving my opportunities earlier on in my career. A developed Naz with more early opportunity is my reoccurring dream. Who knows how my path and impact on the game could have changed. My only fear about this alternate future is not learning from the vets (George Lynch, Aaron Mckie, Eric Snow, Theo Ratliff…) that I had in Philly who shaped my approach and preparation.
Who knows what could have been, but this topic has also been on my mind because I’ve been watching a lot of college basketball lately and seeing a lot of mock drafts. I also talk to my friends who are college basketball coaches and hear announcers on TV classifying players as projected first-rounders or lottery picks. It makes me laugh because at the end of the day, you hear the same thing about 60 (if not more) different guys. That doesn’t include the European prospects that currently make up over 25 percent of the NBA.
These kids are leaving school thinking they are about to get drafted in the first round, when so many of them go undrafted or have careers that don’t get off the ground. There’s so much bad information out there. It’s sad to see a kid with all the potential in the world reluctantly play overseas or the D-League, especially if they had 1-3 more years of eligibility in college. Some disappear after a few years, never to be heard about again in basketball circles.
I want these young men who are making their decisions now to understand that leaving school to be a second-round pick is tough. I know these young players feel like they have the confidence and skills to compete in the NBA. Some might even think they are better than plenty of vets on NBA rosters. I know this because I was the same way. Even though you work hard, will run through a brick wall, do anything necessary to outplay the guy in front of you, getting an opportunity is very difficult.
If you’re in a college situation where you’re the star that’s carrying your team, that knowledge and experience is invaluable. Learning the nuances of the game and being in an environment where you are depended upon will only make you a better NBA player. The pressure you will endure in these situations will give you more situations to draw upon for strength and guidance when taking your game to the next level. Why would you want to rush into the NBA to have a short career or get cut right away? Why wouldn’t you want to stay in school, earn your degree, and reap the social benefits of giving yourself time to grow up, not to mention possibly being a higher draft pick the following year? Injuries are always a concern and can’t be predicted, but you can’t play ball worried about the uncontrollable.
Despite all my NBA accomplishments, I left college without my degree…and that has always bothered me. I am currently 21 hours short of my degree from UK’s Gatton College of Business and Economics in Business Management. I wish I had just stayed for my senior year and graduated with the rest of my class. I did take classes for two summers after the Draft, but then life and my pursuit to earn more playing time got in the way of me continuing my education. I still want to earn my degree and receive a diploma that reads “University of Kentucky.” It’s a personal goal of mine that I hope to make happen. A degree is a real achievement, something to be proud of, something you tell your kids about. Oh, and by the way, a degree isn’t just about your education. It’s about showing your ability to start and complete the task at hand.
My NBA career was amazing. And so was my college experience. I just wish I had finished what I started back then…and my hope is that college kids going through this process can learn from me and use this advice when making their decision. The NBA isn’t going anywhere and more time will only make you a better player.
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