Leaving early for NBA hasn’t panned out

The young players pour out of Kentucky, leaving for the NBA like lemmings moving toward the sea.

And the freshmen and sophomores are drafted in the first round, receiving bonus money for signing and getting guaranteed contracts.
That’s Kentucky, home of the eight-time national champions and recruiting classes stampeding to Lexington to play for John Calipari and the blueblood Wildcats.
Those many successes are light years away from the dimmer lights of Morgantown . . . and the few basketball players who have left early from West Virginia University to attempt an NBA career.
After blossoming as a junior during the 2007-08 season, forward Joe Alexander made his intents known that he was entering the NBA draft. When Alexander hired an agent, he could not rescind his decision to turn professional.
Alexander had done very little when John Beilein was his coach as a freshman and sophomore. Bob Huggins came from Kansas State to coach in Morgantown . . . and Alexander stretched his weight to 230 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame, and stretched his contributions to a level where college coaches and NBA general managers began to see him as a first-round draft selection.
At age 21, Alexander became the eighth player selected overall in the first round of the 2008 draft. The Milwaukee Bucks were where he landed.
His first months in the professional ranks went well enough. Nothing sensational. But he was in Milwaukee’s regular nine-man player rotation.
Minor injuries visited. A pulled hamstring that didn’t want to heal.
Alexander missed too much time.
He was with Milwaukee from 2008 through 2010. There had been little on-court time and little production.
Alexander was only 23. And he was no longer seen as a future starter or even a player who could help the Bucks do things in the league playoffs.
He was assigned to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Development League.
The Chicago Bulls acquired him in a trade. And he later was dealt away to the New Orleans Hornets.
When the 2010-11 season opened, there was Alexander playing (and scoring 20 points a game) for the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League. He was not summoned back to the NBA.
Last season, he went overseas and played for the BC Krasnye Krylya Samara team in Russia. Alexander, now still only 25 years old, is back with the same Russian team.
Soon after Alexander’s term at WVU there came 6-foot-9, 205-pound Devin Ebanks. Ebanks had committed to Indiana, but when the Hoosiers’ coach was fired the NCAA let him go elsewhere and play immediately.
Ebanks chose WVU and coach Bob Huggins. He was suspended for the first three games of one of his two seasons with the Mountaineers.
Ebanks barely averaged 10 points a game as a freshman, and there was no cavalry charge leading him away to the NBA.
In his sophomore year, he became very valuable as a scorer, rebounder, and defensive stopper. The Mountaineers accomplished a load of wins during the regular season, Big East tournament, and even in the NCAA tournament. Ebanks had improved and he knew it.
He left WVU after only two seasons with Huggins.
He wasn’t as fortunate as Alexander. And he wasn’t drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers until the second round of the NBA selection process.
Second-round draftees are not tendered guaranteed contracts. They can be cut and the team owes them nothing.
Ebanks played five games with the Lakers’ summer team. And he made the roster . . . playing very little . . . but learning from coach Phil Jackson.
Last year, there was a work stoppage that delayed the season. Ebanks was still a few days shy of his 22nd birthday, but he started the season’s first four games for first-year coach Mike Brown when Metta World Peace was injured. When the veteran forward returned, Ebanks found himself back watching from the bench.
The bob-tailed schedule saw Ebanks play in 24 games and make 42 percent of his field goal attempts and 66 percent of his foul shots. He was paid $762,195, nearly the lowest salary on the team and a far cry from the $25,244,493 paid Kobe Bryant and the $18,714,150 paid Pau Gasol.
Ebanks is back on the Lakers’ roster this season. He has been in four of the first five games, averaging 10 minutes of playing time. He didn’t get into the last two games coached by Mike Brown. And with Mike D’Antoni accepting the coaching post after Brown was fired, Ebanks’ status is unknown as the Lakers try to go forward under new leadership.
If he had stayed at WVU for four years, this would have been his rookie season in the NBA. And he just might have been a first-round draft selection.
The first Mountaineer to leave early for the NBA was center Gordon Malone, who played during the long reign of coach Gale Catlett. Malone and Catlett clashed often enough that the coach suspended him twice.
The 6-foot-10 player entered the 1997 draft and became the 44th overall selection of the Minnesota Timberwolves. His career in that league was very short.
Now 38 years old, Malone plays for the Strong Island Sound of the American Basketball Association. He bounced there after spending time with the Saskatchewan Hawks of the Continental Basketball Association.
The three players who have left early from West Virginia have not fared very well. However, unlike Kentucky there haven’t been five or six at a time . . . to be replaced by five or six more talented recruits who will also be leaving after one or two seasons with the Big Blue.


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