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When is early entry too early?

The basketball underclassmen will do what they want, and what they want is to play professional basketball. It doesn't matter who thinks they aren't ready or who suggests they stay in college. Basketball is what they do, who they are and who they've dreamed of becoming. They can get paid to play and never see another classroom. Where do they sign?

The rush to leave college this year isn't surprising. The NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires next summer. The chance of a work stoppage in 2011 is real. A college sophomore who stays next year might also have to stay the year after that. One year, maybe. Two? Whoa.

It was nothing for the top players to leave school. No one thought John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins or Evan Turner would play quasi-amateur basketball after this season. They will be fine. So will Derrick Favors, the center leaving Georgia Tech after one year. It's the other guys whose fates aren't so certain. Here are two of those players. They're not stars, they're not washouts. They seem destined for the NBA gray area between what West Virginia coach Bob Huggins terms "a job and a career."

They play in the same town, for different schools. Each was the best player on his team this season. One has signed with an agent and will not be returning to school. One has thrown out his name for consideration and could remain. When it comes to hoop dreams, Lance Stephenson (Cincinnati) and Jordan Crawford (Xavier) are twin sons of different mothers.

Stephenson, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound swingman, opted for real life as soon as he could. Did you really believe that someone with the words "Born Ready'' tattooed on his arm would stick around to "improve his game'' while working for free?

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin asked Stephenson to wait until after the team's season-ending banquet to make the announcement. The next morning, Born Ready turned pro.

A month earlier, he'd announced he was staying in school. He would show fans the "real'' Lance Stephenson. But a month is a lifetime when your dream is on the hotline, waiting for a decision. Who knows how many friends, agents, family members and assorted hangers-on B-Ready talked to in that month? You can bet most told him what he wanted to hear, which wasn't exactly, "Stay in school, work on your game and enjoy being a college student.''

Stephenson has a daughter who is a toddler and a family that could use some of his money. He got good grades in the fall quarter at Cincinnati. His academic advisor said he enjoyed learning. But writing poetry in freshman English isn't quite the same as testing your skills against Kobe Bryant.

The right move for Born Ready?

Here's what an NBA scout said about Stephenson this week:

"A good player, not an elite player. Back of the first round or early second round. He averaged 12 points on a team that couldn't get to the tournament. If you're an elite player, you've got to take that team to the tournament.

"Not an elite shooter, which is what you like to see at that (two-guard) position. Finds his way to the basket. Pretty good basketball IQ. Does a lot of blue collar things, but nothing stands out. He's going to have to be able to make more shots.''

Across town, Jordan Crawford remains at Xavier, but his stay could end any minute. Crawford's national coming out in the NCAA tournament (87 points in three games) made it likely he'll decide two seasons (and three years) of the ivy-covered walls is enough.

His college "experience'' might sway him: Signed with Indiana, played a year, endured the Kelvin Sampson mess, transferred, sat out a year, watched Xavier coach Sean Miller leave just as he became eligible. Crawford has no love for quasi-amateur sports. Then again, if he looks to his brother Joe, he'll see a player who left Kentucky after his junior year, was drafted in the second round, 58th overall, and whose two-year pro career has consisted of 11 minutes in two NBA games last season, for the New York Knicks. Joe Crawford is playing in the Development League now.

Here is the scout's evaluation of Jordan Crawford:

"Better shooter than Stephenson. Great range. Quicker than Lance, but not as powerful, but a two-guard doesn't have to rebound. He's versatile, he can make shots off the dribble. Good passer. A good complementary guy on a good NBA team.''

I could suggest Stephenson and Crawford stick around. But I'm not them. I'm the suburban kid who loved college, and couldn't imagine leaving. When contemplating studying for an exam or going to a party, I said to myself "It's four years of your life.'' And I went to the party.

I didn't have a child to support and a family who saw me as a potential ATM. I wasn't told at an early age that someday I'd be a millionaire, hooping it up. Lance Stephenson isn't at Cincinnati anymore. He's training somewhere, to be a pro. He doesn't have to worry about staying eligible or getting to an 8 o'clock class or how another college year might impact his future. His future is now.

Maybe Stephenson makes the rookie minimum next year (just under $475,000), maybe he does better. Maybe, given the large number of underclassmen coming out, he doesn't get a sniff and ends up in Europe. The NBA will judge him. Not me. I've never walked in his size-17s.

"When kids have made up their minds, they've made up their minds,'' the scout said. "I don't know how many understand the collective bargaining agreement or their long-range prospects. Like Stephenson. He's that kid that at age 12 decided he was going to be a pro. The first reasonable chance he got, he took it.''

Stephenson seeks a soft landing. We'll see.

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