Last spring, Syracuse basketball coaches sat with their oversized, affable freshman and spelled out the pros and cons of leaving school early. They painted a worst-case scenario for Donte Greene, one in which the 6-foot-9 big man fell out of the top-10 in the NBA draft, lost thousands of dollars as he slid deep into the first round and eventually rode the bench as a rookie for a losing team. Greene listened intently, finally promising his coaches, "Whatever cards I'm dealt, I'm ready for."
A year later, Greene is a proud and eager employee of the Sacramento Kings. He's upgraded his 10-year-old Toyota Sequoia to a late-model BMW 7-series. He no longer eats in campus food lines. For all intents and purposes, Greene is enjoying all the perks of a lifestyle afforded to an NBA player. But almost nothing has gone as planned.
"Basically everything I told him that could happen, that he wouldn't like, he saw it all his first year," says Rob Murphy, a Syracuse assistant and mentor to Greene.
As an early entrant in last year's draft, Greene was selected in the first round but traded twice before the season even began. He spent a week in January stuck in the NBA Developmental League and started just four games for the Kings, averaging 3.8 points and 1.6 rebounds.
"Man, it was crazy," Greene says of his rookie year. "Just nothing like I expected."
As the NBA draft again approaches, the 21-year-old forward says he can't help but monitor this year's crop of prospects, reflect on the 12 months that passed since the Memphis Grizzlies selected him with the 25th pick and entertain an endless string of questions. He looks at guys like Blake Griffin and can't help but wonder. Griffin is a good friend, who left Oklahoma after two seasons. He's a similar size and stature to Greene and is expected to be the first player chosen in this year's draft.
"To see him in that position, you think, what if I would've stayed? Where would I be?" says Greene. "I could still be with the Kings, but would I be a top-5 pick? There've been lots of what-ifs. Especially when you're not playing, you got all that time to think. And I loved college so much, loved Coach [Jim] Boeheim. I just keep telling myself, this is what you wanted, you wanted to be in this spot. Keep working."
Greene's story isn't unique. While the draft landscape has become increasingly populated by underclassmen, Hall of Fame careers aren't etched in stone on draft day. In the 1980s, nearly all of the first-round draft picks were seniors, and a decade later, seniors still comprised more than half of the draft. In the last 10 years, however, it's been a young man's game.
Last year, 69 underclassmen filed as early-entry candidates. Of those, 29 were drafted while 10 others never heard their name called (30 others withdrew from the draft and returned to school). While Greene was fortunate as a late first-round pick, others saw their NBA dreams deferred. Instead of flying first-class to NBA cities or playing another season or two of college ball, they spent last year competing professionally in Austria, Israel, Poland, Italy and the Philippines.
"These young guys, they get all this attention, everyone telling them they're good, and they listen to it. So they come out because they want to be stars," says Ryan Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting.
A lot of them don't make it.
It's the risk every early entrant takes. Only first-round contracts are guaranteed, so most underclassmen considering an early exit from school choose to dip a toe into the water -- declaring for the draft without an agent, thus preserving collegiate eligibility -- before making a final decision. This year, more than 60 college players filed as early-entrants and as of Monday's deadline 39 stayed in to try for one of the precious few NBA jobs that open up each year.
Greene remembers how difficult the decision was for him. He followed in Carmelo Anthony's footsteps, going from inner-city Baltimore to nearby Towson Catholic High to Syracuse. He'd just completed a formidable freshman season when the allure of the NBA began to seem tangible.
He says now most people encouraged him to return to school -- his family, friends and coaches. "I had this dream in front of me, though. I always wanted to be in the NBA. I just felt that if something is right there in front of you and that's what you want, you might as well take it," he says
The NBA tries to assist underclassmen and their college coaches with the decision. The league's Undergraduate Advisory Committee provides information to help a prospective draft pick choose between college and a pro career. The group of NBA team executives and league officials give the early entrant a general idea of where in the draft he could expect to hear his name called -- if at all.
The league won't share members' identities or even reveal how big the committee is -- it's chaired by NBA vice president of basketball operation Stu Jackson -- but Blake says he is one of the members. What's even more difficult to discern, Blake says, is just what effect the committee's projections have on prospective draft picks.
"They have so many people in their ear, I don't know what they listen to," he says. "We really don't know."
Greene says he heard draft prognostications from many people, and most had him as a mid-first rounder. No matter where he went in the draft, he figured he'd just work his way toward success -- a simple strategy that had always worked for Greene in the past.
Greene didn't start playing basketball until he was a teenager. His mother, who played semi-pro ball in Europe years before, worked for the National Security Agency, and Greene lived in several places while growing up, including Germany and Japan, before settling into Hanover, Pa.
By October 2001, he'd spent several months looking forward to tryouts for his middle school basketball team. One morning, he heard the alarm clock buzzing in his mother's room. It wouldn't stop. His mother, April, was lying in her bed, unresponsive. Greene and his younger brother, D'Metrique, dialed 911 and then called family members. April had died of an enlarged heart. Greene was 13.
Greene moved in with his father in Baltimore and for the next couple of years struggled with depression. He's said in the past that he twice attempted suicide during this period. But on that afternoon, just hours after he found his mother motionless, Greene dragged himself to the school gym and tried out for the team. "Then I went home that night and boo-hooed for days," he says.
So it's no surprise that as Greene decided to leave school early, he felt his mother right next to him for every step. She was with him when he made a whirlwind tour last June, visiting 15 NBA teams prior to the draft. And she was there the night of the draft, with Greene and several hundred friends at a Baltimore-area bowling alley, waiting much longer than they expected to learn that the Grizzlies had drafted him. And she was traded with him to the Houston Rockets. And then finally to Sacramento, where he'd pray to her during the National Anthem, think about her while on the bench, talk with her late at night after games.
All the while, Greene grew up. He had a son of his own in January. He traveled the country, made new friends, adjusted to life as a professional.
"Everybody always says they don't change, but in some ways you have to," says Malcolm Delaney, one of Greene's best friends, a former high school teammate and a high-scoring guard at Virginia Tech. "He's still got the same relationships with his friends. He's still the same person to us. But he's got a lot of things he has to take care of right now. He used to be the guy who was always playing around, joking. I mean, he's still that same guy, but he's got to work out more, keep his body right, spend time with his family, do all these things. This is real life now, you know?"
Greene's intent on growing more as a player before his second season begins next fall. He played regularly throughout the spring, working out with Shareef Abdur-Rahim most days in Sacramento and is getting ready for the NBA's summer league. But he's also started to look beyond his NBA dream. He has an active Twitter account, is doing some broadcast work for the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs and hosts a web show on the Kings' web site.
"You always got to think ahead and be prepared," Greene says. "I don't want to settle with just being in the NBA. I want to use the NBA and what the NBA gives me and make a name for myself."
As for the draft and the growing number of players leaving school early, Greene has given the matter a lot of thought. If a player isn't absolutely certain he's a lottery pick, Greene knows exactly what he'd advise.
"I would say stay in school," he says. "What guys got to understand, when you come out of school, you're not a kid no more. You got to grow up fast. I was 20 -- not a baby but still kind of young. I wasn't even paying my own phone bill, wasn't paying taxes, none of that. Man, you got to grow up fast."
While he says his regrets are few, Greene chuckles when he's reminded that his advice is exactly what his Syracuse coaches tried telling him just one year ago. "I guess sometimes you just never know how things will turn out," he says.