It’s great to have a dream, and basketball players who show up on a college campus have the same one.
They dream of playing as a pro.
Very few of those college players will actually get the chance. At elite programs such as Duke or Kentucky, a higher percentage of players make it. But most discover along the way that only the very best can get paid to play. And it’s a hard lesson when they finally realize they’re not as good as they hoped.
This week, Illinois’ leading scorer, Leron Black, declared he is in that special class.
It always hurts to lose your leading scorer, leading rebounder and most accurate shot-maker. But while not trying to sugarcoat Black’s decision to hire an agent and turn pro, this should become the norm for the Illini basketball program, not an alarming development that sends fans into a panic.
When multiple schools are recruiting the same players with the same dream, those players are intrigued by the schools with a track record of developing their players and improving them to the point that the pro dream comes true. Illinois has been lacking in that regard.
If a player longs to play in the NBA, and that player is being recruited by Illinois and, say, Michigan, why would that player pick the Illini?
Illinois has just two players currently in the NBA and neither has a major role. Meyers Leonard is a handsomely paid reserve at Portland (earning $9.9 million this year) and Brandon Paul has found a back-of-the-roster role at San Antonio (earning $815,000 this year).
Michigan has nine players on current NBA rosters.
Black is unlikely to add to Illinois’ NBA list. But he’s been in college four years, has earned his degree in communications and is in a master’s program. He’s engaged to be married and his fiance will graduate in May.
In his mind, now is his time to turn pro and provide for his new family, even if that means playing in Europe.
One could argue he’d be even more ready after a final year of college basketball, but Black knows he’s just one freak injury away from losing this opportunity.
This is also a positive reflection on Brad Underwood and his staff; they nurtured so much improvement from Black that a pro career awaits.
That’s perhaps the most positive development this past season — evidence that players improve under the watch and instruction of this coaching staff.
Duke and Kansas have players leave early all the time. But they continue to thrive by having capable replacements in the pipeline. The loss of Black hurts because Illinois doesn’t have an obvious replacement on the roster or arriving as a heralded newcomer.
Keep an eye out for a graduate transfer who will help ease the loss. That’s almost certainly coming.
Moving forward, the hope is Black’s decision this week will not be viewed as something unusual and unwelcome. It needs to become an annual occurrence.
Illinois needs to be recognized as a school that prepares its players for the pros and then sends them there, whether in Europe or in the NBA. As that happens, stepped-up recruiting needs to have the next wave of pro prospects preparing on the practice floor.
I doubt we’re done hearing about players leaving the program this spring. And the impact of that will be determined by the quality of newcomers who arrive to take their place.
But Black is the one leaving with a great big smile on his face. He has beat the odds and will have his pro dream come true.