Two Divergent Paths

By Ryan McNeill

While reading through some stories in my RSS reader this weekend I came across a gem from USA Today about former high school stars and teammates Andre Igoudala and Richard McBride. According to the article by Marlen Garcia both players were poised to make the jump to the NBA but McBride’s basketball career has had numerous speed bumps (including problems with the law) and he’s stayed at Illinois for four seasons with little chance of being drafted this spring. Igoudala on the other hand, the younger protege, successfully made the jump to the NBA after his sophomore season.

What prevented McBride from enjoying the same success on the hardwood as his former teammate is the same problem that cursed Damon Bailey – he peaked in high school.

Marlen summed up McBride’s shortcomings when she wrote:

It’s a far cry from the end of his sophomore high school season in 2001, when Patton told the Chicago Sun-Times that McBride “is the best player I have ever coached, the best player I have ever seen — next to Kevin Garnett and Tim Thomas.”

Garnett and Thomas, both NBA players, had been high school phenoms. Garnett went straight to the NBA from Chicago’s Farragut Academy in 1995; Thomas spent a year at Villanova before entering the draft in 1997.

McBride, a shooting guard, stood 6-2 as a high school freshman playing on the varsity and made such a mark that there was talk he could also bypass college and head to the NBA.

“We all thought he was going to (be) 6-6 or 6-7,” says Lanphier athletics director Jim Cozzolino, then an assistant principal. “He stopped growing at 6-3.”

By the time McBride graduated in 2003, he was the school’s all-time leading scorer with more than 2,000 points, but the rest of the country’s elite players had caught up to him.

Reading the stories of these two players is reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy for McBride. He played the role of the older brother who helped Iguodala get into the national spotlight but it seems like the baton was passed late in their high school careers and the big brother lost his chance at fame and fortune while the younger brother went on to enjoy prosperity.

When summarizing Igoudala’s high school career Marlen wrote:

Iguodala’s development was slower but steady. He started high school at about 5-10 and kept growing. He made his way to the varsity via the freshman and sophomore teams and learned to play every position.

Until his senior year, Iguodala played in McBride’s shadow. It was McBride who vouched for Iguodala to get him on the same traveling club team.

“I was a late bloomer. He was one of the best players in the country,” Iguodala says. “He got me some exposure. He got me playing against some of the top guys in the country.”

In the summer of 2001, Iguodala became a star on the club circuit, grabbing the attention of coaches from Illinois to Arkansas and Arizona. Since, Iguodala’s rise has been meteoric. “His confidence went from below the belt to above and beyond,” McBride says.

In the 2002 Illinois high school championship game of the state’s large-school division, McBride and Iguodala entertained with a dazzling array of shots as Lanphier rallied to nearly beat Chicago’s Westinghouse High School.

McBride says the game was his most thrilling moment on the court, a telling statement considering he was a reserve on Illinois’ 2005 team that advanced to the NCAA national championship game against North Carolina.

Iguodala signed with Arkansas but got released from his letter of intent when coach Nolan Richardson’s contract was bought out. Iguodala opted for Arizona and became an all-Pacific-10 player in his second year.

From there he was the ninth player taken in the 2004 NBA draft. As a rookie he was the only 76er to start every game. He began Wednesday averaging 15.0 points and 6.1 rebounds and ranked second in the NBA in steals.

McBride on the other hand has seen his chances of playing in the NBA shrivel up quicker than a man’s boys after jumping into a cold pool.

Marlen summarized McBride’s disappointing college career by writing:

College was a rude awakening for McBride. Coach Bill Self had landed him at Illinois but left for Kansas before McBride arrived.

McBride quickly realized he had an uphill battle for playing time behind three current pro players —Luther Head of the Houston Rockets and Deron Williams and Dee Brown of the Utah Jazz. To his credit, McBride understood his role and became the trio’s understudy.

“Rich has some limitations athletically, no doubt,” Weber says. “He’s really worked at it. He can’t go in the lane and jump over people. He just can’t.”

In his first two years, McBride was on the receiving end of good-natured jokes. Teammates took jabs because he was balding and because he wasn’t a good defender. He also has struggled to maintain a lean weight.

Academics have been tough, but his grades “are good enough to be eligible,” McBride says. He is on track to receive a degree in sport management once he completes an internship next summer.

“Playing basketball four hours a day took a toll on my body,” McBride says. “Everything took a toll. It’s just a lot of work behind the scenes that people don’t know about.”

Last season McBride found his niche, averaging 10.0 points and starting every game. It wasn’t a dramatic turn, but there was improvement. He had positioned himself for a decent senior year.

He nearly lost it all in a drunken-driving charge Sept. 29 when his blood-alcohol level, authorities said, registered 0.181, more than double Illinois’ legal limit of 0.08. His court case is pending.

Hearing about the stories of McBride and Iguodala leads me to a question I haven’t been able to answer – would McBride have benefited from jumping straight to the NBA out of high school? While it’s conceivable he could have cashed in a couple cheques from a NBA team it’s also likely that he would have forfeited his college eligibility and become yet another basketball vagabond bouncing between the D League and European teams. Despite losing his dream of playing in the NBA at least McBride’s had the opportunity to play four years of college hoops and he has a chance at earn a degree this spring.

Jon Wertheim wrote about the financial reasons for high school players declaring for the NBA Draft in his book Transition Game: How Hoosier Went Hip-Hop and stated:

Why the righteous indignation in hoops? One explanation is that Operation Bypass College has wrecked the symbiotic relationship between the NBA and NCAA. For years, the college game provided the NBA with a subsidized minor league that enabled players to polish their games and their personas in equal measure, before becoming professionals. Also, the NBA is a star-driven league and the college game helped make luminaries – when Bird, Jordan and Barkley were drafted, they were already entrenched in the public consciousness. As for the college game, in the halycon days when the best high school players matriculated to State U, the on-court product was better, recruiting was easier, fans could form deeper attachments to familiar teams (it’s no coincidence that television ratings for the NCAA Tournament have tanked in recent years). Then, once a player completed his tour and left for the pros, State U., could puff it’s chest and boast that it was the alma matter of this or that NBA player.

It was a terrific deal for all parties except one: the class of talented eighteen-year olds who were enriching universities to the tune of millions while shouldering huge opportunity costs by deferring the NBA’s lucre. Worse still, the current NBA salary structure is such that a player is constricted by a graduated rookie wage scale that precludes even the best player from getting a truly fat contract until he has played five years. A college graduate who enters the NBA at twenty-two might not be eligible for “max money” until he is twenty-seven. After that deal lapses he will likely be in his mid-thirties and play for a “veteran exemption” salary. An eighteen-year old who turns pro will get his max deal at twenty-three and then possibly another at twenty-eight. Get NBA owners to go “off the record” and they’ll concede that the extra big contract is the real reason they want to see the age limit imposed.

Financial reasons aside, while attending college is a great option for some players, what about the high school stars who just aren’t able to get the grades they need to attend college? Now that Stern has implemented an age rule stipulating you need to be out of high school for a year before you can declare for the NBA Draft, what happens to players that aren’t able to get the SAT scores they need to head to college for a year?

I think it’s a sad situation when players need to start looking at playing pro ball over in Europe for a year because of a rule The Commish has put into effect to “protect” young players and I don’t see how this rule protects anyone except the NBA’s owners and their wallets.

What does everyone else think about this topic? Should players be allowed to declare for the NBA Draft directly out of high school? Do you feel bad for players like McBride or Bailey who “peaked” too early?

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5 thoughts on “Two Divergent Paths

  1. fascinating stuff, ryan. iguodala is one of my favorite players nowadays – not because he’s perfect, far from it, but precisely because his team needs him desperately to blossom into a franchise guy. this story added another dimension to him. great stuff.

    as for the age limit, i have really mixed feelings about it. on the one hand, it’s absolutely true that high school phenoms are losing a copious amount of money. on the other hand, i kinda agree with one of the freedarko guys, who wrote once that the age limit was nice to the extent that it meant that going to college was no longer seen as a failure by potential nba prospects (msot of which would never make the league anyway). So I guess I tend to go with it – especially cos Jon Wertheim~s reasoning is a bit off, since high schoolers only need to attend one year of college to become eligible (the guy talks as if a player had to complete college to get into the draft). TOugh issue, though.

  2. Much of Wethheim’s views on the age limit are correct. How nice of NBA owners to have the opportunity to further examine talent for free thanks to NCAA hoops and Stern’s rule. As Pedro said, I’m unsure about the saving money part, too, because a player can jump to the league at 19 and still get the two big contracts at an early age.

    But the post is awesome, Ryan. I had no idea Andre and McBride were so close….

  3. Funny side note…LeBron James and Maurice Clarett both went to the same high school, Clarett was a year older and look where he is compared to where LeBron is, LOL!

  4. “what happens to players that aren’t able to get the SAT scores they need to head to college for a year?”

    If they can’t get the SAT scores to get into State U, or even into JuCo, then what are the odds that they will be ready to study complex playbooks, study film, and scouting reports? Heck, what are the odds they’ll even be able to READ the playbook?

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