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By any measure, Khem Birch was having a promising freshman season. A 6-foot-9 forward at Pittsburgh who was just the second McDonald's All-American to play at the school, Birch was averaging 4.4 points in 15 minutes, but he was leading the team in blocks and had started the last six games, making him just the third freshman to start during Jamie Dixon's nine years as head coach. Those aren't lights-out numbers, but given the potential Birch had shown, and given Dixon's history of developing talent, Birch had every reason to believe that at some point over the next few years he would have an excellent chance at a lucrative professional career.
So imagine Dixon's surprise when Birch called him last Thursday to tell him he wanted to transfer. Birch had missed practice that day, but that didn't cause any alarm because several players were missing practice because of final exams. Dixon and Birch had another conversation the next day, and by Friday night Birch was headed back to his native Canada. He did not formally ask Pittsburgh for his release to transfer to another school, which leaves a smidgen of hope that he will return. But it's unlikely.
Reached by phone on Sunday night, Dixon offered little by way of comment, except to confirm that he was surprised by Birch's decision. "We discussed it, but we didn't really get into the reasons. There's nothing I can say as far as what his thinking was," Dixon said. "The kid has made a decision and moved on, and so have we."
Birch does not neatly fit the mold of the trigger-happy undecider. Yes, he played for three high schools before coming to Pitt, but one of those was an American prep school that de-emphasized basketball after Birch got there. Still, Birch's shocking decision to leave midway through his freshman year is on pace with the larger defects that have plagued college basketball's culture over the last decade. Players are routinely shepherded through a grassroots system that caters to their every need, where there's always another high school or AAU team ready to accept them at the first sign of adversity. No wonder so many of them bail on college. For the first time in their lives, they're being held accountable. And they can't handle it.
Yes, there are good reasons to change schools, and coaches are often at fault for over-promising during the recruiting process. But leaving mid-semester of your freshman year? When you're starting? Former Pitt guard Brad Wannamaker said it best on Twitter after Birch announced his decision: "Guess everybody ain't built for tough coaching and competing for minutes."
Birch's foolish move is the latest example of how the rush to the NBA can warp the minds of young players and, especially, the adults who are in their ears. "If you become a senior in college, in many regards you're seen as a failure. That's the starting point," Arizona coach Sean Miller says. "If things aren't going according to that timeline, if there's any type of learning curve or process or hardship or obstacles, then many times the answer becomes, I've got to change my environment."
Miller should know. His program also lost freshman, Sidiki Johnson, a 6-8 forward from the Bronx. Johnson had already been suspended in mid-November for violating team rules. He scored 18 points in the team's Red-Blue scrimmage, but he had played in just three of Arizona's first give games as a backup center. Looking back, Miller probably shouldn't have been surprised Johnson couldn't cut it. He did, after all, attend four high schools, including two prominent prep schools (St. Raymond's in the Bronx, and St. Benedict's in New Jersey), as well as the ultimate prep powerhouse, Oak Hill Academy. Last year, Johnson left Oak Hill after he violated school policy. He returned home to attend Wadleigh High.
Miller concedes he probably should do a better job screening these guys beforehand -- especially since last season he coached the ultimate undecider, Lamont "Momo" Jones. A 6-foot guard from Harlem, Jones played for three high schools, committed to four colleges and then transferred from Arizona after one year. He's currently playing for Iona -- this week, anyway.
Nurideen Lindsey played an even bigger role at St. John's than Birch and Johnson were playing at their schools. A native of Philadelphia who grew up amid unimaginable circumstances -- two of Lindsey's brothers were killed in gang-related incidents, and three years ago his closest friend died of cancer -- Lindsey transferred from Overbrook High in Philly to the South Kent school in Connecticut, but he dropped out shortly after getting there. After resuming his career at Redlands Community College in Oklahoma, Lindsey transferred to St. John's, started the Red Storm's first nine games and was third on the team in scoring (11.9) and first in assists (2.9).
Lindsey had some rough spots on the court -- he missed two free throws with 2.3 seconds left that cost the Red Storm the game against Texas A&M at Madison Square Garden, and he had just one point in a blowout loss at Kentucky -- but he was also butting heads with the coaches during practice and off the court. A parking ticket here, a missed class there. When he informed his coach, Steve Lavin, by text message that he wanted to leave, Lavin didn't try to talk -- or text -- him out of it.
Oregon coach Dana Altman, however, did his best to convince freshman guard, Jabari Brown, not to leave town after only two games. But it was to no avail. A 6-5 guard from Oakland, Brown averaged six points and 5.5 turnovers, and he shot 27 percent from the field. Still, it was only two games. When he didn't show up to practice one day and later told Altman he wanted to leave, the coach asked if they could meet the next day. At the meeting, Brown brought his father, who was fully supportive of his son's decision to quit.
"I was shocked. I didn't want him to leave, and I told him that," Altman said. "They just said he didn't fit our style and needed to look elsewhere. I was disappointed. He was a good kid, a good student, doing well academically. The only thing I had been getting on him about was working harder. You do this for 32 years, you ought to not be surprised by things, but I was surprised at that one."
Once again, he shouldn't have been. Brown began his high school career at Salesian High in Richmond, Calif. He transferred to Findlay Prep in Nevada for his senior season, but midway through the year he left Findlay and finished up at Oakland High. That's three high schools inside of a year. Altman is quick to point out that he too has a history of indecision -- in 2007, Altman left Creighton to accept a job at Arkansas, but changed his mind less than 24 hours later -- but he also acknowledges that Brown's high school shifts should have raised a red flag.