Kevin Love and Michael Beasley sit side-by-side in a Minneapolis gym. Suddenly, Love does the unthinkable.
He stands up and hits Beasley in the face, at a speed somewhere between a slap and a smack. “He busted my lip,” Beasley says, so he runs after Love, jumps on his back and gives him a noogie.
Yes, a noogie. That classic playground tactic. Only this isn’t a pick-up game on some random court; Beasley and Love are rising NBA stars. If they occasionally still act like kids, well, it’s because they are.
At 22, Beasley and Love aren’t even the youngest players on the NBA’s youngest team. The Wolves opened the 2010-11 season with an average age of 24 years, 84 days. Instead of attending college and pursuing a degree — which, if not exceptionally talented some of them might still be doing — these athletes are fulfilling their dreams.
But it’s not all fun and games for these college-age millionaires.
A life-changing decision
Third-year players Beasley, Love and Kosta Koufos all came into the league following one year of college. Jonny Flynn entered the draft after two years, rookie Wesley Johnson after three (two at Iowa State, one at Syracuse). All have different stories, but one thing in common.
“Opportunity,” Johnson said as he explained why he didn’t return for his senior season at Syracuse. “I just think it was an opportunity for me just to go capture my dream.”
Some of the Wolves said the decision to leave college was easy. Others — like Corey Brewer, who went back for his junior year at Florida and won a second consecutive national title — said it was a little more difficult to leave college life behind. Either way, sometimes the money is just too hard to resist.
The Wolves took Johnson, 23, fourth overall in the 2010 NBA draft. In his rookie season he’s making $3.7 million, a figure many of the 50,000-plus students at the University of Minnesota, as they enter a depleted job market, would be happy to reach in their lifetime.
Beasley’s salary for this season, his first with the Wolves, is just shy of $5 million, and the 21-year-old Flynn is making $3.1 million this season.
“I lucked up,” Flynn said. “I like to say I hit the lotto.”
Many draft analysts have projected Gophers sophomore forward Rodney Williams as a potential NBA talent during his freshman season, but he came back as a sophomore because “you’ve got to know what’s best for you and what’s best for your future.”
Recently, though, the league has taken some of the decision-making power out of the hands of the athletes.
Starting with the 2005-06 season, the NBA Players Association passed a provision in its collective bargaining agreement that said all drafted players must be 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft and at least one year removed from high school.
Sebastian Telfair came to the NBA straight out of high school. Now in his seventh season and having played for five teams, Telfair wishes the rule had been in place before he entered the draft in 2004.
“At the time, you really don’t understand the significance of college basketball and all that kind of stuff that you could get out of it,” Telfair said. “The thing that makes me want to change my decision is I know I’ll never get a chance to play at that level. No matter what I do I can never play at that level, so hopefully my son can get to that level and play there for me.”
Beasley’s story might have mirrored Telfair’s, had he actually had the option. He grew up in a poverty-stricken family in Maryland, so when his first season at Kansas State came to a close, “my decision was pretty easy.”
“I wasn’t the most fortunate kid in the world, so it was just a better opportunity for my family, for my younger brothers and sisters, to put [them] through college.”
Love’s decision became easier after an outstanding freshman season at UCLA in which the Bruins advanced to the 2008 Final Four. Some of Love’s teammates — now-pros Russell Westbrook and Luc Mbah a Moute — planned on leaving, so he opted to join them. By the time Love signed with an agent, he knew he would be drafted no later than seventh overall, he said.
“I still miss college to this day,” said Love, who was taken fifth in 2008 by Memphis and immediately traded to the Wolves. “It’s a little bittersweet because obviously I was achieving a goal of my entire life, making the NBA and getting to share this experience with my family. But I still miss my buddies and getting to see them on a daily basis and being a part of that college atmosphere and that college team.”
Making the grade
Wolves coach Kurt Rambis said he wouldn’t have made it in the NBA right out of high school, and he didn’t even make it after four years of college at Santa Clara. After drafting Rambis in 1980, the New York Knicks waived him, so he played professionally in Greece for a year to hone his skills.
“Physically, maturity-wise, emotionally, I could not have come into the NBA at the age of 18,” said Rambis, who eventually played 14 years in the NBA. “If I would’ve come out of high school, I couldn’t have done it. Physically I couldn’t have done it.”
And that’s what a general manager must decide: whether it’s worth risking millions of dollars on the maturity and skill of a 19-year-old.
“There’s no rule attached to it,” Wolves second-year GM David Kahn said of considering age in drafting players, “but I think you have to factor that into it. And just as age is important, I think years in college, who they played for; all that … gets funneled into the decision-making process.”
Kahn said that players like Johnson and Flynn have had early struggles because their defensive scheme at Syracuse, a 2-3 zone, didn’t prepare them for the NBA, where most teams employ a man-to-man defense.
Intelligence and learning capabilities also play a role in where players are drafted in the NBA and in other sports. Athletes must go through a detailed interview process that gauges whether they will be able to make the transition, Kahn said.
“It’s not only so much how they’ll make it because most of them do,” Kahn said. “It’s how long will it take; how long are you willing to wait?”
A tough transition
For college students, the early morning hours are often reserved for late-night cramming, but for NBA players, that’s prime traveling time — and not by choice.
Flynn said he sometimes has to take 30 seconds to remember what city he’s in, mentioning the constant travel as the most difficult transition. In college, teams typically play twice a week with three or four days between games. The only time they play back-to-back days is during tournaments.
NBA teams normally play three or four games per week, sometimes as many as five games in seven days. The 82-game regular season is more than double the collegiate regular season.
The transition is also tough off the court when players leave the “false reality” of college, as Flynn puts it.
“College isn’t real life, but you’re taking a step from your parents’ home to college,” Flynn said. “That false sense of reality, that’s the best thing about college.”
Now the best thing, some of the Wolves said, is having free time, but it can also be dangerous to have less structure.
“You’ve got money, temptations and you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, and that’s where some players can get into trouble,” Rambis said.
Since most of the players are the same age, they spend a lot of time together off the court, which helps avoid some trouble. Beasley and Martell Webster both have music studios in their houses where Flynn said he and others rap sometimes. But Beasley said everyone has to be cautious about the people with whom they surround themselves because of the fame and fortune.
“Once you get a couple dollars, everybody wants to feel like [they’re] your best friend,” Beasley said. “You’ve got to stay on your Ps and Qs.”
There were also the lonely nights. Love played a full season before turning 21, so when players said, “Hey, come have a drink with us,” he had to decline.
“For me it was a lot of nights staying in my hotel room, staying at home not doing much,” Love said.
The 10-32 Wolves are still among the NBA’s worst teams. They’ve given away leads late in many of their games, which is a danger with young teams in most sports. However, the young group wouldn’t want to see anyone else after a losing battle.
“You’re going a while without winning any games, and it’s tough,” Flynn said. “But when you come into this locker room you’ve got these young guys always joking around, so it kind of eases that pain up.”
Many of the players on the Wolves are stuck on the downtrodden team because they had the skills to be drafted in the lottery. If they were a little worse, they could have been drafted to a contender.
“I think it’s better this way,” Johnson said. “We can grow and go through our learning pains together … It’s easy when you have veterans on your team that could just bail us out. It’s a benefit of a young team you can learn together.”
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