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NBA's lure changes recruiting pitch

The pitch proffered in living rooms from one corner of the country to the opposite was always the same.

A college coach would waltz in through the front door with the promise of two things: the chance to play basketball and the chance to get your degree; the game in exchange for the scholarship and the promise of a college education.

The offer is still on the coffee table, but the sale has been altered.

"In general terms, you have to be careful at times when you're talking about getting a degree,'' Arizona's Sean Miller said. "It could be taken as an insult -- I'm not good enough or my player or my son isn't good enough to leave early. Is that every situation? Of course not. But you have to be careful.''

On Thursday, the next batch of hopefuls will gather in New York City for the NBA draft. Three weeks later, college coaches will hit the recruiting trail. Those two intersect on the front steps and front porches of the homes of future college players.

The NBA age limit's trickle-down effect on the college game is hardly news. Turnstile rosters and a dearth of upperclassmen are so commonplace they hardly raise an eyebrow anymore.

But the pro impact creeps in even earlier these days, even before an athlete drops a suitcase in a dorm room, and even before he graduates high school.

Basketball players always have aspired to the NBA. From driveways to playgrounds to high school gyms to college courts, the dream never changes, but the patience to get there has.

The questions coaches hear no longer are: Can I get to the NBA? But when, and, even more, how quickly?

That theme has been around since 2006, when the age limit went into effect, but with the success John Calipari has had at the University of Kentucky, it's now off the charts (Calipari turned down an interview request for this story).

"There's no question that the Kentucky phenomenon -- and it is a phenomenon -- has changed it, and the funny part is, John doesn't even like it,'' Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "But it's a factor. Every kid thinks he's one of them, and there are only 30 first-round picks. Sometimes, I almost feel sorry for kids. They're worrying about the goal and forgetting the journey, and the fun is in the journey. ''

It's hard to blame the wide-eyed teens for failing to stop and smell the ivy growing up the college classroom buildings.

Since the age limit was introduced, only two first overall picks have been something other than a college freshman -- Italy's Andrea Bargnani was an ancient 21 when he was picked in 2006, and Blake Griffin was a wizened sophomore in 2008.

Summer showcase games, preteen rankings -- all of it has unwittingly conspired to make the dream seem more attainable for Everyman. Mix that with a generation of instant messengers, Instagrammers and Vine video-makers -- for whom a seven-second piece counts as cinematographic excellence -- and you've got the perfect storm for the hurry-up-and-get-me-out-of-here attitude permeating the college game.

But it also puts coaches, at least the ones in the market for the top players, in a tricky quandary.

Recruiting is always a bit of a semantics tap dance in which a coach nuances what he says and doesn't say but doesn't lie. That used to be limited maybe to conversations about playing time and whether a player would start or come off the bench.

Now, it's about just how long a college career has to last.

Most have found the simplest solution is to refuse, no matter how hard you're pushed, to make a promise you just might not be able to keep.

"What I try to say is, 'Look, you'll be on television for every game; you'll play against great competition, and if your skills are good enough to go, you go,' '' Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "But it's not up to me. It's up to the general managers, and no one can predict when it will be. Some people say to me, 'I think I'm a one-and-done player,' and I just tell them, 'Well, I can lie to you and tell you that's definitely true, or I can just say I'll make you the best player you can be, which is the truth.' ''

If it were just the kids, of course, it would be easy. But parents are every bit as eager to hear about their son's professional future as they are interested in hearing about his academic future.

Twenty years ago, Pitino had to convince Helen Mashburn that her son, Jamal, needed to leave college a year early. Helen was adamant that he finish his degree at Kentucky and hold off one more year on the NBA. Pitino talked her into letting him leave college.

In all of the years since, Pitino is pretty certain he's never had a similar conversation with another parent.

"You can't say it about every parent,'' he said. "Many still value an education for their kids and in the back of their minds, it's still there, but the parents are extremely ambitious for their kids to go pro. Some, they say education, but the sincerity just isn't there.''

Consequently, there's modification in the pitch. Instead of graduating -- lest anyone is offended -- coaches talk about progress toward a degree.

"So many of them aren't envisioning becoming a senior, so you have to talk about getting an education,'' Miller said. "It's different. I don't know if it's good or bad, but it's changed.''

Miller, like Pitino, Izzo, and Kansas' Bill Self, has produced a mixed bag of NBA products -- a collection of players who have left early, in the middle of or late in their careers.

Some they predicted accurately; others, not so much.

Self thought Brandon Rush would leave immediately; he stayed three years. No one thought much about Derrick Williams when he arrived at Arizona. Two years later, he was the No. 2 overall pick.

It's all taught the coaches a valuable lesson, one they adhere to when evaluating players and one they try to pass on to recruits and their families.

"It's an inexact science,'' Self said. "We don't say positively you are this or that. We say, 'If you do what you're capable of doing, you can put yourself in a position where you have to make a decision. That's what we all want -- to be able to decide.' ''

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has something of a different view. He's had his share of successful early entries -- Carmelo Anthony ring a bell? -- but he tries to keep the NBA out of the living room when he recruits.

"We want to get them off thinking about it,'' he said. "The more you think about it, the longer it takes you. If it takes you one year, two, three, that's all OK. But if you help your team, if your team does well, you'll do well.''

Pretty simple logic, but in a fast-twitch world, is there a place for simple and logic, even in the living room?