Greatness Takes Time: Why Staying Four Years Is Not A Bad Thing
In a college basketball season that has been as predictable as guessing the correct lottery number there have been no shortage of storylines. Projected top pick Ben Simmons did not play in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Kentucky and Duke were not their typically dominant selves. Rick Pitino and Louisville were not in the tournament in the aftermath of a nasty prostitution scandal. The list can go on. One storyline that has not been talked about nearly as much and should has been the return of the four-year player.
This season the two best players in the country — Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and North Carolina’s Brice Johnson — are seniors. In an era where one-and-done guys grab all the attention from NBA teams who dream about landing the next Kevin Durant or Karl-Anthony Towns it is hard to appreciate the player that stays all four years.
You can’t fault NBA teams. It’s like going to pick out a pet at the pound, you always look for a puppy before settling on an older dog. The thought process for drafting is similar. With that being said, most of the focus has been on freshmen Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, and Jaylen Brown who all look like future solid pros. But anyone that has really been watching knows that this year the more mature players like Hield, Johnson have been the stars and are ready to make an impact at the next level.
When the season started I had no idea who Buddy Hield was and vaguely recognized Brice Johnson’s name. I assumed Hield was a freshman and Johnson was a returning sophomore because we’re trained not to expect any four-year guys being the best guy on the team let alone the nation. Buddy Hield for all intents and purposes has been the best player in college basketball. Brice Johnson is the most important player on the best team in the country.
Despite their success both Hield and Johnson’s draft projections do not match their output. As of this writing Hield is projected to be drafted in the lower half of the top ten. Johnson is projected as low as the second round and as high as number eleven. Denzel Valentine — another senior who took home Player of the Year honors this season — is projected outside the lottery. If all these projections hold whatever team lands these guys are getting away with robbery.
Hield averaged 25 points per game this season (highest in the country) and has carried his team to the Final Four. Only three other players have been able to do this — Larry Bird, Glen Rice, and Dennis Scott. Through his first four NCAA Tournament games he has poured in 117 points, second only to Stephen Curry and ahead of players like Kemba Walker, Jay Williams, and Blake Griffin. Clearly the numbers back Hield up as he is in the same company of players that have made a great impact at the next level.
And just like all the players mentioned above Hield has that next level. That level great players reach when the bright lights are on and the role players start to shrivel up like dry grapes. Outside of the Sweet Sixteen game against Texas A&M where he only scored 17, Hield has put up no fewer than 27 and as much as 37 which he had in the Elite Eight.
He has taken over games in the same manner Stephen Curry does, shooting the shots the defense is desperately trying to take away, and splashing them in by the boatload. That is a skill you cannot teach, it is a skill some players have and some don’t and if they have it you better grab them sooner rather than later.
Brice Johnson does not bring that same Curry-like energy to the game, but he certainly does find a way to make an impact. Marcus Paige has been the most talked about player on North Carolina all season, but it is Johnson that means the most to the Tar Heels. The lazy comparison for Draymond Green is Denzel Valentine (don’t feel bad I did it too), but Johnson seems to be the better fit. He can make the pinpoint pass into the smallest crease. He can clean the boards with ease. He can hit the big shot. He’s never going to be the best player on a championship team, but certainly will be the most important.
During North Carolina’s dominant tourney run Johnson has a double-double in each game and has already set the school record for most double-doubles in one season. In the Tar Heels’ Elite Eight game against Notre Dame Johnson set the tempo at the start by knocking down virtually every shot he took. This was not the product of having a hot shooting night, but a product of a player figuring out where on the floor he is most effective. For Johnson that space on the floor is the elbow and free throw line area and he makes sure to take advantage of it.
These skills that Hield and Johnson possess are skills that most freshmen simply cannot acquire in one season. It takes time and a lot of reps. I know it’s easy to say a player to stay in school when you’re not the one being offered millions, but you cannot question the payoff waiting has. Players like Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Tim Duncan did not have immediate impacts right away for no reason. J.J. Redick. Chandler Parsons, and Wesley Matthews didn’t become strong role players quickly for no reason. They waited. They figured out what type of player they were.
This is what the NBA should be celebrating. My hope is Oklahoma and North Carolina face off for the National Championship Monday and the two seniors get their moment of glory. I hope that Hield and Johnson receive as much attention as possible for staying four years. I hope players like Skal Labissière watches and decides to stay a year. I hope this is the year that basketball starts to realize that staying four years does not mean you are not elite. Greatness takes time and you cannot rush that.
Originally published on Sidelines March 2016