The Decision to Stay in School or Go Pro

A handful of athletes will have an opportunity to turn pro before they have completed their college eligibility. Career-wise, there is nothing better than getting paid to do what they love. And there is nothing wrong with players doing everything in their power to get to the pros as soon as possible. But it’s also a decision fraught with peril.

As much as we want players to stay in college all four years, that is not always realistic. Think about it: A young person who dreams of becoming a doctor does not dream of attending medical school. He dreams of being a doctor. Same for the best basketball players: They dream of playing in the NBA, not in college.

In the end, the goal of everyone should be to help players get this important decision right. Unfortunately, the NCAA puts players in a difficult position. Starting this year, players must declare whether or not to turn pro by April 10th. This basically guts the player-friendly “testing the NBA water” rule which gave them the opportunity to gain valuable insight on where they stood in the NBA Draft.

To me, if the NCAA and its coaches truly care about players, they would not force them to make such a serious decision with limited information. And they would not turn their backs on players who overestimated their draft stock, especially if they maintain their NCAA eligibility (no agent, no extra benefits, maintain academic requirements). But it’s not about the players’ best interest and minimizing the fallout from potentially bad decisions. It’s about coaches who want scholarship certainty.

So, how should top college players approach this decision? Here are some of the main points I make in my book, Money Players, and in my booklet, Go Pro Like a Pro, regarding the weighty issue of going pro or staying:

Get good counsel

Newsflash: There are always going to be people with self-serving agendas seeking involvement with athletes. We should all provide young, impressionable athletes with the best possible information to help them make informed decisions.

Players and their families need to recognize that there is a lot of bad information out there. Some coaches reflexively tell players not to go pro—and do their best to drive a wedge between players and agents. On the other hand, I believe the majority of agents shoot straight with players about his pro prospects. Why would a commissioned agent give bad advice? Think about it: 3% of zero income is zero. Unfortunately, if a player talks to enough agents, there is a good chance someone will tell him what he wants to hear.

The case for staying in college

Many players are focused on getting into professional sports, but they never think beyond that. Do they want to be a first-round pick, sign a rookie contract and then be out of the League after a couple of seasons? Or is their goal to have a 10-year career? College prepares young people for a career, whether in business, medicine, law or sports. For most athletes, it is the place to hone the skills needed to succeed as a pro.

A player may decide to stay in school no matter how many millions pro sports may offer. The reasons could include:
• Getting a degree to satisfy himself and his parents
• Enjoying college
• Improving athletic skills
• Developing physically and emotionally

The case for leaving

If a young man has little interest in being a student or is just trying to maintain eligibility, that could (and perhaps should) make him lean toward leaving. Still, that is a shortsighted approach filled with peril.

If a player is a first-round NBA pick, he will sign a contract that will guarantee him millions of dollars., which is hard to pass up. He could always work on a college degree during the off-season. But turning pro before eligibility expires isa gamble. The best advice on the subject matter comes from Jerry West who once told me, “The goal shouldn’t be just to get to the NBA. It should be to stay in the NBA.” Obviously, there are economic realities that can make this decision more difficult, but I think West’s point is well taken: What steps can a player take today that will maximize their career in the long run?

What combination of circumstances might make it reasonable to turn pro before finishing college? A player who knows he will be a top pick and has a high level of athletic development and the maturity to cope with life in the NBA.

Dean Smith said it best

While there are coaches who probably would prefer their players to stay all four years, that is not always realistic—or fair. Former UNC coach Dean Smith would tell players: “We have one rule here: We do what’s best for the player out of season and what’s best for the team in season.” Coach Smith would generally advise players projected to be top 10 picks to come out early primarily because they could secure their financial future. If a player is projected to be an NBA lottery pick (among the first 14 selected), most coaches (and unbiased experts) will support a player’s decision to turn pro.

To go or not to go?

College is a tremendous opportunity to learn and mature. Alternatively, for a select few, the money and competition available in professional sports is simply too much to pass up. Whatever a player decides, he needs to get the decision right.

The party line from many coaches and athletic administrators is, “stay in school.” There is nothing wrong with selling young athletes on the benefits of college, but every situation is different. The window of opportunity for pro athletes is extremely narrow. If enough money is on the table, going pro does not have to mean a player is giving up on his education.

If a player is unsure about his mental or emotional readiness, stay in school. If the draft marketplace indicates a player is ready—and he feels ready—go for it!

Marc Isenberg
Twitter: @marcisenberg

About Marc Isenberg
Marc Isenberg is a nationally-recognized athlete advocate for high school, college and pro athletes. A national columnist for Basketball Times, Marc is a frequent speaker at elite basketball camps and athletic programs and teams, including UCLA, RbkU and the Orlando Magic. In 2012, Marc, with Nolan Smith of the Portland Trail Blazers, founded Hoops Family , an organization devoted to educating and mentoring basketball players—and advocating on their behalf.

Marc’s publications
Money Players: A Guide to Success in Sports, Business & Life

Compete: A Guide for College-Bound Basketball Players (in partnership with iHoops)

Go Pro Like a Pro