James Wiseman, the star center at the University of Memphis and a top NBA prospect, withdrew from the university last week to prepare for the NBA draft, ending his college career after he appeared in only three games. The 7’1, 240-pounder averaged 19.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks in his short stint with the Tigers. Wiseman took to Instagram, officially announcing his leaving, “Today I formally withdrew from the University of Memphis and I will be preparing for the next chapter of my life. Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been a dream of mine to play in the NBA . . . This was not how I expected my freshman season to be, but I’m thankful for everyone who has supported my family and me throughout this process.”
So why did Wiseman leave?
Before he withdrew, Wiseman was 7 games deep into a 12-game suspension for accepting ‘impermissible benefits’ – $11,500, given to his family in 2017 for relocation to Memphis by Penny Hardaway, where he was then a high school coach. The big man had already missed the Tigers’ preseason games with injuries, and evidently, the risk of reaggravating said injuries, combined with his suspension, outweighed his potential rise in draft stock.
So, three games were all the Memphis Tigers got for their recruiting splash in 2019, signing the top ranked high school recruit of his class. Way to go, Penny.
Wiseman has now signed with Excel Sports to serve as his agents. This officially ends Wiseman’s NCAA eligibility, as he gears up for the draft on June 25 at Barclay’s Center. Other notable names affiliated with Excel Sports are Kevin Love, Nikola Jokic, CJ McCollum, Blake Griffin, and Andre Drummond.
It’s clear that neither party benefits from the situation in the slightest. Memphis is certainly worse off, as they are without their potential first-overall pick for the remainder of the season. And although they are undefeated with Wiseman sidelined, including a victory against the Tennessee Volunteers I might add, his loss is to their detriment, in the long run. More importantly perhaps, is the backlash Memphis will likely face from the NCAA regarding their negligence towards the league’s recommendations to sit Wiseman, due to evidence that he was ineligible. The Tigers flipped the league a massive middle-finger by playing Wiseman for three games after the request was made for him to sit. Wiseman’s decision to leave doesn’t even benefit him in any tangible way, really. He may avoid injury, but one can always suffer injuries during any ordinary workout session. And his sitting-out can only lower his draft profile. However, in a relatively talentless draft class, Wiseman’s draft position can only fall so far. Leaving Memphis doesn’t benefit him, but is a mere neutral externality on his path to the NBA.
A third party, the NCAA, may in fact absorb most of the damage from the fallout. As of now, this year’s NCAA is a comparatively starless league. And now, the already rudderless ship has lost its most enshrined product. In addition to Wiseman withdrawing, there is speculation that UNC’s Cole Anthony may not return following a knee procedure likely to sideline him 4-6 weeks. More than anything, I believe that Wiseman’s leaving Memphis embodies players’ growing disdain for college basketball in America.
This is a very real problem for the NCAA, especially in basketball. We exist in an era where top prospects want a fast, risk-free road to the pros. More and more players are looking for a way around college, or a path of least resistance through it, because the NCAA provides no substantial benefits for its star players. NCAA athletes make no money, while they are the ones who bring in billions of dollars in revenue every year. They risk injury, and by extension, their entire professional career, every time they step on the floor to play. The top NBA prospects know they’ll be signed to multi-million dollar contracts the following year, regardless of their path to the league, whether it be NCAA, overseas professional leagues, private agents, or any other course of action they choose. So, it makes logical sense that players would choose to be paid for their skills or choose not to risk injury. And who can blame them? Until the NCAA fully addresses the idea of paying athletes (no, just because the NCAA has agreed that athletes should profit from their “name, image, and likeness”, does not mean that the problem has been solved – there still exists so much to work out), they will continue to lose talented players, and their relevance will continue to diminish.
This is all the more reason why the NBA must, and almost certainly will, change its age-limit rule and allow players to be drafted straight out of high school again. And the NCAA may just need to accept that their role in basketball, and the development of to-be NBA players is not what it once was.
More players in the years to come will follow in the footsteps of James Wiseman or RJ Hampton, who turned down esteemed NCAA basketball programs to play professionally in New Zealand on his path to the NBA, until we see a major rule change in either the NBA, NCAA, or both. Lavar Ball seemed to be way ahead of the game when he sent his son, LaMelo, to the National Basketball League in Australia instead of UCLA. Watch for the first overall pick in 2020 to potentially be chosen from a route other than the NCAA, which would be the first since Andrea Bargnani in 2006.