How should we judge Syracuse basketball players who leave school early for NBA?

Since 2003, a dozen Syracuse men's basketball players have left school early for the NBA Draft.

If only Syracuse basketball players had a crystal ball that forecasted how their NBA careers would pan out, maybe – just maybe – they’d avoid the backlash that comes with a professional tenure that doesn’t unfold exactly as planned.

Especially with the recent influx of one-and-done players, athletes are constantly criticized for leaving multiple years of college eligibility on the table in exchange for money in the NBA, D-League or overseas.

Photo: Bryan Cereijo
Tyler Lydon is the latest Syracuse player to leave school early for the NBA.

Since the turn of the century, 12 SU players have left school early and been selected in the NBA Draft. Starting with Carmelo Anthony in 2003 and capping off with Tyler Lydon after this season, those dozen Syracuse players have experienced varying degrees of success in their professional ventures – some for reasons out of their control.

“I don’t like going back and (judging) years later because hindsight is 20-20,” said Mike Waters, who has covered Syracuse basketball for The Post-Standard for almost three decades. “These are kids who along with their families have to make their decisions in the moment. They don’t get to look ahead 6-8 years.”

For the most part, the players who have thus far enjoyed the most success have been ones who left early knowing they’d be picked near the top of the draft. Those include Anthony (No. 3 overall pick by the Denver Nuggets in 2003), Wesley Johnson (No. 4 pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010) and Dion Waiters (No. 4 pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012). The only exception is Jonny Flynn (No. 6 pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2009), but a debilitating hip injury after Flynn’s solid rookie season derailed his career.

Numbers show that if you’re a Syracuse player picked any deeper in the draft, it’s relatively hit or miss regarding how sustainable a sufficient NBA career can be. For example, former SU point guard Michael Carter-Williams was picked 11th in 2012 but now serves as the fourth-string point guard for the Chicago Bulls. Jerami Grant, the former SU forward picked 39th in 2014, starts for the Oklahoma City Thunder. In between them is Donte Greene, picked 28th in 2008 after one season at SU, who is playing in the Phillipines after his NBA career fluttered with the Sacramento Kings.

But for Greene, who it may seem made a premature decision to leave after just one year, it’s not as cut and dry as staying to improve his stock.

“Both parents had passed away, you had a kid brother…there were some real extenuating circumstances regarding family and financial situation,” Waters said. “He’s gotta be thinking, ‘If I can be a first round draft pick, I can change a lot of things for my family.’”

Family desires and finances are just two of a handful of factors that go into a player’s decision. After Syracuse’s season ended in the Final Four and the NIT the last two seasons, Lydon was immediately asked, “Are you coming back,” a question which he deflected both times.

With the new rule that underclassmen can submit their name in the NBA Draft without hiring an agent, it allows borderline prospects to receive feedback from pro personnel and determine whether or not it’s actually in their best interests to leave school early.

This has decreased the amount of players making mistakes in declaring too early, Waters said, but it’s still tough to judge years down the road something minute like whether players should’ve stayed one more year or not. Remember, these are just teenagers and kids in their early 20s tasked with making a decision that can shape their future.

And more times than not, it’s the right decision. There are often too many extraneous factors to make it a wrong one. It just may not seem that way looking into the past.

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