The news hit Twitter on Tuesday night like a sledgehammer. Oklahoma State freshman point guard Marcus Smart, considered a virtual lock to be a top-five pick in this June's NBA draft, will instead head back to Stillwater for his sophomore season, as first reported by Yahoo's NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski.
In the one-and-done era where potential trumps productivity and most megastars bounce as soon as possible, this is an astonishing decision. Smart has holes in his game, but he actually showed a good amount on the court this season to support his projected draft status. He has the size and developing skill to fairly be considered the best prospective NBA point guard in college -- yes, ahead of the national player of the year, Trey Burke. Simply put, Smart earned this chance to do what practically every other kid in his position would do: Say yes, sign on a dotted line this summer and start earning more money a year than many Americans earn in their working lifetime.
Instead, he'll be coming back to the Cowboys to play another season for free. As a college basketball fan, I want to celebrate. Instead, every neuron in my brain is screaming "What??!"
Writing about a choice made by a 19-year-old from the perspective of an almost-40-year-old is inherently unfair. I have a wife and a family and a mortgage and school loans and all the associated pressures of trying to maintain a long-term career in a rapidly changing (and contracting) industry. As much as the hoops scribe in me selfishly wants more players to take an extra season at this level, and as much as the father in me wants more people to value the journey instead of just hard dollars, the adult in me thinks this is a ridiculously naive decision. He's passing up $9 million or more in guaranteed money. You just don't do that.
Yes, Smart will have a sizable insurance policy in hand to help in case of injury and yes, he'll still likely be a lottery-level pick next season, so he'll be guaranteed significant money a year from now as well. But like with any decision you make in life, there needs to be worthwhile reward to take on the risk. What is that upside for Smart? He's almost certainly not going to be a higher pick next season with a big number of highly gifted freshmen likely going to be in the draft class. He's not playing for a surefire national title contender. He's not playing for a coach with a huge track record of preparing players for the pros. There's a chance he doesn't improve and people start to pick him apart more as a prospect. The math just doesn't add up.
But maybe that's the point. This can't be about math for him and his family and his advisors. Because if it were, there's no decision. You can't approve turning down so much money and burning another year of a relatively short career based on physical ability. It's nonsensical if cash is the entire conversation. So it has to be about something else, whatever that is, and it has to include Smart being OK with whatever the worst-case scenario is, which is either incredibly commendable or rooted in youthful ignorance. Maybe both.
Anyway, good for Smart, I guess? He really likes college life, or his teammates, or whatever has prompted him to decide he's not ready to be a professional just yet. In an ideal world, we should be praising self-awareness like that. We thirst for it in athletes, and rarely get it at all, let alone in a dose this significant from a college freshman. And yet, the news has people in shock, and rightfully so.