Because we view players in the NBA as distant superstar athletes, it is hard to remember that players like Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons and Utah Jazz shooting guard Donovan Mitchell are still college-aged kids. Towns would be a senior at the University of Kentucky; Simmons would be a junior at Louisiana State University; and Mitchell would be a junior at the University of Louisville. These players are not alone. Roughly 16 percent of players in the NBA are between 18-22 years old.
As college superstars, some of them saw themselves as normal college kids — our peers, even.
“We are both humans, both college kids, both trying to get through college,” Atlanta Hawks rookie power forward John Collins, 20, told the Wheel. “I just happen to play basketball.”
Yet, they aren’t unaware of their distinct situation.
“Obviously when you’re an athlete, people look at you a little bit differently,” fellow Hawks rookie power forward Tyler Cavanaugh, 24, added.
Indeed, many “one-and-done”s treat college as a stepping stone to fulfill their childhood dreams of playing in the NBA, and leave college after only one year. Boston Celtics rookie forward Jayson Tatum told the Associated Press as much when he decided to enter the NBA after spending one year at Duke University (N.C.).
“I’m excited to take the next step in pursuing my lifelong dream of playing basketball at the highest possible level,” Tatum said.
Surely, there were other factors at work for Tatum. For many highly recruited players out of high school like Tatum, failure to declare after just one year of college ball may entail a lower draft spot, which can lead players to miss out on millions of dollars.
For others, like longtime NBA center Kwame Brown who didn’t even go to college, turning pro is about finally being able to make money to provide for themselves and their families.
Many players may have the aspiration to play in the NBA. However, only 60 players are drafted into the NBA annually, only 114 rookies have played in a game this season and only 500 players play in the league. So before a player decides to actively pursue this dream, he must be one of the 500 best basketball players in the world and one of the best 100 players who aren’t already in the NBA, otherwise leaving college early would be fruitless.
Next, a player requests early status from the NBA commissioner at least 60 days before the draft. Typically, players also request an evaluation from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, a group of heads of basketball operations from NBA teams. Because they have scouted most of the college players all year, they will have a consensus on where a player will be drafted — in the lottery, top 10, first round, second round or undrafted. They will give this information to the player, who will then decide whether or not to stay in school or declare for the draft. NBA teams then decide collectively who are the 70 athletes they want to invite to the NBA Draft Combine, where pro scouts evaluate and interview players. For the next 10 days, players can choose to either stay in the draft or return to school. If they choose to stay in the draft, they typically hire an agent.
Once hired, the agent and the player arrange private workouts with teams. The number varies. For some players like Steph Curry, Towns and Lonzo Ball, that may only be one team. Yet there are others like Miami Heat rookie guard Derrick Walton Jr. who can’t even recall the number.
From there, players finally get drafted into the Association. On the court, they need to make a mental adjustment.
“All these guys are pros, the best in the world,” Collins said. “When you go from playing against kids to grown men in the snap of a finger, it wakes you up really quickly and lets you know about the intensity and the focus that goes into every play, and there’s a ton of it.”
That mental shift also comes with their approach to the game.
“Being a pro, there’s pressure everyday to keep getting better and keep paying your rent each day so you can earn your worth,” Cavanaugh said.
Then there is a change in lifestyle.
“In college, they pretty much have everything scheduled for you — classes, study hall, practice, travel,“ Cavanaugh said. “When you’re a pro, you have a lot more free time and down time.”
With their newfound freedom, the rookies said they like to explore their new cities. Some like to play video games while others like Cavanaugh like to “watch Netflix and chill.”
Nevertheless, having all that newfound freedom can be overwhelming.
“Sometimes you go blank and got to sit there and figure out what you want to do with all that free time,” Collins said with a chuckle.
Like most things in their lives, I wish I could relate.