The Promise Land Awaits: Why Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert Must Stay in School
Over the last decade plus we’ve grown accustomed to the top college basketball prospects leaving school early for the NBA. In the process, we’ve bought into several tried and true rationales for their early departures:
1. The Economic Hardship rationale: How can we blame an inner-city kid for wanting to help his family escape the ‘hood.
2. The What’s the Point of College rationale: We go to college to create a career so we can survive in the world, therefore if a guy has the opportunity to bypass school for the sake of his career, he should do so.
3. The You Never Know rationale: What if next year’s draft is deeper? What if you get seriously injured? What if your stock drops?
4. Lastly, the Get Paid rationale, which, though linked to the Economic Hardship rationale, is distinguishable nonetheless: The pursuit of the almighty dollar is always justifiable, can never be questioned, and should always trump all other considerations. Witness, for example, the Greg Oden/Kevin Durrant saga this past spring. Both players expressed a desire to stay in school, said they were enjoying being college kids – something they’ll never have the chance to be again – and yet we all knew their declarations were a foregone conclusion. There is too much money at stake for either of them to “waste” another season in the amateur ranks.
With a few notable exceptions – Tim Duncan being the most prominent – it’s practically become taboo for a sure-fire NBA prospect to remain in school for four years. People look at him suspiciously, wonder if something is wrong with him. Equally forbidden is for fans to criticize a player’s decision to leave school early. After all, what right do we have? Who are we, mere spectators in the stands, faces in the sea, to dare stand up and rock the motor boat shuttling kids to the seductive shores of professional basketball?
But what if something bigger is at stake this time around? What if a fan’s gripe isn’t simply about seeing his favorite team win a national championship should the star stick around? Or, about having the pleasure of seeing him shine in the college ranks one more year? No, what if by staying a player could impact the trajectory of the game itself? And what if it wasn’t just one player, but two.
They are creating a model that will alter the route of the game and take basketball to the promise land
— Len Elmore
As these words reach your eyes Georgetown center Roy Hibbert and forward Jeff Green are ranked #10 and #15 on most reputable draft boards. Lucrative, guaranteed contracts are waiting in the wings for both players. While both have declared themselves draft eligible, neither has signed with an agent. Although it is not uncommon for early entries to use the pre-draft hoopla to gauge their market value, the fact that both of these players are first-round locks raises the question: Why are they wavering? If we take Len Elmore’s assessment at face value and assume that both of these players are as intelligent as their on-the-court performances this past season suggest, then how far of a leap is it to wonder if they have an idea of just how special Georgetown could be with them next season.
For the last two seasons, journalists and analysts alike have marveled at the Princeton offense that John Thompson III implemented once he took over the program in 2004. Article after article, analyst after analyst, have all been quick to credit Pete Carril with crafting a style of play that, in the hands of Georgetown’s superior athletes, has yielded nothing short of a resurrection. For Carril’s part, he has been equally quick to deflect the attention. “We buried the Princeton offense, and the Georgetown offense was born,” Carril said during Georgetown’s Final Four run this past season. “The things [Thompson] did to add to the old style, the little nuances, the way they got their shots, the way they incorporate individual things we never did at Princeton to keep the flowing, it was a remarkable job. I’m tired of hearing about the
At the center of the Georgetown-Princeton discussion, even when it isn’t said outright, has been the subject of race. Before Georgetown’s success (and to a lesser extend N.C. State’s), the quiet assumption — at least since Princeton burst onto the scene — has been that the Princeton offense could only work with lesser talented but more intelligent white players who willingly sacrifice individual glory for the sake of winning. Mind you, before Princeton became the symbol of Davids worldwide, the offense was never specifically seen as a Goliath killer; it was simply a system that worked well within the Ivy League where, for the most part, talent was evenly distributed. Only in the 90’s, when the Tigers started making annual sojourns to the Big Dance, did the Princeton adulation become suspiciously racialized. It was then that journalists like Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe started saying the team’s strength was “brainpower”; then that Ira Berkow of the New York Times remarked that Princeton’s athletes played “as unselfishly as beavers building a dam.”; and then that the notoriously conservative columnist George Will wrote, “…this team might be a leading indicator of cultural improvement, advancing virtues important in society and decreasingly apparent in sports.”
It bears noting that the rise of Princeton basketball paralleled the rise of the hip-hop aesthetic in college hoops. As Will’s comments illustrate, it wasn’t just about the way Princeton selflessly performed on the court, it was about the pristine Princeton image being the perfect response to the self-centered, show-boating black athlete; the perfect headline to counter the emerging attitude of entitlement that, though distinctly American (not to mention Ivy Leaguish) at its core, became a “problem” when droves of young black ball players starting bringing hip-hop’s swagger into hoops. It didn’t help matters that this new generation baller was ultra-talented, but ultimately untrained; that he could score from anywhere on the court but was virtually ineffective without the ball in his hands; that he had no fear, but seemed to have no respect for the game either.
The NBA marketing machine is in part to blame for cultivating a generation of me-first players. Starting with Bird and Magic in the 80’s, it increasingly marketed itself as a league of superstars, a game of mini-gods. The NBA was behind the making of home videos that highlighted a handful of larger-than-life personalities. It cooked up a jersey-selling scheme to increase revenue and player visibility. Even the concoction of the original Dream Team in 1992 was about placing the greatest individual players on the same stage, not the music they would make on the court as one. It’s little wonder, then, that the generation watching those teams — inner city boys looking for a way out, in particular — grew up believing that the only way to make it was by personally outshining every other player on the court, even their teammates.
Looked at in this light, the “brainpower” debate sparked by Ryan, and slavishly carried forward by others, actually muddies the larger and more significant issue, namely where is American basketball and where can it go? In fact, it’s a lot easier to discuss Georgetown’s adaptation of the Princeton offense as an intellectual coup than it is to discuss the greater implications of superior black athletes playing unselfish, sound basketball and winning. Debating the intelligence of the black ball player vis-á-vis the white ball player doesn’t even raise eyebrows in the 21st century. It’s a safe conversation, one that any run-of-the-mill moderate knows which side to stand on.
What hasn’t been discussed is the impact Georgetown’s success, should Hibbert and Green stay, could have on the American game, both nationally and internationally, for years to come. Now that they’ve proven once and for all that superior black athletes are capable of working within a structured system that places team above individual,
Georgetown has the rare and unique opportunity to take the game of basketball to a new level. The Princeton offense was designed to de-emphasize the traditional five positions on the court. That, in itself, was a break with tradition. The offense moved the center away from the low post position. He became a passer through which the offense ran. By moving him away from the lane, the other four players were freed up to cut or drive to the basket for easy baskets. Watching Roy Hibbert at 7’2″ make deft backdoor passes from the foul line or look over the defense for cross-court swing passes from the three-point line reminded us how frighteningly easy the game is when we stop trying to do it all by ourselves. By the same token, watching an unflappable Jeff Green pass up an open bank shot from the wing in favor of a slashing Patrick Ewing Jr. gave us all a glimpse of what happens when the best player on a team is also the most unselfish player on the team.
In an interview just before the Final Four, Green admitted his early doubts about the system. “When you’re coming from high school and you’re the superstar of your team, you can sometimes ask, ‘Why are we doing this?'” he said. “But we soon realized that nobody could guard us.” Green’s initial reaction to the egalitarian offense isn’t surprising. At first glance it does seem counterproductive. Only when you realize that you improve your own chances to score by improving the chances of others does it start to make sense. After that, there is still the ego that has to be reigned in. The sense of entitlement born out of the early acclaim and adulation that the average blue-chip prospect receives is hard to unlearn. If you are the Man in high school or in AAU ball, the solution is always the same: Put the rock in my hands and get out of the way. These players never learn to play without the ball, much less how to make the game easier for themselves or their teammates. As talented as they are individually, once they come up against players who are equally talented, but better coached, they struggle
But imbedded within Green’s confession also lies the reason why the Princeton offense is primed to take basketball to the promise land. At this stage of the game’s evolution, the superstar can do practically anything he wants on the court. His offensive repertoire is astoundingly diverse. His body structure and skill set allow him to be more than a position player. As we see with Lebron James in particular, the main problem that the hybrid player is faced with is finding an offense that highlights his talents. We need only imagine Lebron James or Dwayne Wade cutting backdoor in next year’s Olympics to bear witness to the offense’s potential. If no one in the college ranks could guard Georgetown, who in the world could guard the USA Men’s basketball team?
Just as Princeton became the media’s antidote to the image of the overindulged baller in the 90’s, Georgetown’s success could very well cure today’s playgrounds of the airborne And I sickness spreading across the nation. If a motley group of street ballers can create a cult following, then certainly a team of black, athletic, intelligent basketball players sharing the ball and winning have the potential to inspire an entire generation. They can show kids how James Naismith intended the game to be played (even though he could’ve never imagined the quality of today’s players). They can counter the culture of entitlement that ruins so many players before they have even glimpsed their potential. They can spark a team-first revolution that just might trickle down to high school programs and spread outward to international competition.
But none of that can happen unless Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert decide to return for their senior seasons. It would be the ultimate sacrifice, but it would also be the ultimate challenge: Taking the values and principles inscribed in the Princeton offense – sharing and patience especially – and putting them into practice in life. The real challenge may be convincing Green and Hibbert not to resist the NBA for a year, but to embrace their role in history. It may very well be that in the long run their greatest on the court achievements will be at the college level. Who knows where they will end up in the NBA or how long they will last. However, if they choose to stay, Georgetown’s affect on the college game, and possibly the international game, could be epochal. As one Division 1 assistant recently said, great teams are mimicked. Georgetown’s success with the Princeton offense could literally change the way the game is taught and played at every level. Admittedly, staying in school is a risk. But so too is refusing to answer the call for something great. The moment is right. Should Green and Hibbert stay, the world will be watching next season. They will have the opportunity to showcase the beauty of the game as it should be played, something the wavering by both players readily suggests. The inimitable Julius Erving once said that basketball players are nothing more than caretakers of the game. Basketball does not belong to any one of us and yet it belongs to all of us. It is our collective duty to do what we can to preserve it. Some of us play the game. Some of us write about the game. And every once in a while a select few of us get to advance the game.