Stay in School? Go Pro? What’s Better?

Kings rookie Jason Thompson got me thinking before Sunday’s game, enough so that I spent about five minutes talking to him during pregame shootaround (you can listen at the bottom of this post).

Would he have been this effective (11.9 points, 7.1 boards a game as a rookie out of Rider) had he not played four years in school? Did dominating inferior foes his senior year in particular really benefit him more than practicing for hours every day against the world’s best players? What about Spencer Hawes (12.1 points, 7.1 boards)? Would he be even better had he not gone to Washington at all? Would his numbers be up this year with a year’s worth of practicing against Brad Miller every day, or did dominating smaller PAC-10 players do him justice?

These types of conversations never die in a league that deals in a plethora of speculation about when youngsters should come out of college (since the minimum age requirement forced players not to come to the NBA straight out of high school). The thing that irks me a bit is when we automatically assume a guy would have been better off had he stayed in college. I’m not trying to make the case that a guy is guaranteed to get better quicker by coming into the league and playing against men instead of boys, but I’ll make the case that it’s definitely not automatically the other way around.

For example: a paragraph ago I questioned whether Thompson would be this good this season had he come out early from school. Some would say no, that he needed his senior year to fully develop his skills and confidence. Others would say sure, playing spot duty in games (or, who knows, playing a lot) and practicing daily against the world’s best players while receiving high level coaching and a 24-7 basketball program would have made him better for the 2008-09 season. If I had to choose, I’d probably go with the latter, but my whole point is that since we don’t actually know, let’s not do the “he should have stayed in school” or “good thing he came out.” Who knows? Jason certainly doesn’t, which is part of what he told me when I interviewed him before the game at courtside.

Take a listen: