A former college basketball coach tweeted a few weeks back that nearly 90 players had been assured they would be taken in the first round of the upcoming NBA draft.
It was a humorous shot at what has become an annual issue in regards to many of the young men who, while perhaps not viewed as owning the skill ready for such a jump, depart college early in hopes of being selected.
It only takes one person to convince them that leaving school is the correct option, and that person doesn’t always do so with the best interests of the player.
It’s a story as old and dirty as the AAU summer circuit.
I don’t know who it was for Khem Birch. Or if there were two or three or 10 people in his ear. But there was great influence thrown his way, and he listened.
Birch chose to forgo his senior season at UNLV on Thursday and make himself eligible for the draft and, to echo the majority of sentiments immediately scattered across social media, here’s wishing him the absolute best.
He is as nice and thoughtful and respectful a player as the Rebels have had in years.
He is also 21, mature enough to decide when it’s best to pursue a professional career.
His life. His choice. I hope he gets drafted and makes a lot of money and has great success.
But players like Birch, meaning those not projected to be chosen in the first round and not even guaranteed to hear their name called throughout the second, don’t wait until just a few days before the filing deadline if there isn’t some sort of intense internal struggle about what avenue is best to take.
The evaluations on Birch from NBA personnel weren’t overly favorable, certainly not to the point he would have departed school based solely on their merit.
The NBA felt he should have stayed at UNLV.
Those in his camp obviously disagreed.
“It’s not about getting drafted, but rather about having a career in the NBA,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, whose team has lost five players to early entry the last two years. “There has always been people in these kids’ ears. Since the invention of the telephone, they have been in their ears. But right now, with social media coming at them, it’s more difficult for a kid as he’s pondering his decision.
“Let’s say you’re one of the top 30 coaches in the country and every day, someone different is ranking you as the fifth best or 10th best or 20th or 30th. And you’re supposed to do your job during all of it. Coaches couldn’t do that, and yet that’s what happens with players. All these (opinions) being thrown at them about if they’re good enough and whether they should wait or leave school. They can’t avoid it.”
Birch becomes the eighth player with eligibility remaining to leave UNLV’s program the last two years, and various reasons have led to such exits. But of the eight, six (Birch, No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, Roscoe Smith, Mike Moser, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt) held substantial roles when healthy the season before their departures. Playing time wasn’t an issue.
Whatever the reasons — not feeling their skills are being properly developed by UNLV coaches, seeking a better collegiate fit, hoping to better their lives financially through a professional contract — the turnover for the Rebels is high even for today’s standards of players transferring and bolting schools on the slightest whim.
But this is certain: Losing a two-time Mountain West defensive player of the year hurts. UNLV is a weaker team today than it was before Birch’s announcement. That’s unarguable for anyone not blinded with FAN-dom.
Birch was the sort of rim protector a team that struggled to contain even the most average opposing guards off the dribble desperately needed to clean up those defensive weaknesses the Rebels have owned for some time. He rebounded well, ran the floor well, blocked shots as well as most anyone nationally.
He was good enough at one end to help an average defensive team most nights appear better than many statistics suggested it really was.
What the Rebels must hope for now is that over the next six months, a few of those players returning and some arriving can produce enough interior defense to offset the loss of a what would have been the team’s best player in an experienced big with continuing upside. UNLV is not a good defensive team on paper today. Not close. But it also has time to change that.
It’s hardly a foreign concept in 2014, players leaving school early. You adjust and move on and hope like anything those flashy high school resumes produce the sort of talent suggested by a Top 10 recruiting class.
As for Khem Birch, you wish him well.
He’s a wonderful young man.
How and why he came to such a conclusion isn’t important.
His life. His choice.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.