About a week after finishing his junior season at Iowa, Jess
Settles got up from the couch in his on-campus apartment and
walked his still-sore body past the worn-out Air Jordans on the
floor and over to the telephone. He picked up the receiver and,
hands shaking, nervously dialed directory assistance in a dozen
or so NBA cities. He wrote the numbers down on a pad of paper,
then, one after the other, rang up the general managers of the
cities' NBA franchises. Some he spoke with right away; with
others the 6'7", 220-pound forward left a rehearsed voice-mail
Hi, my name is Jess Settles, I play for the University of Iowa,
and I'm considering entering the draft. If you can, please tell
me what you think my chances are. Thank you. Bye.
Settles grew up in the tiny farming hamlet of Winfield, Iowa.
Named the state's Mr. Basketball in 1993, he was known for a
deadly shot from the left baseline, a shot he developed on the
dirt court at his family's farm. Back home, jumpers that missed
from the left side usually bounced into the manure trough of the
hog pen that ran along the righthand side of the court. "You
either made it or you went and got your boots on," he says.
"That's called shooting under pressure."
As someone obviously well acquainted with hogwash, Settles was
not entirely shocked when half a dozen NBA teams assured him
that he would be selected somewhere between the 15th and 25th
picks in the June draft. After all, he was the 1993 Big Ten
Freshman of the Year, the 10th-leading scorer in school history
and a first-team all-conference selection as a junior after
leading the Hawkeyes to 23 wins and into the second round of the
November 15, 1996
There were 17-year-olds declaring for the draft, for cripes
sake, Settles thought. Somewhere, he was sure, an eighth-grader
was weighing the chance to attend his high school homecoming
dance against the opportunity to make millions in the NBA.
Settles had earned some of his 1,303 points against future pro
stars Juwan Howard, Glenn Robinson and Chris Webber. It was time
for his shot at the big time. "Nobody is ever really ready for
the NBA, and I figured most normal people have to wait 15-20
years for a break like this in their profession," says Settles,
22. "I didn't want to wait. I'm no different from anyone else
who has ever picked up a basketball--to play in the NBA is my
Settles had gotten the green light to go pro only after promising
his mother, Mary, an elementary school principal and former
All-America forward at Midwestern University, that he would go
back and get his degree. "I told my mom this was an opportunity
of a lifetime," says Settles, a dean's list student majoring in
education. "And she agreed, because no one is out there paying
teachers $7 million a year to teach." It was April Fools' Day
when Settles walked into the Iowa basketball offices to break
the news to coach Tom Davis. A stunned Davis actually asked if
Settles was pulling his leg.
The Hawkeyes knew they would be losing three seniors, including
third-team All-Big Ten selection Russ Millard. The team was
prepared to be without junior shooting guard Chris Kingsbury,
who was reportedly going to be academically ineligible and had
decided to turn pro. And there was some speculation that junior
point guard Andre Woolridge was also considering jumping to the
NBA. But Davis had no inkling of the pro plans of Settles, a
player so popular in his home state that he has been described
as the Michael Jordan of Iowa.
For the first time in his 36 years of coaching, Davis felt the
shock waves of early departure rip through his program. Out the
window went a relaxing summer calendar full of golf, coaching
clinics and low-pressure recruiting. First, his staff had to
scramble to fill scholarships, seeking top-flight players who
hadn't yet committed to other schools. Iowa also had to make
plans to alter its style and nearly all of its set plays, which
were to focus on Settles near the bucket and Kingsbury on the
perimeter. Finally, Davis scheduled a team meeting to inform his
remaining players of the many, many changes.
In less than a month, Davis watched a squad he had been building
for four years go from Big Ten favorite to a unit trembling over
its Dec. 3 date with Drake. One day he had the most returning
talent in the conference; the next, he had lost 84% of his
scoring, 68% of his rebounding and 91% of his assists and was
looking at starting four guys under the age of 20. One moment
three players he had handpicked and had counseled into adulthood
were within striking distance of earning their degrees; the
next, they were blowing it all off for the pipe dream of a shoe
contract. This, sadly, is your NCAA today.
"It broke my heart hearing Jess say the words NBA draft," says
Davis. "But this is a fragile profession. You're up and then in
a second you're down, just like the stock market. You lose kids
to injuries, academics, off-court problems and, now, the NBA.
Coaches walk a fine line in this new process. We want our
all-everythings to come back to school, but we owe it to them to
help them pursue their dreams. Financially, you cannot deny that
the NBA is a good decision."
On May 7 Settles and Kingsbury made it official, announcing in
separate press releases that they were leaving school for the
NBA. In the 100-plus years of Iowa athletics only one other
Hawkeyes player--tight end Jonathan Hayes, who departed in
1985--had left school early for the pros. Settles's press
conference was carried on live television throughout Iowa, and
when he declared that, like Kingsbury, he was seeking an agent,
the state let out a collective groan. A college basketball
player may enter the draft once during his amateur career
without losing eligibility as long as he does not sign with an
agent. If he chooses to return to school, the team that drafted
him simply retains his rights until he finishes his eligibility.
If he signs with an agent, though, his amateur days are over.
Kingsbury, the school's alltime leading three-point shooter, had
been contemplating an early exit into the NBA even before he
scored 14 points in Iowa's 17-point comeback win over George
Washington in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. Last
November, Kingsbury was suspended from the team for two
exhibition games after he pleaded guilty to a charge of public
intoxication. Three months later he served a three-game
suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct. Then, in the spring,
word came that he probably wouldn't make the grade for the fall
semester. Who knows whether underclassmen like Kingsbury--who
since the age of nine had decorated his bedroom in Hamilton,
Ohio, with posters of Larry Bird--would take their schoolwork
more seriously if the siren song of the NBA weren't so strong?
(Kingsbury, trying to put his college experience behind him,
declined to discuss his decision to turn pro early.)
Woolridge, third alltime in assists for the Hawkeyes, watched
the maelstrom develop around his teammates and decided to
quietly consider his options, meeting to discuss the turning-pro
process with an assistant coach. The 6'1" guard had transferred
to Iowa from Nebraska as a sophomore with the hope of winning a
Big Ten championship ring alongside Settles and Kingsbury.
"Instead, I watched as we went from an upper-echelon team to a
team struggling to be .500, in a day," says Woolridge, a
first-team All-Big Ten selection who averaged 13.1 points per
game last season. "It was a little shocking."
Woolridge ultimately based his decision on the economics of the
game rather than on his own financial situation. Because the
1996 NBA draft was rich in guard talent (six of the first 15
picks, it turned out, were backcourt players), Woolridge knew
that if he waited another year, the 1997 draft might be more
fruitful for him. It was a tough call to make for a student who
sometimes doesn't have enough money to do his laundry. "College
life is not always what it's cracked up to be," says Woolridge,
22. "I can't wait to tell my mom she doesn't have to go to work
or my dad that he can stop working two jobs. But my goal is
longevity in the NBA, not just to get there."
His choice was made more difficult by rumors that he might be
selected in the first round, where even a late pick can look
forward to a rookie salary of some $500,000. But Woolridge kept
his street smarts about him. "'[The] 12th pick to 20th pick,'"
he says in his best general manager's voice. "They tell
everybody that. I think anyone could call up and ask, and they'd
say, 'Between 12 and 20, yeah, I'm sure that's where you'll go.' "
While Millard and Settles prepared to attend the NBA's predraft
camp in Chicago (Kingsbury was not invited to participate in the
workout), Davis was busy deciphering the same double-talk that
Woolridge had heard. The coach asked his connections in the
league about Settles's prospects and got responses as varied as
"middle of the first round" to "not on our scouting board."
Detroit Pistons coach Doug Collins and Minnesota Timberwolves
vice president Kevin McHale both said Settles should stay put.
Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting, wasn't quite as
tactful and referred to Settles's decision as sheer madness. "I
don't understand who gets to these kids," Blake said. "Don't
these kids understand that most of them have no chance? It's a
Davis grudgingly admits that the early-departure syndrome
sweeping college basketball does have an upside. One of the
first places he takes prospective recruits visiting campus is
the Carver-Hawkeye Arena locker room to see a wall display of
nine framed NBA jerseys worn by former Iowa players, including
Golden State Warriors guard B.J. Armstrong and Sacramento Kings
forward Kevin Gamble. "Every person that leaves early and makes
it as a pro shows the younger players who are looking at your
program that you have the framework to get them to the NBA,"
says Davis. "And good or bad, that's what players want now."
At the predraft camp in June, Settles, who had played power
forward his whole life, was shifted to small forward against the
prospective pros. He struggled with the ball-handling and
perimeter-shooting skills required of the 3-spot, and his
already questionable stock plummeted. He had not yet signed with
an agent, and in his final round of calls to the NBA
powers-that-be, they had stopped using the words first round to
describe his chances. So Settles settled for college, announcing
his return on June 24, just two days before the draft. Davis was
playing in a charity golf tournament in Iowa City when the news
broke. "My score? It was irrelevant after I heard that news,"
says the coach. "This whole story may turn out to have a happy
ending. We'll see."
Kingsbury was not drafted. He spent the summer trying out with
pro teams and entered the preseason fighting for a roster spot
in the Washington Bullets' training camp. (The 6'8", 240-pound
Millard, on the other hand, was selected by Phoenix in the
second round and will try to crack the Suns' extremely deep
roster.) Davis now wonders whether there's a better way for NCAA
coaches to control the early-departure craze. He thinks college
basketball should consider adopting a system similar to that of
major league baseball, in which teams may draft the rights to
players headed to college; these players, for their part, may
not turn pro until after their junior year.
Settles and Woolridge are back at school, preparing for their
senior seasons. "It was the wildest three months of my life, I
can tell you that much," says Settles, who now believes that
players' exiting college early for the pros hurts the game. But
folks shouldn't blame the NBA for this trend, he says. No one is
begging the players to leave college ball.
"Remember," he says, "we're the ones calling them."