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The Arizona Wildcats and the Terrance Ferguson Conundrum

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Arizona v Wichita State Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

There I was again, a grown man literally jumping up and down in his living room, unabashedly exhibiting the glee of a child. To my wife’s chagrin and my Goldendoodle’s delight, I had seemingly developed this habit whenever an elite prospect committed to AZ. There was little chance that a McDonald’s all-American and consensus top-16 recruit was going to be the exception to this new-found rule, so the ritual celebration was transpiring in rare form when Terrance Ferguson, the culmination of a heart-stoppingly late recruiting class, tweeted that he was coming to the desert.

Sigh.

It seems like ages ago when the rumors of his potential departure to Australia surfaced in early June. And while dwelling on the subject at this point may initially appear delayed and pointless, he recently made the news by officially signing with Under Armour so we might as well use the opportunity to re-open the discussion. After all, his decomittment was undoubtedly the most significant offseason event for Arizona (sorry, Elliott Pitts) and perhaps we can now explore his decision in reasonably good conscience since the rage and despair have (for the most part) subsided.

So why did he leave? While it’s impossible to put ourselves in his shoes, we can extrapolate from various sources that first and perhaps foremost he was encountering eligibility issues. He attended Prime Prep (the very same Deion Sanders-inspired school as Emmanuel Mudiay) before it closed due to financial-related allegations. He then attended Under-Armour-sponsored Advanced Prep International which many consider to be a derivation of the former. Needless to say neither of are particularly well-known for their academic achievements and some claim that they are essentially “basketball factories.” Many of the current top prospects attending API are now transferring to pre-emptively avoid potential issues.

So before we go much further into his motivation for choosing to play professionally, we have to acknowledge that it’s possible, if not likely, that he quite simply never had the option of playing at AZ. Perhaps he would have if truly given the choice; we’ll never really know.

But putting that aside for the time being, Ferguson himself claims that he made the decision for financial reasons. He wrote a heart-felt piece in “The Players Tribune” explaining that his decision was largely motivated by a desire to take care of his family, in particular his single mother of three, who needed to work multiple jobs for years to support the family. It wouldn’t be fair to hold that against the guy – there is an understandable allure of getting paid now, especially for someone raised in a family that encountered difficult financial circumstances.

And it appears that his first professional year will indeed be quite lucrative. The details of his contracts were not publicly disclosed, but we can assume that the Under Armour deal coupled with his one-year Australian NBL contract will be at least approaching seven-figures, possibly well over that threshold. His prep-to-pro predecessors Emmanuel Mudiay ($1.2M) and Brandon Jennings ($1.65) each earned well over a million solely from their one-year deals (granted, they were in more competitive leagues with higher salary caps) and Jennings earned $2M from his Under Armour deal alone. Whatever the case may be, I’m guessing Ferguson will earn a lot more than you or I did as an 18 year old and I can’t in good conscience feel anything but happy for him now that he is in the position to provide for his family.

Speaking of Mudiay and Jennings (unfortunately another AZ de-commit), you cannot blame Ferguson for following in their footsteps given their subsequent professional success after choosing to forego college. Neither made much of an impact in their respective international leagues, but both were lottery picks, earned NBA all-rookie honors and are currently very wealthy young men. There is little reason to believe that barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance Ferguson will have much different of an outcome given his particular set of talents and the NBA’s trend toward valuing long, athletic “3-and-D” small forwards.

So how will his departure affect the Wildcats in the upcoming season? You’ll likely get differing opinions on this conundrum depending on who you ask, but I have to concede that it probably won’t help – we have to acknowledge that the three-time gold medalist can play and his talents would have been a useful addition to the team. By all accounts, he is an elite outside shooter – he won the MVP at the Nike Hoop Summit after making a record 7 threes.

In addition to his sweet stroke, his dunk-contest-winning athleticism is paired with extremely advanced defensive skills for his age (something Miller covets). While AZ is already among the most athletic teams in the nation, his lock-down defense and in particular his outside shooting will indeed be sorely missed – AZ was solid from behind the arc last year at .381% (third in the Pac-12), but with the departure of sharp-shooter Gabe York it is currently a major question mark heading into the season.

Regardless of his abilities, it’s noteworthy that AZ was very closely following Ferguson’s status and was well-aware of the fact that his time at Prime Prep could eventually cause problems. They reportedly pursued Keanu Pinder (ironically a native Australian) after Ferguson’s commitment in the event that he never made it to campus. After all, he had already de-committed from Alabama and once tweeted an ill-advised April Fool’s joke about his pending announcement. There were red flags and AZ knew it; this did not blind-side them and it’s fair to say they were prepared for this.

Even without Ferguson, the recruiting class is universally considered top 10 and they have an almost unfair amount of talent and athleticism at the wing. In fact, they have so many options with the rotation that no one really knows quite yet who is going to play where or for how many minutes. If you read 5 different opinions on this, you’ll likely get 5 different answers, but a few consistent themes are that A) Allonzo Trier is expected to be the alpha dog and B) Trier, Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins, Ray Smith, and Kadeem Allen can all play two or three positions.

When considering these things perhaps we can find the silver lining in all of this – there is indeed such a thing as having too many options and there are already a lot of mouths to feed. In an era of teams loading up with star players at every position, chemistry is frequently overlooked. I personally believe that Trier will thrive as the leader/best player on the team if he has a clear opportunity and it’s difficult to say how Alkins’ and Simmons’ development and attitude would have been affected by a potential reduction in minutes as freshmen. I for one am just fine giving the #22 and #28 recruits some of the opportunities that otherwise would have gone to the #16 recruit. With Ferguson out of the mix, Miller also has more chances to slot Smith at the 3, potentially giving Chance Comanche (the only legitimate interior defender) additional minutes without hamstringing the offense.

All in all, I can’t deny that I would have preferred to have Ferguson on the team. But at the same time his departure may have been for the best and whether or not he would have proven to be the difference between a Sweet 16 and a Final 4 appearance is dubious. AZ will likely be a national contender with or without him, so I’m confidently expecting more ritual living room jumping throughout the season. Just don’t tell my wife.