Posted Mar 22 2011 9:15AM
The most important year in the average NBA player's career? That's easy. It's his last year in college. And to be more specific, his last few games, assuming they take place in the NCAA Tournament.
From the standpoint of providing buzz and attention, raising a profile, positioning a player to make millions, nothing is more effective than two or three weeks in March. That's why the minor league system has never worked in the NBA, and never will, not to the extent it does in baseball. There aren't any office pools for the NBA D-League.
Players would rather play for free for a year or two and get the maximum exposure that comes with tourney appearances than play in Erie, Sioux Falls, Tulsa or some other D-League destination.
It happens every year: Good college players will use the tourney to improve their Draft status. And the tourney is even better to the barely known. There's always a Jimmer Fredette, someone who was a blip when the college season began but quickly found cult status and an even bigger audience by March.
Here's a list of those who took advantage of March Madness to realize riches on Draft Night:
Gordon Hayward, Jazz, 2010. He lost his One Shining Moment by two inches when his buzzer-beating attempt barely missed and denied Butler a Hoosiers Moment against Duke in the title game. But by then, Hayward was no longer a curiosity; he became the No. 9 overall pick based on the hype that came with carrying Cinderella through the tournament. Unfortunately, Hayward finds himself in a little tougher spot with Utah, in a rookie season where the highlight was having the ball angrily thrown at him by Deron Williams.
Steph Curry, Warriors, 2009. Smallish Davidson College was the tournament darling because of Curry, who delivered prime-time performances against the giant programs, beating Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin and coming a basket shy against Kansas in the Elite Eight. Everyone knew he could shoot, but along the way, Curry also erased doubts about his ballhandling skills, enough to go No. 7 in the Draft.
Derrick Rose, Bulls, 2008. He and Chris Douglas-Roberts took Memphis to the title game and suffered the pain of watching Mario Chalmers tie a game ultimately won by Kansas in overtime. But the real sting for Memphis came later when that appearance was officially erased because of Rose's suspicious SAT score. Not a problem for Rose, who became the first overall pick and is the strong favorite for this season's MVP. He escaped the NCAA as easily as he does a double team.
Russell Westbrook, Thunder and Kevin Love, Wolves, 2008. A sophomore and freshman took UCLA to the Final Four, then wound up the No. 4 and 5 picks in the 2008 Draft. Only one of them, though, is still used to winning.
Joe Alexander, Bucks, 2008. A guy who was barely on the NBA radar scored 22 points with 11 rebounds and beat Duke in the tourney and helped West Virginia to the Sweet 16. He was the No. 8 pick in the Draft and banked a few million bucks as a member of the Bucks and Hornets before being exposed as a D-Leaguer. Is this a great country or what?
Mike Conley, Grizzlies, 2007. It helps to play alongside Greg Oden, or at least it did in high school and one year at Ohio State. Conley jumped high enough in the Draft (No. 4 pick) to make his father, Olympian Mike Sr., jealous.
Jeff Green, Celtics, 2007. He had a game-winner against Vanderbilt and top-ranked North Carolina as a Hoya Destroya, but they never saw that side of Green in Oklahoma City before trading him to Boston.
Tyrus Thomas, Bobcats, 2006. He dunked a lot and blocked enough shots to make the tourney highlights, and it also helped that LSU beat No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Texas en route to the Final Four. That was enough buzz for Thomas to bolt campus after one year; the Bulls took him No. 4. Truth is, he was nothing but an athlete then, and nothing but an athlete now.
Patrick O'Bryant, Warriors, 2006. Hey, when you take Bradley to the Sweet 16 as a 7-footer, someone's gonna fall blindly in love and grab you at No. 9. In hindsight, a lot of NBA teams are glad it was the Warriors and not them.
Marvin Williams, Hawks, 2005. For someone who never started at North Carolina, Williams quickly became legend and found himself hotly pursued by NBA scouts, who believed his potential was largely untapped by the champion Tar Heels. The Hawks took him second overall, ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and they're still paying for it at point guard. Meanwhile, Marvin Williams has never led the team in any important category -- except underachieving.
Luol Deng, Bulls, 2004. He went from leading Duke to the Final Four as a freshman to being the No. 7 pick. Somebody call Jalen Rose and ask what he thinks about that.
Carmelo Anthony, Knicks and Dwyane Wade, Heat, 2003. These future Dream Teamers first occupied the same space at the Final Four, with Melo winning an NCAA title with Syracuse and Wade winning many admirers with Marquette. And yet, neither was good enough, in the opinion of the Pistons, to be drafted ahead of Darko Milicic.
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