Kentucky Basketball: Dan Shanoff Swings at Calipari and the Harrison Twins and Misses

Andy Lyons

Dan Shanoff writes a strange, ill-conceived article for USA Today that deserves a fisking.

There was a rather absurd article by Dan Shanoff in USA Today's sports section a few days ago entitled, "The Harrison twins didn't come back to Kentucky; they were rejected by the NBA (and that's John Calipari's problem, not just the Harrisons')." Obviously, this is a shot at both the Harrisons and Calipari and I think it deserves analysis. I'm not just going to pigeonhole Shanoff as a stupid hater, although I was tempted by his rather inflammatory title. Instead, we'll look at it as if it were seriously written with no malice intended toward either.

I feel kind of bad for the Harrisons. They wanted to be pros right now so badly; the professional market rejected them. Their "return" is completely (and justifiably!) begrudging.

There's no doubt that the twins wanted to be pros after this season — that much is known. I do take exception to the idea that the NBA "rejected" them, because in no universe of which I am aware is that remotely true. What is true is that NBA scouts told them they were marginal draft picks, and if they want guaranteed money and not a likely stint in the D-League, they should return to Kentucky. That's not rejection in any meaningful sense, and it is entirely possible that one or both could have performed well enough in workouts to raise their draft stock. Remember that Archie Goodwin received substantially the same advice, and look what happened there.

(**It’s certainly possible that one got the 1st-round grade and the other didn’t, but they didn’t want to separate, a co-dependency and separation anxiety that perhaps contributed to the NBA’s muted evaluation of twins to begin with.)

Now, I find this absurd. The twins doubtlessly know that they are going to be separated, if not this year, then surely next or whenever they finally decide to jump to the NBA. There is no reason whatever to believe in any theory of... what does he call it? Co-dependency? I find that assertion both absurd and downright derisive to the point of insulting. What did the Harrisons ever do to Shanoff to deserve such a comment?

There are only one of two explanations for this market failure: (1) Either John Calipari did a poor job developing them for the NBA, or (2) they vastly overestimated their own NBA potential.

This is the logical fallacy known as the false choice, a.k.a. "Black & White Thinking." Both are possible, but so is the possibility that they were slightly underestimated, Calipari ran an offense that didn't quite suit them, they just had a bad year, or a combination of some or all of the above. Clearly, the NCAA Tournament changed a lot of minds that were long since made up (although not quite enough), which lends credence to the combination theory. It is also possible that they were pushing a little too hard and it negatively affected their game. While Shanoff's choices are certainly possible, they aren't the only ones.

Another point here is that it isn't really Calipari's job to "develop them for the NBA." Despite being a "players first" coach, Calipari also knows that he has to develop them into college players first, and that development should carry over to the NBA. Shanoff seems to think that Coach Cal is really just a D-League coach in college drag or something. That's another bit of unfairness from him.

So here’s a question for Calipari: If the choice was devoting time to getting the Harrisons fit to be NBA 1st-round picks at a cost of not making NCAA Tournament, is that worth it? Because here’s the thing: Calipari’s pitch is that you’ll win AND he will get you positioned to be drafted as a "one-and-done." And yet he failed on the latter for the Harrisons

This is not a serious question, nor should it be considered seriously. Calipari tells his charges if they work hard enough, he won't hold them back if they are ready to move on. Shanoff presents this as some kind of sales pitch where Calipari sells them on the idea that playing for Kentucky is all about getting them ready to play in the pros, rather than in college. One naturally follows as a consequence of the other. So there is no need for Calipari to try to sell Kentucky's program as "NBA Prep."

There is a radical approach a college coach can take to undercut the Calipari model. Tell the recruits "We will prioritize training you for the NBA at the expense of wins."

Great idea, Shanoff. How long do you suppose such a coach, who is effectively abdicating his ethical responsibility to his employer, would remain employed? Now you know why your "radical" (dare I say silly and risible?) approach hasn't, and won't, be tried.

The reality is that if a college coach has NBA 1st-round talent, he’ll win plenty. But the elite players are much better off being optimally developed to maximize NBA draft stock, not win.

The problem with this is that isn't what college coaching does. College coaches coach the college game. NBA and D-League coaches coach the NBA game. Anyone who wants NBA coaching after high school can directly enter the NBADL, where they will get NBA-type coaching. You'll notice, I'm sure, that almost no players take this route. That's because they know it isn't a good way to get good coaching, good medical care and good physical development.

The Harrison twins are a cautionary tale of overinflated expectations, an inefficient pro development system and the NBA’s efficiently ruthless talent market.

Where to begin? How can returning to college make a player a "cautionary tale" if he isn't ready to go to the NBA? That's neither logical nor fair, and it assumes any outcome other than getting a first round draft pick is "bad."  Last time I checked, getting a free education was not a bad thing if your NBA dreams don't quite pan out.  Cautionary tales happen when players either go too soon, or go too late. Neither is in play here, since the twins quite reasonably decided to return.

If you think about it, the pro development system, also known as "college basketball," is pretty efficient from an NBA standpoint. It's a place where players go to get physically mature, learn to play intense, structured basketball, get free coaching, as well as free medical and physical training, and as an aside, an opportunity to educate themselves. Yes, I know I just made college basketball sound bad, but remember — the NBA isn't interested in educated players or the problems of collegiate integrity; they want talented players good enough to play in their league.

The NBA is getting a lot more of those from college than the NBADL, and college doesn't cost them one thin dime.

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