Saturday, August 28, 2010

Taylor King and CJ Henry NAIA bound

Taylor King and CJ Henry have been in college basketball headlines for the better part of this decade.

I think it is safe to say that this is the last time the majority of the country hears either name.

The 6'6" King originally committed to UCLA as an eighth-grader. Two years later, he backed out on that commitment, eventually signing with Duke. He had a semi-successful freshman season in Durham, proving to be an offensive sparkplug, averaging 5.5 ppg in under 10 minutes. King would leave Duke after one season, landing at Villanova. After sitting out one year per NCAA transfer rules, King had a big impact early for the Wildcats, averaging 12.4 ppg and 6.8 rpg during Nova's 9-0 start. But as Big East season got under way, King saw his minutes decrease before eventually finding himself in Jay Wright's doghouse, getting suspended for the regular season finale against West Virginia as a "teaching moment."

Taylor King couldn't last at Duke or Villanova.
(photo credit: AP)

Shortly after the season ended, King announced that he was voluntarily leaving the basketball team to focus on his degree. That lasted for about two months, when King opted to transfer to USC, where he would sit out a year and finish up his collegiate career in 2011-2012. (King would have only played three seasons, but per NCAA rules, an athlete only has five years to use up his collegiate eligibility. King's career started in 2007-2008.)

Well, that plan lasted for about two weeks until King realized that he would have to pay his way at USC for a year. While we can debate the academic merits of Duke and Villanova versus USC, one thing we can't debate is that $50,000 -- what tuition would have cost King for one year at USC -- is a heck of a lot of money.

So King will finish up his collegiate career with two seasons at Concordia, an NAIA school in California. For those keeping score at home, King went from UCLA to Duke to Villanova to USC to Concordia. That's quite a fall for someone that played in the McDonald's all-american game.

CJ Henry, if you can believe it, may have led a more convoluted path. Henry was a star at Putnam City high as a 6'3" point guard, and while he was not as highly regarded as his younger brother Xavier, CJ was still good enough to sign with Kansas in 2005. But the elder Henry just so happened to be a better baseball player than basketball player, and when the Yankees picked him 17th in the 2005 MLB Draft as a shortstop, a $1.6 million signing bonus was just too much to pass up.

But as his baseball career stalled -- he was hitting .234 in single-A -- Henry began thinking about a basketball career, which was made all the easier by the fact that the Yankees were contractually obligated to pay for his college education. So CJ went to Memphis to play for John Calipari, who coached his father Carl as an assistant at Kansas, in 2008-2009.

CJ Henry wasn't destined to be the next Yankees shortstop.
(photo credit: Blueclaws Blog)

Memphis also happened to be where most analysts believed Xavier was also headed, but when John Calipari left for Kentucky, Xavier and CJ both headed to Kansas. While Xavier became a lottery pick, CJ couldn't get off the bench, playing in just 13 games. With Josh Selby coming in this season and the Jayhawks returning quite a bit of back court talent, playing time once again was going to be limited for CJ.

So he transferred. But instead of going to a D-I school, Henry opted for Southern Nazarene University, another NAIA school. This means that Henry went from Kansas to the Yankees to Memphis back to Kansas and then to Southern Nazarene.

Once again, that's a long way to go for someone who was once picked 17th overall in a draft that has over 50 rounds.

I'm not writing this post to make fun of these two.

Seeing a kid's dreams disintegrate is not a pleasant experience. Some would call it heart-breaking. Others a disappointment.

I call it a wake-up call.

Henry and King were two of the best high school athletes in the country in their respective classes. King was a good enough basketball player to be one of 24 kids selected to the McDonald's all-american team. He showed enough potential as a pre-teen to earn a scholarship offer from UCLA before he even entered high school. CJ Henry was good enough to sign with Kansas even though he spent his springs and summers -- his AAU seasons -- working towards being the next Derek Jeter, not the next Gary Payton.

But being a highly-regarded high school athlete doesn't mean you've "made it"; it means that based on athletic ability, skill level, pedigree, etc., many believe that with hard work you are the most likely to one day "make it."

Nothing in life is guaranteed, and never is that statement more accurate than when discussing prospects in athletics. Ask Steven Strasburg.

Maybe Taylor King can finish strong at Concordia and find himself a contract in Europe. A 6'6" lefty that can rebound a bit, defend a bit, and knock down 25 footers is a guy that will create some interest. But grinding out a living in overseas basketball is a far cry from the glamour and the glory of the NBA's bright lights.

CJ Henry is in a tougher situation. He's already 24. A return to baseball is unrealistic. If he finishes his four years of college, he'll be 27, which is smack in the middle of his athletic prime. Not many 27 year old product of the NAIA are going to be getting NBA contracts.

Perhaps the best case scenario for both is to focus on becoming more of a student than an athlete. Both are getting their education paid for. Get good grades, get a degree, and perhaps when their athletic careers come to a close -- whenever that may be -- they can be successful working stiffs like the rest of us. There's nothing wrong with working a 9-5, trying to avoid a hangover for your Saturday morning men's league game before getting good and hammered at your Saturday afternoon softball game.

The biggest issue here is that the plight of guys like Taylor King and CJ Henry never gets told. How often do you hear a big-time prospect in any sport say "I need to keep my grades up in case basketball/football/baseball/hockey doesn't work out"? Every so often you'll hear a story about guys like Ed O'Bannon or Ndudi Edi or Lenny Cooke or any of the countless stars that never made it. Generally, these stories are of the "Where are they now?" variety.

At the same time, you see someone like Lance Stephenson -- who barely found his way into college and most recently threw his girlfriend down a flight of stairs -- or Daniel Orton -- a kid that averaged 3.4 ppg and 3.3 rpg in one year of college basketball where he stopped going to class after one semester -- making millions in the NBA.

The busts outweigh the guys that get rich tenfold.

Which stories do you think the next CJ Henry and the next Taylor King are paying attention too?

1 comment:

Tjarks said...

Well-written article. What must make it really hard for both those guys is how public their downward slide was. When you're successful at a very young age, it is very hard to handle "failure" as you enter adulthood.

CJ at least has baseball money stocked away and can always be the Johnny Drama to Xavier's Vinny Chase.

That's why I would always advise a young player to take the money when they have the opportunity -- a seven figure salary can set up your family for generations and you just never know what could happen.