By the next NBA collective bargaining agreement, high school basketball players may be required to play two years of college basketball (or international) before entering their names in the NBA Draft. The NBA is currently discussing raising the age of eligibility from 19 to 20 years old. This will force many players of NBA caliber to spend one more year in college before declaring for the draft. This is an intended step in the same direction that the league set forth when they instilled the “one and done” rule a few years back. But several standout NBA players just missed that window, and were able to forgo their college experience to play in the NBA.
It is always interesting to consider what could have been, had this rule been invoked earlier. Kobe Bryant once claimed that if he were to have attended college, playing under Coach K would have been his choice. What would have been the choice of other high school ballers had they played in the NCAA? It is always entertaining to speculate the different paths of athletes had they made different career choices; thus comes the dissection of one particular high school stud. Ranked as the number 2 high school center in the nation by Rivals.com in 2002, Amare Stoudemire surpassed the chance to play college basketball to become the only high school basketball to enter the 2002 NBA Draft. As someone who moved around from city to city during his youth playing career, he never identified himself with any particular region, which coupled with his high-profile explains his nationwide recruitment. For a few weeks Stoudemire was actually committed to the University of Memphis, but quickly opted out of that commitment in favor of the big money and bright lights the NBA has to offer immediately.
Stoudemire’s NBA career can be characterized in a variety of different fashions, but per recent play, it seems that the best of Stoudemire is in the past. His once promising career has been plagued by injuries and he has become a shell of the former player that excelled in Phoenix and put together what looked like a possible MVP run his first year in New York. There is no telling if these injuries were inevitable or not, based on his athletic, above the rim style of play, but his career could have been even more decorated had he developed a defensive game. When we talk about what could have been, Stoudemire is a great example for discussion because he started out so talented yet so raw in need of development.
Somewhere I believe these skills could have been honed would be at Kansas University. To start, playing alongside senior forward Nick Collison would have instantly instilled the confident, smart, quick defensive mentality that has made Collison a mainstay in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s current rotation, despite offensive limitations. Playing with Collison, who has been among the league lead in the NBA in charges multiple times, would have showed Stoudemire how to play defense, but if the NBA Draft eligibility rules were in play in 2002 then he would have taught many defensive nuances under then KU coach, Roy Williams. After a year of African-American studies courses and guidance from the Hall of Fame coach, Stoudemire could have not only learned to become the tenacious defender like several other Williams-taught centers drafted in the first round (Greg Ostertag, Scott Pollard, Drew Gooden, Tyler Hansborough, Tyler Zeller), but also could have brought some jewelry with him into the league. Later that same season, the Kansas Jayhawks were a Hakim Warrick blocked shot away from forcing OT in the National Championship game. If you watch the last five minutes of the 2003 NCAA Championship, you can hear Jim Nantz repeatedly mention how tired the Jayhawks were. I’m sure Stoudemire could have helped out this fundamentally sound senior squad, which yearned for young legs as future teammate and then-Syracuse star Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara caused many Kansas players to need substitutions throughout the game.
I am not the only man to think that Stoudemire could have gained some much needed help early on in his career, he was quoted in 2013, in reference to Knicks coach Mike Woodson before joining the orange and blue, saying, “I think just having a defensive coach for the first time in my career is going to help.” He said, “I’ve never been taught defense in my whole career, so to now have a coach that actually teaches defense and teaches strategies, and knows positioning and posture, how to guard different plays, it’s going to be helpful.”
Stoudemire was drafted 9th overall by the Phoenix Suns, and in his second year was introduced to coach Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni, an offensive innovator, was far from the coach that a young 19 year old needed to mature into true defender. D’Antoni has not coached any player as long as he’s coached Stoudemire, and vice versa. In the 7 years they have been together on both Phoenix and in New York,Stoudemire may have ran up and down the court on more possessions than any other player during that span. Not to say that Mike D’Antoni blew out Stoudemire’s knees, but Mike D’Antoni may have blown out his knees. Who knows what “STAT” –as he has come to be known among fans — could have been had he been prepared to guard the best power forwards and centers in the world at the most crucial time of his career.
There is no doubt Stoudemire has had a successful tenure including six All-Star trips and an appearance on the 2007 All-NBA first team as part of D’Antoni’s historic “7 seconds or less” offense in Phoenix. However, the question must be asked: could Stoudemire’s ceiling have been higher? Would a year or two in Lawrence, learning defensive fundamentals while maturing both physically and mentally have helped the 2003 rookie of the year reach a level of sustainable dominance capable of a trip to Springfield, Massachusetts one day? Unfortunately we will never know and the debate on how old athletes must be before they can declare for the draft rages on.