(I've moved this back up to the top after receiving an e-mail from Shoals clarifying/correcting my characterization of his position, which in turn helped me strengthen the end of the piece, I hope. Apologies to Shoals, and please enjoy the new paragraphs.)
I've made a few references to this in the last few days, mostly around the D-League draft, but it's probably time to talk about Latavious Williams. Because honestly, everyone else has so why not RU? Williams, if you haven't already read, was Tulsa's first round pick in last week's D-League draft. That fact is notable because he's the first player in D-League history to go straight there from high school.
The D-League wasn't Williams's first option. His "mentor/advisor" Trey Godfrey wanted Williams to follow in the footsteps of Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler and play overseas. Said Godfrey (back in June):
There's no deal in place...There have been conversations with several teams in several different countries. China is one of them, but there is no deal on the table.
Four months later, there still was no deal on the table, and Williams entered the D-League draft pool. The reaction to this news usually fell under the category of praising (or at least noting) it's historic nature and/or proclaiming what this move means for the future of basketball. As someone who has called for those high school players who won't be attending college to take their game to the D-League instead of Europe (or Asia, or South America), my own reaction may surprise you: it's just too early to tell what this will mean. I'll explain why after the jump.
As the first group of high school players to respond to the NBA's age limit by playing somewhere other than an American college, Jennings, Tyler and Williams will likely be linked together for some time, so let's consider them in turn. Brandon Jennings, of course, played in Italy last season at the age of 18. He didn't have the best season, with inconsistent minutes and reports that his game hadn't improved all that much. This season as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks, Jennings is playing reasonably well (21 points, five assists, just under two steals and three and a half turnovers per 36 minutes), and many observers are saying the same things ESPN's John Hollinger are: that playing in Europe made Jennings NBA-ready. I've already responded to that article (and the TrueHoop blog post) so I won't repeat myself at length, but my reaction is still the same. While Jennings may have grown as a person playing in Europe, the experience he had there was not unique to playing overseas. Furthermore, everything we know about what sort of basketball prospect Jennings was coming out of high school indicates that he could've been this good a year ago. He also was projected as a top-five pick before heading overseas, and this summer he ended up being drafted 10th. Drafts being what they are, we can speculate that at the very least he wasn't drafted any higher than he would've been had he never played in Europe.
Next up is Jeremy Tyler, who got bored with dominating his high school competition and wanted a bigger challenge. First he was headed to Serbia, but ended up with Maccabi Haifa in Israel. While Jennings is a point guard, Tyler is a 6'11" power forward/center with some skills that are increasingly prized in NBA big men such as agility and deft footwork. Both the New York Times and USA Today went over to Israel to check up on how he's doing, and the reports sound a bit like those on Jennings - riding the bench, occasionally showing flashes of talent but also struggling against more experienced competition. There are some differences, though, the primary one being that Tyler just doesn't seem as mature as Jennings. Not knowing you need a passport to fly outside the US and play ingloud music on Yom Kippur isn't necessarily Tyler's fault (sadly) - either handler Sonny Vaccaro or the Haifa coach probably should've clued him in there. But complaining about not being given a lavishly-furnished apartment, that kind of nonsense is on Tyler. And then there's being bothered by stuff like this (from the USA Today article):
There is little socializing with his teammates -- grown men, many with families, all trying to carve out professional careers of their own.
What, exactly, does Tyler think the NBA is like? There are friendships to be sure, but do you really think that, for example, Brandon Jennings is hanging out with Kurt Thomas on the reg? (Sorry, I know I'm behind but I just saw Eastbound and Down.) NBA locker rooms are, well, groups of grown men, many with families, all trying to carve out professional careers. If one were to draw conclusions based on Jennings's one season in Europe + a handful of NBA games + Tyler's handful of games overseas, it appears that a player's talent level and existing maturity level play a part in how they handle what shouldn't be a surprising situation - veterans being given playing time over 18 year olds in whom their team has no real stake.
Which brings us (finally) to Latavious Williams. There haven't been too many scouting reports on Williams's game, but the TrueHoop blog Daily Thunder has a pretty good description: a 6'8", 205 pound (DraftExpress lists him at 190) combo forward who is agile but whose offensive game at this point consists of dunks and tip-ins, and who doesn't defend much and doesn't get nearly as many rebounds as he could. Williams will likely have a similar experience to Tyler and Jennings while playing for Tulsa - the 66ers already have several power forwards (and small forwards) with more experience, and Oklahoma City has several players that they could - and should - send down at that position.
So far all that ties these three players together is their choice to go away from the college game, but as Brown Recluse, Esq. astutely points out over at FreeDarko, it wasn't really a choice for Jennings or Williams. The NCAA's academic eligibility rules forced those players to seek other options. I won't get into the arguments over whether requiring a certain level of academic achievement is wise/necessary/laudable/inane, or any of the discussions involving standardized testing as a measure of academic achievement and/or fitness, but I will say that where BRE notes that "these players were willing (and even wanted) to go to college...If Garnett or Jennings had been allowed to go to college, it’s not difficult to imagine them extolling the experience and continuing to take classes the way Durant and Oden have," players don't usually go play for coaches like Calipari (as Williams would have and John Wall did), Pitino and arguably Calhoun because they're interested in the college experience and taking classes.
To my point, because I've spent too much time on the preliminaries: much of the discussion thus far has been what effect the career paths of Jennings, Tyler and Williams will have on the NCAA. Even Dan Shanoff's TrueHoop post that I linked to earlier this week notes that would be "one-and-done" players going to the D-League instead is positive for college basketball because it will break coaches' dependence on players like Greg Oden, OJ Mayo and Kevin Durant. Personally, though? I really don't care about what's good for NCAA basketball, and I certainly don't care about college basketball coaches. The fact is, that the NCAA will be fine. Attending/playing at college is still the easiest path, and despite how some may characterize it, going over to Europe for a year or two isn't "bypassing" or "subverting" the NBA's age requirement, it's adhering to it in a different way. Even if the top 20 players from each high school recruiting class decide to play in Europe or Asia or in the D-League, the NCAA still will be able to create stars through the annual tournament, and the majority of college basketball fans are there to root for their alma mater anyway, regardless of who plays for it.
What Latavious Williams should represent is another step towards the D-League becoming a true minor league for the NBA. He, Jennings and Tyler all have highlighted the existing landscape for players who - for whatever reason - won't be playing NCAA ball. It's now up to the NBA to change this landscape into something more to its benefit. In the comments section of that FreeDarko post, Bethlehem Shoals notes that an NBA team not being able to call up a super-talented "high school player" (for lack of a simpler term) like a John Wall who might be on its D-League roster even though that player is clearly NBA-ready could make the D-League "look silly," at least as it stands as a minor league devoted to development. I think that's a little strong, for two reasons.
First, even the best potential "one and done" players need to on something. From what I've read, John Wall still has a shaky jumpshot, and on the defensive end mainly relies on his athleticism to block shots rather than locking down his man. Heck, even LeBron James still needs to improve his footwork if Yahoo's Kelly Dwyer is to be believed (and he is). Even if it's something relatively small in the context of a player's overall game (as with James), players can always improve and develop, especially when they're 18 and 19 years old. Do you really think John Calipari is going to help Wall with his jump shot? Or that he would've helped Latavious Williams? Everything I know about Calipari indicates that he's more concerned with recruiting the best athletes and using their superior talent to win games for him rather than helping them improve in any deficient areas of their games. Hasheem Thabeet spent four years in college but still needed to work with D-League coach Scott Roth before the draft because his game hadn't fully developed to where it needed to be at UConn.
Second is something I wrote about in my response post to the ESPN article/TrueHoop post about Brandon Jennings's time in Europe. To recap, some sports writers are now crediting the humility Jennings gained from not playing much in Rome and his experience being surrounded by other pros for his professionalism and overall NBA readiness early in the season. As I've pointed out, humility is easy to come by in the D-League. There's been some hand-wringing over Philadelphia's small attendance number of around 11,000 per game. That's still ten times (or more) the size of a D-League crowd, and there were some games last season that probably had high-double figures/low-triple figures in the stands. Someone like Williams will get a chance to play not only with minor league veterans but also actual NBA players who might get sent down to Tulsa this year, and play against any other NBA assignees. Even a school like Kentucky can't consistently guarantee the same caliber of teammate or opponent.
The D-League was a last resort for Latavious Williams after both college and playing overseas ruled themselves out. Seeing that fact, along with Jennings and Tyler choosing to play in Europe, should spur the NBA on to make changes to the way it deals with high school players. One disadvantage of not being able to call up or even retain the NBA rights of a "one and done D-Leaguer" is that it encourages lazier teams like the Clippers to freeload off of the development work done by smarter teams like the Spurs or Rockets and draft their players (sure it's a different system, but I doubt Donald Sterling or Mike Dunleavy care about that). One way to solve that problem could be to allow high school players drafted by a D-League team to be "transferred" up to the NBA the following year (or whenever they're eligible), but not allow them to be called up before they meet the age requirement. It would solve the freeloading issue while keeping the age limit in place, and there's an added benefit that NBA teams would be encouraged to become either directly or hybrid-ly (not a real word) affiliated with a D-League team in order to reap that benefit. That's one suggestion, but the point is that it's now the NBA's turn to figure out how to get the most out of this new class of player - talented, not old enough for the NBA and either unwilling or unable to go to college. In the immediate wake of the NBA instituting its age limit, most observers focused on the "one-and-done" players.The collective experience of Jennings, Tyler and Williams shows that the NBA needs a long-term strategy to focus on the development of young talent outside of the NCAA without discouraging players from attending college.
As it stands now, and as I've written before, playing in the D-League rather than Europe has advantages for players, such as the possibility of greater endorsement deals and TV (or at least general media) exposure. There's also the fact that players in the D-League work with coaches who specialize in helping players prepare for the NBA, not just win the EuroChallenge (this is no knock on European coaches, but the fact is that they have different goals). Teams, however, don't yet see much benefit from having high school players in the D-League, but they easily could.
Latavious Williams may or may not make the NBA, but what his joining the D-League out of high school means for the NBA age limit and the NCAA as the traditional route to the pros should matter less to the NBA than the fact that the onus is now on them to determine whether they want to take advantage of having an in-house option for developing basketball talent. Even moreso than with Brandon Jennings, it's now up to David Stern (and Dan Reed) to seize the initiative and figure out a way for minor league basketball to work.