Tough call, talented seniors returning for another go

Rarely do college basketball players, at least those that have the ability to reach the professional level, stay in school for more than a year these days.

Playing as a junior is not that common either. Staying on campus to fulfill a commitment for all four years is an item for the endangered species list, yet there are a number of notable performers choosing that route for the 2013-14 campaign.

The current rules outlining when a player is eligible for the NBA Draft state that an individual must be at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft, as well as be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class, the latter applying to those who are not "international players".

Gone are the days of King James and the Black Mamba making the leap to the NBA right out of high school, but more often than not, for the players that have been on the radar for a number of years, college is nothing more than an unwanted pit stop on the highway to basketball glory. Or at least that's what most players believe. It is easy to name-check LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as success stories at the pro level, but there are just as many Robert Swift and Kwame Brown sagas.

Then there are the rarest of breeds, players like Creighton's Doug McDermott, Louisville guard Russ Smith and UConn's Shabazz Napier who have decided that returning to school for their senior year is in their best interest. All three are extremely talented and could easily find a home in the NBA, yet each has recently announced his intention to head back to their respective programs.

Smith made a name for himself as one of the spiritual leaders for the Cardinals as they captured their third NCAA championship in early April. An All-American last season who helped shoulder the load after fellow guard Kevin Ware exited the postseason following a gruesome leg injury, Smith averaged 18.7 ppg overall and stepped up his efforts on the biggest stage with 22.3 ppg in the NCAA Tournament, yet he is headed back to the Bluegrass State instead of reaching for the green that awaits in the pros.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino did the leg-work for his star guard, researching the youngster's prospects, and the bottom line is that there are still skills that need to be refined, not to mention Smith's desire to earn a college degree.

"The pros want to see a different Russ Smith," Pitino says in comparison to what he asked the guard to do this past season. "The pros want to see 10 more pounds of muscle, they want to see better shot selection, a high assist/turnover ratio, because he's got to play the point at that level...and more than anything else they love his talent, but they want to see those things."

Smith could easily ride the wave of his recent success and maybe some of his deficiencies can be explained away, but the decision to stick around and try to hand Louisville a fourth NCAA title is now the most immediate goal.

Napier, who was not allowed to play in the postseason this past year due to academics, has earned his share of accolades, from being named to the Big East All-Rookie Team in 2010-11 when UConn won the national title, to First-Team All-Big East honors as a junior while scoring a team-best 17.1 ppg and placing second on the unit with 129 assists in 28 appearances.

As someone who played just over 37 minutes per game in 2012-13, Napier was entrenched in the UConn offense, not to mention the defense as he led the team with 56 steals, but he'll have to work even harder now just to keep himself on the hardwood in Storrs.

"I think Shabazz's decision is great for him and great for the university," said UConn head coach Kevin Ollie. "I believe that first and foremost, it will give him a chance to earn his degree, which is something I know he'll really cherish...At the same time, he'll continue to hone his skills as a lead guard and contribute to us continuing the success of UConn basketball, but also he will keep cultivating the kind of atmosphere I want our student-athletes to be around. He was a big part of that with his leadership on and off the basketball court."

For Napier, it also doesn't hurt that teammates Ryan Boatright and De'Andre Daniels, UConn's second-leading scorer and top rebounder respectively, have also decided to hold off on earning a paycheck and instead playing for pride with the Huskies.

Both Smith and Napier have won the ultimate prize in college basketball, which is by no means an easy task given the more than 300 programs that tip off each and every season with that goal in mind, so it would be understandable if they rolled the dice for a chance to shake hands with NBA Commissioner David Stern this coming June. Based on individual accomplishments, the same could be said for McDermott.

Already the all-time leading scorer for the Bluejays with 2,216 points in just three years McDermott, who is coached by his father Greg, finished last season as the nation's second-leading scorer (23.2 ppg) and also cleared close to eight rebounds per contest. McDermott is one of only a handful of players to have won the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year award in consecutive campaigns.

The star forward, who is within striking distance of becoming just the eighth man in history to score at least 3,000 points at the collegiate level, is also giving himself a shot to earn consensus First Team All-America accolades three times, a feat that has been accomplished by the likes of Jerry Lucas, Lew Alcindor, Pete Maravich, Bill Walton, David Thompson, Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing, Wayman Tisdale and Tyler Hansbrough since 1960. But looking at those names, obviously McDermott would be in a class by himself since the others all hailed from schools residing in the so-called power conferences.

Creighton has been one of the top programs in the MVC for several years now, but still the squad is nowhere near as celebrated as a school like Gonzaga which has taken years to move from Cinderella to a legitimate, nationally- ranked team. It probably won't happen in McDermott's final year either, instead the Jays will again be regarded as a novelty act that can't win big games against the more high-profile schools, even though the university will start competing in the reconstituted Big East Conference.

"Just being a college kid another year, playing with my best friends, joining the Big East, it really couldn't get much better," were McDermott's reasons for his return.

"I'm confident I would have been a first-round pick, from multiple people I heard from, but I realized quickly that wasn't important to me. If I'm going to play in the NBA I'll play in there next year too. I might be taking a little risk with that but, I feel like college is so much more important to me."

As admirable as these decisions are right now, second thoughts will always be in their back of their minds, whether or not they passed up a golden opportunity to grab the brass ring (perhaps platinum at this point) and the notion of what could have been. For basketball purists, the trio made the right choice to stick it out, but there will also be those who recall the downfall of USC's Matt Barkley who went from being a sure-fire, top-five selection in the NFL Draft in 2012 to a lost soul (see fourth-round pick) this past weekend because he too decided to give it another go at the college level.