NBA can wait: Sullinger, Jones and Barnes headline returning stars

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The first player revealed his intentions moments after a devastating loss in the NCAA tournament. The second did it during a press conference where even his coaches and teammates didn't know what he was going to say. The third issued a press release through his school's sports information office and let that speak for itself.

Three different players, three different announcements, all conveying the same, unconventional decision: Despite their status as projected top-five NBA draft picks, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Baylor's Perry Jones III and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes -- all of whom are freshmen -- just said no to the NBA. It's surprising when any underclassman turns down that opportunity, but for three of the potential first five picks to come back to school is unprecedented in the modern era.

And there may be more. Two other probable freshmen lottery picks, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones of Kentucky, are still mulling over their decisions. The fact that they have not yet announced their intentions (the deadline for doing so is Sunday) indicates that one, if not both, could also return.

Whether this is the start of a new trend or just a one-year aberration remains to be seen, but this has been a remarkable spring for college basketball. The prevailing assumption is that these players are simply worried about the possibility of an NBA lockout, but that did not prevent many others with far less market value from leaping at the opportunity. At last count, just under 40 underclassmen have declared for the draft, though several have declined to hire an agent to preserve their collegiate eligibility.

For Sullinger, Jones and Barnes, there were much bigger factors than the lockout. These are three young men who see a very big picture, and it's in clear focus. "This class is pretty mature," Sullinger told me by phone last week. "When we got together for All-American games and the Nike Hoop Summit, it was just a great experience. Everybody is realistic in knowing what their limitations are. It looks to me like college basketball is going to be tough next year."

When Sullinger initially made his declaration in a Newark, N.J., locker room following the Buckeyes' loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, many observers, including this one, assumed it was just an emotional outburst that would be followed by the inevitable retraction. Even Sullinger's coach, Thad Matta, had been skeptical during the season whenever Sullinger assured him he was coming back. "My past record shows that it usually doesn't happen that way," Matta said in reference to the multitude of underclassmen he has lost to the pros over the last five years. Sullinger went so far as to invite Matta to draw up a contract for him to sign.

Sullinger made the promise so often that by the time he made his pronouncement, Matta was not surprised. "Jared wants to get better. I think he enjoys the college game," Matta said. "He's not one of those guys who just wants to go to the NBA so he can say he's there."

As for the lockout, Sullinger told me that he didn't even know about it until earlier that day. "I kid you not," he said. "I just found out about the lockout two hours ago when a professor came up and told me about it." What he did know is that it is difficult to succeed in the NBA, especially when you're an undersized center who needs to trim a lot of baby fat. For all his hubris, Sullinger possesses a healthy humble streak. "I believe in my ability, but at the same time it's a whole different animal at the next level. It would take a lot of adjusting," he said. "A lot of people use college as a pit stop to go to the next level, but you only get this time once in your life. You might as well enjoy it."

Perry Jones, a 6-foot-11 forward, likewise maintained that the possibility of a lockout played no part in his decision to return to Baylor. "I've been hearing about a lockout since my senior year of high school, and back then I was still thinking I would be one-and-done," he said. Indeed, when Jones' former AAU coach was asked by a reporter from The New York Times magazine during the season whether Jones would turn pro, the coach replied, "Come on, man. What would you do? He'll leave. You look at these draft boards -- everybody's got him top five." Baylor coach Scott Drew didn't even bother calling NBA scouts and general managers to ascertain his position. "We knew he'd be a top pick, so there was no reason to do a lot of research," Drew said. "We had scouts at every practice."

Drew offered to be a resource for Jones and his parents, but they preferred to huddle among themselves. When Perry called a press conference April 11, neither Drew nor any of Jones's teammates knew what he had decided. Quincy Acy, a junior forward who is one of Jones' closest friends on the team, sent Jones a text message the night before asking him what he was going to do. Jones replied that he was turning pro. He then took delight in seeing the shocked look on Acy's face when he said he was staying. "His jaw dropped. It was really funny," Jones said.

The childish prank underscores the main reason why Jones is still a Baylor Bear. He is, at heart, just a shy, silly kid who doesn't smile as often as he should because he doesn't want people to see the braces on his teeth. The biggest criticism of Jones' game is his reluctance to assert himself. His greatest pleasure isn't going to parties, it's having paintball fights with his teammates.

Here's the irony: Jones' ability to recognize just how much growing up he has to do prompted him to make an extremely adult decision. "I didn't think I was mentally ready to go to the NBA. I'm just a big kid right now," he said. "I don't think I make very mature decisions all the time. In college, I have time to grow up and mature. If I go to the NBA, I have to mature right then and there. It's a big jump."

Jones' decision was especially surprising given that he will have to sit out the first five games next season as part of a six-game suspension handed down by the NCAA in March after it was revealed that Jones' mother received an extra benefit from his former AAU coach. Rather than chasing him out of the college game, the suspension emboldened Jones to stay. "My mom said this proves I'm not easily broken," Jones said. "I want to be an inspiration to other kids who might be in my situation someday."

Jones' family may not be as financially comfortable as Sullinger's, but Jones' mother and father assured him they would support his decision no matter what he chose. "His family knows the NBA is going to be there. They want their son to enjoy life," Drew said. "Most people assumed he was a money-hungry kid, but that ain't him. Perry's a breath of fresh air, and so are Jared and Harrison. Those are some special kids."

Barnes had an added incentive to return to Chapel Hill because two of his teammates, sophomore John Henson and junior Tyler Zeller, jointly announced on April 6 that they were coming back. Henson had an especially tough decision because North Carolina coach Roy Williams had called more than a dozen NBA teams and learned that Henson would definitely be selected in the first round, though it was less certain that he would go in the lottery. Henson told me that if he had been a top five pick he probably would have gone pro, but Zeller's willingness to come back, which will enable Henson to play power forward, tipped the balance for him. "Me and Tyler made our decision together," Henson said. "It's every kid's dream to play in the NBA, but when you're there and it's right in front of you, you have to think about other factors. With what we have coming back, we have a chance to have something special here."

Barnes' decision to reveal his intentions via a press release -- he didn't even host a teleconference with the media and declined all requests for additional comment -- is itself an illustration of how much he has matured. When Barnes announced his decision to attend North Carolina in November 2009, he did it during a nationally televised press conference and revealed his choice by calling his future college coach via Skype. (Williams didn't know Barnes was coming to North Carolina until he made that call.) That stunt fed a hype machine that nearly devoured Barnes as he struggled early in his freshman season. Barnes will enter next season as a top national player of the year candidate, but he will be far more equipped to handle those expectations. In other words, he'll be a little bit more grown up.

That, of course, is what college used to be about. Nowadays, college is often viewed as a quick launching pad to NBA riches, but recent history suggests that players can cost themselves in the long term by rushing to grab the short-term loot. The fact that Sullinger, Jones and Barnes have decided to stay in school doesn't make them better people than the underclassmen who opted for the draft, but it does reveal a wisdom well beyond their years. If they end up having long and lucrative NBA careers, nobody will ask them why they chose such unconventional paths. The only question will be how many young players have been smart enough to follow.