NBA Draft Doesn't Bother Tide

A few suggestions before you get deep into this column: Sit back. Relax. Exhale. The National Basketball Association's deadline for early draft entry is only a few days away, but The University of Alabama basketball program has nothing to worry about. For the first time in five years, Mark Gottfried's staff isn't dealing with an early NBA defection.

Good. It's about time a few young players came to their senses. For the past few years, I've watched players wearing Alabama uniforms (and quite a few that weren't) make silly decisions that negatively impacted the rest of their basketball careers.

For once, early May will pass quietly in the Alabama basketball offices–and that's very good news for both the Crimson Tide program and the career of Kennedy Winston, Alabama's only early-entry candidate this season.

Gottfried's program has suffered serious setbacks thanks to a few helpful pushes from opportunistic agents and star-struck players who overestimated their value on the professional level.

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment.

Sure, this season's Elite Eight team was amazing. Historical.

You think maybe–just maybe–that team could have played for a national title with Gerald Wallace and/or Mo Williams in the starting lineup? Of course it could have.

Instead, both watched the incredible NCAA Tournament run from NBA benches; Wallace in Sacramento and Williams in Utah. Wallace left after an up-and-down freshman season three years ago; Williams left following his sophomore season last year.

A case can be made for addition by subtraction too. Wallace, a heralded high school player, was a poor shooter and contributed little beyond an amazing dunk or two per game.

Williams was far more talented than all-heart Antoine Pettway, but he shot too often and forgot a point guard's most important role–distributing the ball and getting the rest of his team in the game.

Williams made himself the heart of the offense, which led to serious chemistry problems.

Pettway naturally fit as the heart of the team thanks to a less-is-more playing style. He was a natural clutch shooter, as crucial shots against Southern Illinois, Arkansas, Georgia and Charlotte showed.

It's hard imagining Alabama in the Elite Eight with Williams as the starting point guard.

Wallace and Williams are the lucky ones, though. They both finished the season on NBA rosters, which is more than Schea Cotton or Rod Grizzard (Alabama's other early entrants) can say.

Cotton was last seen in these parts barnstorming with the EA Sports All-Stars, a traveling exhibition team.

Grizzard has bounced around the NBDL (the NBA's minor league) after getting cut by the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks in the 2002 preseason.

His story illustrates why early entry is such an inexact science. Grizzard was a likely first-round draft pick after leaving Alabama following his junior season. But he suffered a chip fracture in his knee during a pre-draft workout, and his draft stock plummeted.

The Wizards picked him up midway through the second round, signed him to a non-guaranteed contract and quickly cut him.

Since then, he's been stuck in NBDL purgatory–a fate many talented players never escape.

Had Grizzard returned for his senior season and had an outstanding year, he'd have solidified his draft status and maybe led Alabama to another SEC title (and a fate better than a disappointing season that flamed out in the NCAA's first round).

Those are what-ifs no one can ever answer.

Winston has apparently learned from his predecessors' mistakes. When early departure talk flared up in February after he had a couple great games, Gottfried quieted it with a stinging statement.

He told reporters, "There's nobody else talking to me about it except people in the media. Yeah, I'm sensitive about it. I don't think it should happen, I don't think he's ready, I'll tell him, I'll tell the world. I'm not going to sit back like I have."

Winston listened. Two weeks later, he said he'd return, no questions asked. He's held firm since the season concluded. He'll take two months off to rest his aching left knee (which repeatedly swelled up during the season after fall cartilage surgery) and then train with his teammates.

Gottfried said last week that departure was "never an issue" with Winston.

Sounds like someone finally listened in Tuscaloosa.

Usually, players listen to whoever they want to listen to. Some of them come from impoverished backgrounds, and all it takes is one person–be it an agent, coach, general manager or family member–saying the magic words "first-round" to convince them.

Athletes are different than you or I. They're driven by pride and ego, and if they see a glimmer of a goal in the distance–no matter how unrealistic it is–they go for it.

If you think that only 30 players are told they're "first-round" material each year, I've got some beachfront property near Omaha, Nebraska, I'd love to talk to you about.

Agents and teams telling players they're first-round caliber don't care whether they're right or not. All teams care about is whether they get the right guy at their spot, and all agents really care about is whether they get paid.

I'd love to hear what some teams are telling players. Last week, seven-foot Charlotte freshman center Martin Iti declared for the draft but didn't retain an agent, keeping his option to return open. That would be the same Martin Iti that scored seven points and grabbed six rebounds against Alabama in December and averaged six points and four rebounds this year.

Is he serious, or is this an elaborate ruse better suited for Punk'd or the Jamie Kennedy Experiement?

If Iti stays in the draft, he'll just be one of dozens of players disappointed when the two-round draft concludes June 24.

Luckily, that's a problem Mark Gottfried and his team will leave to others–at least this year.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com


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