Leaving Early Would Be Understandable

Officially, the Alabama men's basketball team only honored Earnest Shelton, Lucky Williams, Jason Reese and manager Brian Pounders at its senior night Wednesday before routing Auburn.

If Mark Gottfried had wanted to, though, he could have easily called out Kennedy Winston to join them.

Chances are, it was his last game at Coleman Coliseum, too.

In his third year on campus, Kennedy Winston, a junior swingman, has developed into one of the most versatile players in the SEC and college basketball.

The 6-foot-6 Prichard native can create his own shots. He's deadly if left alone outside the three-point line. And he's money in the clutch – just ask LSU guard Antonio Hudson, who watched as Winston banked in a game-tying three-pointer over his hands last Tuesday, a play forgotten thanks to Ross Neltner's buzzer-beating tip-in at the other end.

Those skills have made him a valuable commodity on this level – and at the next level. Winston is a bona fide first-round NBA draft pick; most draft sites project him as a mid-to-late first round selection.

Factor in the three-year guaranteed contract and Winston's uncertain financial situation, and it's all but a certainty that he'll declare for the draft, and, most likely, stay in it to soak up what will be a payday like he's never seen before.

Good for him. Bad for Alabama, but good for Winston.

Although some fans don't seem to understand it, Winston has fulfilled all reasonable expectations placed upon him when he signed a UA scholarship three years ago.

Frankly, Gottfried and the Tide are lucky to have had him this long, in today's draft-driven culture that speculates about a player's future every time he hits three shots in a row.

Up north at Kentucky, Wildcat fans are already wondering how long star freshman point guard Rajon Rondo will stay on campus. And 6-10 freshman forward Randolph Morris isn't far behind.

On Winston's own team, freshman do-everything point guard Ronald Steele is hearing the whispers, too. His father, Ronald Sr., told me last week that his son will try and graduate in three years, then "things will fall where they may."

"If he's ready to graduate, and it happens, he might be ready to try (the NBA)," Steele Sr. said. "He wants to go into the NBA for sure, but he has a smart head on his shoulders about his education."

Winston's mother, Jessica Stovall, has said in the past that she wants her son to get an education, too. But opportunities like the one Winston has before him don't come along every day.

What happens if he comes back for his senior season, then blows out a knee on a lay-up or goes down hard on a fast break and injures his neck?

Sure, he could get an insurance policy that would give him a couple million dollars if his career is over, but those policies don't pay off if an injury costs you speed – say, just enough speed to keep you off an NBA roster but on an NBDL team.

That's why the time is right – right now – for Winston to jump.

Sadly, the NBA puts a premium on those who leave college behind for its riches. Look at all of the prep stars who have declared for the draft recently, following the path of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal.

Plenty of college stars have followed them, too. Take Alabama, for example, where Rod Grizzard, Gerald Wallace and Mo Williams have all left Gottfried behind after only two or three years, with varying degrees of success.

It's time to realize the era of the four-year college basketball star has passed, along with that of the polished, superstar seven-foot college center.

They've been usurped by the NBA, which isn't giving them back. Ever.

Winston is simply a product of that era.

For three years, he's done all the right things at Alabama. After a NCAA suspension shortened his freshman year, he turned down a chance to play with the US under-18 select team so he could practice with his teammates and erase a disappointing 17-12 season that ended in the NCAA Tournament's first round.

Last season, he gutted out an All-SEC campaign on a bad knee, weakened by a preseason injury, and led the Tide to its first ever Elite Eight appearance.

He could have jumped then, but knew another year in college was the right move. So he had another surgery on the knee, and returned for what has been another great season – 18 points and five rebounds per game heading into Saturday's regular season finale at Mississippi State.

He's been a consummate team leader, along with Shelton and junior forward Chuck Davis, saying and doing the right things, even about the NBA talk.

"The last day we stop playing (I'll start thinking about it seriously)," he said. "That's when you really start. It can't help you right now. As long as we keep winning, keep getting exposure, and I'm playing well, we're winning. That's what really helps."

If Winston leaves the program after three years, it'll be after a carefully weighed decision that leaves him feeling he's done all he can do at this level.

For three years, he's done right by Alabama basketball. Can we fault him if he wants, now, to do right for his family?

Some surely will. But they don't understand Winston – or college basketball.


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