In March, former Georgetown guard L.J. Peak surprised many by declaring for the NBA draft with the express intention of hiring an agent. Sure, he was coming off a career season for the disappointing Hoyas, but questions lingered.
Could Peak shoot well enough to succeed in in the league? Was he sufficiently athletic? Should he have remained in school and attempted to solidify his stock for next year's draft?
Peak had other concerns on his mind.
"I just thought I was ready to play at the next level," he told VICE Sports. "I'm ready to support my family. I have a son. He's getting older and starting to need a lot of things. Money played a big role. After the season, I sat down with my mom and mentor and talked over some things. And we decided it was best for me to leave."
Every year at this time, college underclassmen declare for the draft. And when they do, concern-trolling takes from fans and basketball writers quickly follow, calling these athletes stupid, telling them to go back to school, and reminding them that while many players make the same decision as Peak (so far, 137 collegians have entered the 2017 draft), there are only 30 first-round, guaranteed-money picks, and 60 draft slots total.
What's astounding about these sentiments—beyond the condescending assumption that athletes who have been building toward this moment for basically their entire lives are incapable of understanding simple math—is the absolute lack of regard they show for the varied situations of each player who is making the decision to turn pro. Those decisions are uniquely personal, and take place within the context of actual human lives. Meanwhile, the finger-wagging tends to be abstract, and mistakenly assumes that athletes are ill-informed and incapable of thinking things through.
Not every player has a similar life to the journalists who are blithely using their hopes and dreams to make points about valuing education, or patiently waiting your turn, or damn Millennials and their instant gratification smartphones, or whatever. Take Peak. He didn't exactly come from money. Sure, he grew up in a two-parent home in Gaffney, South Carolina, and his mom and dad made sure he got what he needed.
Still, when Peak was a teenager and had to travel around the country to play AAU basketball, his mother held weekend neighborhood fish fries to fund his trips. That hustle helped Peak establish himself on the recruiting market, and he eventually became a top-65 prospect in the Class of 2014.
Peak subsequently received scholarship offers, and became the first person in his family to go to college when he attended Georgetown—a fact he doesn't take lightly. Peak is a semester and a half away from completing his degree, and plans to go back and finish over the next two years, the time frame in which the school will honor his scholarship. The prospect of finally being able to provide for a family who hasn't been given much in their lives was too enticing to pass up, even if Peak knows that nothing is guaranteed.
"I think I'll go in the second round," Peak said when I asked where he believes he falls in the hierarchy of NBA prospects. League executives I spoke with generally agree, at least at this early point in the pre-draft evaluation process. Peak is one of about 50 or so players who could be taken in the second round, and while he's aware that there are no guaranteed contracts for those players—or for undrafted players who receive Summer League or training camp invites—he's confident that he'll "go in, work as hard as anyone in there," and make an impression on an NBA team.
There are plenty of reasons college players decide that the time is right to turn pro. Sometimes, athletes are simply done with school. There's no shame in that. Education is important, and basketball scholarships can allow players who otherwise might not receive a college degree to get one. On the other hand, the American basketball system is unique in that it forces elite players into college; no other country in the world does the same. That system doesn't necessarily work for everyone, and some athletes simply want to start working and earning income while their playing value is high.
Moreover, basketball is a worldwide business. Even if the NBA doesn't work out immediately, or at all, a player like Peak can make a living elsewhere. Transitioning to European basketball is extremely difficult, but also doable if you're focused. The Australian NBL has risen in prominence and is a bit less daunting in terms of language and cultural barriers. Here in the United States, the NBA and D-League are creating more opportunities this coming season by adding two two-way contracts per team, allowing 60 additional players to make $200,000 or more playing basketball.
And that's real money! As is the case with Peak, finances matter for many players who decide to turn pro. Basketball players have a limited time to cash in on their skills before their bodies either give out or age out. Consider Louisville's Jaylen Johnson, who averaged eight points and six rebounds as a starter for the Cardinals last season. The 220-pound forward isn't really seen as a viable NBA prospect right now, but in his statement discussing his choice to officially forego his final year of collegiate eligibility, he mentioned that "it is really important that I help out my mom and family."
Johnson's basketball career won't end after the NBA draft comes and goes. The above avenues are open to him, and if he can use them to improve his game, it's quite possible he could find himself in the league at some point. After all, approximately 70 of the 450 players currently on NBA rosters went undrafted.
Until a federal court has the guts to enforce antitrust law and overturn amateurism, the NCAA system will remain financially stacked against the athletes who make the billions of dollars flowing through it possible. Is it really so shortsighted and dumb for college basketball players, who already work demanding, full time jobs, to decide they'd like to be paid for their labor? We shouldn't shame athletes for turning pro; we should take the time to understand the context for each individual decision. Because when you actually take the time to talk to the young adults involved, you learn that these choices aren't made haphazardly, and they often are made with supporting others in mind.
Want to be the person who looks Peak's one-and-a-half-year-old son in the eye and tells him that his father is a misguided fool for trying to earn a living doing what he wants to do? Fine. Keep generalizing about underclassmen leaving school. Just as players have the right to make their own decisions about what to do with their lives, you have the right to sound like an asshole. But that doesn't mean you have to exercise it. You could also take a deep breath, listen, and empathize. You just might learn something.
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