Jan 12, 2011

When Not to Transfer.

Gary Franklin has enrolled at Baylor after leaving Cal, and I am happy for him. He really liked Baylor coach Scott Drew and the vibe of the school when he visited Waco, Texas as a high school senior.

I hope Gary, one of the kids I wrote about in Play Their Hearts Out, finds great success at Baylor, and I will always root for him. But his transfer still bothers me and I imagine it bothers others, too.

Let’s start with the big question, which Demetrius Walker articulated when I called him last week to tell him that Gary was leaving Cal.  “He’s playing 25 minutes a game as a freshman,” Demetrius said. “Why is he gonna transfer?”

I’ve talked to Gary Sr. and exchanged texts with Little Gary, and was told that the reason he left Cal is that he wasn’t happy with the team’s “style of play.” Translation: Gary wasn’t happy with how he was being utilized. He wanted the ball in his hands more, which meant playing more at the point, and he wanted more freedom to create rather than be restricted by the constant plays being called from the bench. Also, Gary feels that he has to play point guard to make it to the NBA, and the Cal coaches were playing him mostly off the ball.

Set aside, for a moment, whether or not the Cal coaches were using him correctly and whether or not Gary can become an NBA point guard. 

Let’s get back to the question that Demetrius asked: How can a kid playing 25 minutes a game as a freshman transfer?

My answer: He can’t.

Playing time is precious. Ask Justin Hawkins, Andrew Bock, Demetrius and other Team Cal alumni about playing time, about how they felt last season seeing limited minutes or, as Demetrius put it: “Getting all those DNPs,” (Did Not Play). Playing time as a freshman is tough to find; playing time as a freshman when you are struggling is even rarer. Gary was shooting 29% from the field and the same percentage from three-point range and yet he still started 11 of 13 games and was playing more than 25 minutes a contest. Against Stanford, in what would be Gary’s last game for Cal, he played 30 minutes.

Cal’s team was so thin and so young that it appeared as if the coaching staff would continue to give Gary playing time no matter what he did. That’s unheard of, particularly at a major-conference school. Gary had it good, even if it didn’t feel that way after he started coming off the bench.

Gary Sr. told me that he didn’t want his son to leave Cal; he hoped he would at least finish out the school year. “But it is his life and so at some point I have to support his decision,” Gary Sr. said.

Okay, I get that, but I also know this: If Gary is good enough to have a team’s offense run through him and if he really is a future NBA point guard, he’s going to have to prove it to whomever is coaching him.  He had to prove it at Cal with Mike Montgomery and now he is going to have to prove it to Scott Drew. The benefit of staying at Cal was that he was assured playing time. There is no such assurance at Baylor, and so one could argue that Gary’s odds of being an impact college player and making the NBA just got a little longer.

Before deciding to transfer, I wish that Gary had called another alumnus from Team Cal (and another character from my book): Darius Morris.

            Darius is now a sophomore guard at Michigan and the Wolverines’ best player. He is averaging 15.2 points per game and 7.3 assists, fourth most in the nation. Recently, NBA draft analysts like ESPN’s Chad Ford have begun writing that pro scouts have taken notice.

            But as a freshman last season, Darius was a role player. He started the first nine games and then was sent to the bench, mostly because the Michigan staff didn’t feel he was enough of a threat from the perimeter. DeWayne Morris, Darius father, told me: “Just like with Gary, it was about this time last year that Darius got taken out of the starting lineup and he was discouraged. When he was playing he was being asked only to play defense and then get the ball to others and go stand in the corner. He didn’t like that. When he was being recruited, the coaches [at Michigan] talked about how he was going to be scoring guard and all that but it changes when you get there.”

            But instead of looking to transfer from a school for which he was playing more than 20 minutes a game, “we talked to Darius about what he was going to do to change how the coaches saw him,” DeWayne said.           

Darius had been a role player during his one year on Team Cal and was rarely the centerpiece on other AAU teams for which he played. In contrast, Gary was the fulcrum of almost every team he was on, in part because Gary Sr. was usually his head coach.

 “I actually talked to Darius last season about the experience with Joe [Keller] and on Team Cal,” DeWayne said. “We talked about how if people don’t see you as the player you think you are, the only thing you can do is get better and better until they have to see it. But if you have always been the star of the team, you never think that the reason you aren’t playing as much or scoring as much is that you aren’t good enough.”

            I won’t go into too much detail about how Darius made himself into a more complete player because I am likely to write something on him for Sports Illustrated a little later. What I love is the approach he took. He set out to change the coaches’ perception of him and he did just that and now he is thriving and being talked about as one of the better sophomore guards in the country and an NBA prospect.

            He is in the exact position Gary hopes to be in, and he didn’t have to transfer to a different school to get there.