Last September, Shaun Livingston was a self-proclaimed "college-first type of guy."
Sure, he was a can't-miss point guard prospect, a player who could pick apart high school defenses with uncanny efficiency. But his game had holes. After all, no high school point guard had made a successful transition to the pros, and Livingston, the No. 2 high school prospect in the nation, possessed neither the strength nor the polish to succeed at the NBA level quite yet. All signs pointed toward Livingston, who committed to Duke in November, taking a college detour en route to an NBA career.
Yet that was before NBA scouts started using the dreaded P-word: potential. With precocious ballhandling skills and passing vision for a player of his size--Livingston stands 6-foot-7, which is exceptionally tall even by NBA guard standards--he soon realized what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski dreaded: NBA teams were willing to overlook his lack of strength, polish and questionable shot to take a gamble on a potential superstar.
After assessing his options, Livingston declared for the NBA draft and packed his bags for Madison Square Garden, skipping Duke and leaving Krzyzewski in a bind. A month earlier, Duke freshman Luol Deng, also the country's second-ranked player coming out of high school, surprised the coaching staff by departing early for the draft.
"Each year it becomes difficult to become a power because there is so much unpredictability," Krzyzewski said. "I think it is easier to become [better quickly] now than it was in the '80s because... you were playing against juniors and seniors while you are trying to build your program. You can turn things around a lot quicker now in college basketball than you could before. Therefore, any new teams in any league have the chance to use that league to recruit better, and if Luol Deng is here for four years it is going to be tougher for a school to beat us. But if Luol's here one year and Shaun Livingston is not here any, it gets a lot tighter."
Yet Krzyzewski wasn't alone in losing a high school standout; 13 prospects declared early for the draft, including seven of the nation's top 11 prospects. Livingston was the first Krzyzewski commitment to skip college. Even Indiana and North Carolina, two of basketball's most storied programs, lost recruits this year, marking the first time in history either school had lost a high school prospect to early entry.
Overall, a record 95 players--college underclassmen, international players and high schoolers alike--applied for early entry, more than one and a half times as many players as there are draft picks. When the smoke cleared, twice as many high school seniors (eight) as college seniors (four) were drafted in the first round. That figure eclipsed the previous record for prep schoolers taken in the draft--six, in 2001.
"[Early departures] have changed the way I've recruited for the last four or five years probably," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who lost recruit J.R. Smith to the draft this year. "But it's changed it more drastically the last year and a half. Right now if a youngster is in the top 10 and I have to look up at him at all, I'm probably going to make a decision not to recruit him unless I have a special 'in.'"
On one hand, lower-rated prospects remain in college for longer periods of time, lending stability and creating the sort of upperclassman leadership that has proved important in winning national championships. For example, the 2002 Maryland Terrapins started four upperclassmen, including seniors Byron Mouton, Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter en route to the national championship.
On the other hand, the 2003 Syracuse Orangemen relied on freshman Carmelo Anthony--and started four underclassmen--in winning the titles, proving that it is considerably more difficult to win those same titles without at least one bona fide NBA prospect. That kind of balance has made it particularly difficult to maintain consistent excellence in an increasingly mercurial game.
"[Early departures] bring greater equity," said Krzyzewski, who is currently working on replacing Livingston and Deng in his lineup. "More people have a chance to win big because you might be going out with a team of 19-year-olds against a team of 23-year-olds. I think the timeline of how you do things makes it impossible to predict anymore. So maintaining a high-level program is much more difficult in men's college basketball now, in the past 5 or 10 years."
As a result, coaches like Williams and Krzyzewski have had to adjust recruiting strategies in order to enjoy the same success. Williams may look harder at lower-ranked prospects, but Krzyzewski thinks taking more players may be the answer.
"I think we probably have to look at more kids," said Krzyzewski, who has lost eight players in the last five years to early entry. "We have never in my 24 years... used all of our scholarships in any year."
Additionally, Krzyzewski said that he will maintain the same approach in evaluating recruits as he has always targeted prospects that he felt would remain in school.
Williams and Krzyzewski both noted that although recruiting strategies are changing, they think the allure of college basketball will remain the same. "When North Carolina and Duke play, people are still going to show up regardless of who is in uniform," Williams said. "We have to understand the name on the front of the jersey is still the most important part of college basketball."
Finding top talent to put their names on the back of those jerseys, however, is becoming increasingly difficult.
Jake Poses contributed to this story.
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