Why Tommy Mason-Griffin's decision to leave school early was still the right one
One time McDonald's All-American point guard Tommy Mason-Griffin left Oklahoma after only one season, a season that is perhaps most flatteringly described as "bizarre."
Along with fellow prized recruits Tiny Gallon and Willie Warren, Mason-Griffin formed a trio which was supposed to be the foundations of sustained future excellence, the continued rise of a program still fresh from the Blake Griffin era. However, it did not work out. In a wild, 13-18 postseason-less year, the worst for the team in three decades, Mason-Griffin and Warren took turns taking bad shots (Warren playing himself from a top-five reputation into a 54th pick within two seasons), while Gallon spent the whole season out of shape and desperate to prove he could be a face-up scorer before himself declaring for the draft after one year, getting picked late in the second, and quickly falling out of the NBA. It wasn't pretty, and Mason-Griffin's declaration was thought to embody the poor decision-making abundant in that era.
Mason-Griffin left the Sooners with massive gaping holes in his game. He could shoot extremely well, be it off the dribble or the catch and shoot, but his playmaking was questionable, his defense poor, his shot selection worse, his fundamentals worse still, his conditioning suspect, his play inside the arc deeply flawed, and his temperament volatile. Not only was he not ready for the NBA, he was unlikely to ever be ready for it, save for a significant reformation to his game. And yet he declared for the NBA draft anyway.
This, obviously, was universally slammed as a bad decision. By everyone. Myself included. In hindsight, however, it hasn't been so bad.
Mason-Griffin never made the NBA, not for even so much as a summer league stint. He never really came close, either. Indeed, he didn't land anywhere for a few months after going undrafted, eventually appearing in the D-League with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, where he lasted precisely five games (with 19% shooting) before being released.
However, two months after his release, in March of 2011, Mason-Griffin signed with German team ratiopharm Ulm. He signed for the remainder of the season with an option for 2011/12, and has been there ever since. At the time of his signing, Ulm were struggling near the foot of the Bundesliga, but since then they have been one of the best teams in the country and a solid Eurocup competitor, making last season's quarterfinals. Aided by Griffin, they finished as BBL runners-up in the 2011/12 season, then followed that up with a semi-final run in 2012/13, and are currently sitting in seventh this season. As European gigs go, it is a pretty good one.
Mason-Griffin has been with ratiopharm through all of this boom period despite missing the last two seasons due to injury. He has not played this season due to a torn achilles tendon suffered in the preseason, nor did he play last season after a serious knee cartilage transplant operation, yet the team exercised his 2012/13 team option and re-signed him for one further campaign in 2013/14. They did this presumably because of how dearly they valued what Tommy could - and once did - bring as a player. Mason-Griffin averaged 7.6 points and 3.0 assists in 16.6 minutes per game in 2011/12, his only full professional season to date, and ratiopharm still feel they can have that player back.
Irrespective of whether Ulm's decision to do this was correct or not - their opinion is their opinion - their experiences with Mason-Griffin serve as an interesting microcosm with which to examine the process of early entries by highly unlikely draft picks. It is not the travesty it is so often said to be.
Consider what would have happened had TMG not declared.
Had he not declared for the draft, and assuming for argument's sake that the same injuries had happened anyway as a collegiate player, Mason-Griffin would have either completed his senior season last year and now be sitting out what ought to have been his first professional campaign, or be a redshirt and still injured freshman right now lobbying for a sixth season of eligibility. Seemingly turning 24 in September (sources on Mason-Griffin's birthdate vary, but ratiopharm Ulm's own website lists September 29, 1990 as the correct one), Mason-Griffin would be effectively out of basketball, injured and unable to play, with two very serious injuries behind him, and with his prospects significantly darkened without so much as a single paycheck to show for it. As it is, he has been paid to play basketball (or at least watch it) for three years.
It is possible, of course, that had he stayed in college as a four, five or six year senior, he could still have had a good professional career. He could have had a lengthy and quality college career and still made his way around Europe's better leagues, as many others (such as Tim Abromaitis) have done before him even with their injuries. However, fully aware of the risks of injury that accompany the sport, Mason-Griffin opted to get paid for playing while he still could, knowing that his window for doing so was always going to be short. It is a hard decision to fault without even factoring in the particular circumstances of his case - do we not all do our jobs for money? - yet in light of Mason-Griffin's injuries, being paid to rehab has proven invaluable.
Unless you are a Sooner, whereby biases factor, where is the bad decision?
Too often, the one-and-done rule is automatically and only thought to be impactful on those in the first round of the NBA draft. However, we are a long way past the point (if even we were ever truly at it) whereby an American or collegiate player can pretty much only look to the NBA for employment. The vast majority of NCAA basketball players will not be professionals at any point in their career, yet of those that are, the vast majority of those will be employed outside of the NBA. The NBA Draft is not the be-all and end-all of a player's career. There is money to be made elsewhere, and the window is short. It is even shorter if you spend some of the years in which you could be doing it working for free, all the time risking serious injury and the window closing altogether.
It is true that leaving school to play professionally and declaring for the draft are not synonymous, but a player leaving early may as well declare anyway, for the ability to control one's own destiny can be highly lucrative. See also, the case of current Bucks big man, Miroslav Raduljica, a likely second round pick in 2011 who wanted so badly not to be drafted he essentially tanked his way out of the draft, yet who is now earning three times the minimum salary after enjoying the freedom to negotiate that going undrafted provides. Draft status is an honour and a privilege, but there is more to basketball than that.
Mason-Griffin can surely attest to this. He has been paid to rehab. What about those who have not been, but who could have been? How about Dwayne Collins, the now 26-year-old big man drafted 60th by the Suns in 2011 as a senior out of Phoenix, who has yet to play as a professional after a debilitating knee injury that has cost him his entire career to date? How about Alabama's Ron Steele, once a blazing hot sophomore guard who fell out of all draft contention after multiple surgeries on both knees, one missed season and two hobbled ones, three total years of gritty but ultimately disappointing basketball for which he received no compensation? Or how about Mitch McGary? Could he not have been paid to sit on an NBA bench last year rather than Michigan's? They may have been having the time of their lives anyway, but this is not to be held against Mason-Griffin.
You cannot legislate for injuries, but you can do your utmost to protect against them. Rather than saying Tommy Mason-Griffin et al shouldn't have left school early, perhaps we should say that countless others should have.
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