The Leinart Lesson: An NBA Draft Preview

Hello Gainsville, is Joakim Noah available? Just wanted to make sure he saw the NFL Draft last week. In case he missed it, former Heisman Trophy winner, “can’t miss prospect” and quarterback most ready to play in the NFL Matt Leinart fell to #10. Sure, playing for Arizona with Larry Fitzgerald and Edgerrin James is a better alternative than playing with the San Francisco 49ers offense (heck, he had more talent at USC than the 49ers have), but the signing bonus for a #10 pick certainly is not the same as for the #1 pick.

I know ESPN’s Dick Vitale waxes poetic about players staying in school, but Noah would be smart to learn from Leinart’s lesson.

Matt Leinart would have been the unquestioned #1 pick in the NFL Draft last season. But by returning to enjoy college life and win another national championship (oops), scouts had more and more opportunites to nitpick and find things they did not like about his arm strength, past injuries, etc. Now, I think NFL teams make a colossal mistake when they get enamored with a player’s combine performance, not his football performance, but it’s their perogative.

Joakim Noah would be the #1 pick in the 2006 NBA Draft , if he enters. Right now, all scouts remember is the scintillating performance in the Final Four as he dominated the floor and led the Florida Gators to the National Championship. NBA General Managers, Scouts and Head Coaches will watch him run and jump at the pre-draft camps, oohh and aahh, and pick him #1, thinking about his potential, overwhelmed by his athleticism and length.

Instead, Noah plans to return to college to enjoy college life and win another national championship. Now, he has zero chance of being the #1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft because teams are already lining up to pick uber-teen Greg Oden, who may have been drafted number one in the 2005 NBA Draft. So, already Noah starts the season at #2. However, with another season in front of the fickle NBA scouts and general managers, and one where Florida, despite its talent, likely does not repeat (it’s so hard to win 6 games in a row during March Madness), NBA scouts will find holes and weaknesses they are too excited to see right now. They’ll see his slight frame as a problem, his funky-looking shot an impediment, etc. Right now, they don’t care. The 2006 NBA Draft is one of the worst NBA Drafts in a decade; next year, in what could be one of the best drafts in a decade (after the star-studded 2003 NBA Draft, of course), NBA scouts will look for ways to pick Josh McRoberts or Julian Wright or Thaddeus Young or some other player ahead of him. He will be yesterday’s news, not the next hot thing, as he is right now.

Sure, it’s great when kids go back to school and Vitale gets emotional about the glory of representing a school, not a corporate organization, but, honestly, this is the real world, and college basketball has not been an amateur sport in decades; NCAA basketball is a billion dollar industry in and of itself. If a kid shows up for one year on campus, attending class sporadically, does he really play with more pride than when he plays for a franchise that drafted him and gave him a million dollar guaranteed contract?

Sport is a business. American teenagers develop in a pre-professional environment, traveling the country on a shoe companies’ dime. NCAA basketball is a gigantic industry where universities profit handsomely and players receive only a college education; a college education is a big deal to most, but when you are months away from making millions, 18th Century British Literature and the Biology of AIDS are a little less important than NBA Agents 101, Strength and Conditioning and Back to the Basket Post Play.

In the business world, one must take advantage of the volatile market when it benefits him. In the sports world, franchises are enamored with potential; NBA General Managers love length, athleticism and young players who can develop in their system. The longer a player stays in college, the longer the NBA GM and scouts have to evaluate and, in most cases, find reasons to dislike the elite player, as they find more and more holes. Therefore, in the volatile marketplace, one must take advantage of the system when it benefits him.

And, therefore, the smart business decision for Noah (and others) is to seize the moment, learn from Leinart and enter the draft while you are the next hot thing, not a late lottery steal. If Noah chooses to follow Leinart’s path and ignore the business wisdom, eschewing his best opportunity to cash in as a #1 pick because his family is already financially set, then he is a fortunate student-athlete who should terrorize SEC opponents next year. However, in the business world, ignoring Leinart’s lesson certainly has its consequences.

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