Measuring Potential Differently

After last week’s Wesley Matthews love-fest, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander.

Matthews, no doubt, has had a good pro career. But one could make a case Matthews was the third-best player of his “three amigo” brethren, Dominic James and Jerel McNeal, when measuring their time at MU. Honoring Matthews with a bobblehead is a good way for Marquette to tap into the Bucks fever gripping Milwaukee at the moment. But why not honor all three of those four-year starters?

That thought took my mind down a different path: Let’s think for a second about the ROI a university gets from a basketball team, as well the ROI for the student-athletes. For another second, let’s dismiss things like NCAA shares and whatnot. Let’s instead talk about earning potential for student-athletes … and what that earning potential can mean to their alma mater.

Matthews has had a solid 11-year NBA career. Not hall-of-fame caliber, but solid. He’s never been an all-star, but he’s started nearly every game he’s played from his fourth season onward. His career average of 13 points per game is above respectable. He’s a solid contributor and a good locker-room presence. Six teams, and the blemish of having played for the Knicks, but all-in-all, a good journeyman NBA career.

A good NBA career can make you wealthy, at least if you don’t get your financial advice from MC Hammer or Mike Tyson. HoopsHype estimates Matthews has made a little over $100 million in NBA salary. That doesn’t include other money to be made from basketball, like shoe contracts. High-level executives at mid-sized companies might only make a few hundred thousand dollars a year. Matthews has made many millions before age 35. If he’s invested wisely, he can live Scrooge McDuck style.

Compare Matthews’ money to another MU player with Madison ties: Vander Blue. Blue has recently been called “the Crash Davis of the G-League,” in reference to Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham. HoopsHype only has Blue’s NBA salary information; in contrast to Matthews, Blue has pulled in about 1/1000th of the NBA money Matthews has. He gets a salary in the G-League, but it can vary greatly based on different guarantees that may have been a part of draft bonuses and roster guarantees — here’s an article from a few years ago that gets into all that. Surely Blue isn’t doing poorly, but his basketball earnings aren’t north of nine figures like Matthews’. He’s probably comfortably getting by, but simply getting by, much like most non-basketball playing Marquette fans. He’ll probably want to line up some post-basketball income, unlike Matthews, who won’t have to if he’s been smart with his money.

James and McNeal have spent a healthy amount of their pro careers overseas, where it’s difficult to gauge both how much money they’ve made relative to American counterparts. One advantage of playing outside the U.S. is many foreign teams measure salary after the team pays the player’s taxes, so it’s difficult to try and compare their earnings to those of their domestic counterparts. It’s safe to assume, though, James and McNeal also haven’t done poorly, maybe even better than Blue.

In many ways, Matthews was a third option at Marquette. McNeal ended up being Marquette’s all-time leading scorer, while James, who usually ran the point, seemed to be the straw that stirred the drink. Yet, Matthews’ earning potential has far exceeded that of James and McNeal. Consider, then, how much higher it might have been if he was leaned on more for those Marquette teams. Perhaps he would have had more chances to prove himself in the clutch and better stats. Maybe he gets drafted and gets more rookie playing time. Maybe that leads to signing with a better team and better numbers.

Now consider what we’ve come to expect from Steve Wojciechowski’s Marquette teams: For four years with Markus Howard, and one year of Henry Ellenson, Marquette has largely leaned upon a star player to carry what could easily be called around 40 percent of the offense — sometimes less, sometimes more. Ellenson’s career has sputtered, but he’s still made about $5.7 million in salary from the NBA, again, with more surely coming from other sources. The book is out on Howard’s pro prospects, but I’m not convinced the association can pass on the nation’s leading scorer, even with his lack of size, injury/concussion history, limited ball distribution skills (go ahead and question coaching here if you’d like) and defensive issues. Howard can shoot, and, as Ray Allen proved, shooters have longevity in the league. Even if he doesn’t put up Matthews’ minutes or numbers, he has the potential to hang around as a role-player for a long time and, perhaps, make Matthews money, maybe even over more years.

Consider what we’ve said about Matthews, how much he’s made in comparison to his MU contemporaries and how much higher his earning potential could have been. Now consider how Marquette’s teams of late have been set up to make Howard and Ellenson shine.

Let’s not go so far as to say Marquette is trying to maximize net player salary moreso than win games. That seems like a leap and not necessarily the best decision for the university, as it would reduce those tournament shares we mentioned and potentially make interest in the program as a whole wane … though it wouldn’t wane too much, as fans would still come watch the singular talents Howard and Ellenson were, or at least were hoped to be, as I maintain the stance that Ellenson was a disappointment as a collegiate player. But when you also remember Marquette is a private institution that relies heavily on donor support, you can’t tell me the bobblehead night wasn’t at least in part to try and help grease the skids for asking Matthews, eventually, to give back to his alma mater. And when players reach the tax bracket Matthews is in, it’s hard not to see some folks wanting to produce more of those alumni.

Is there something to be said for a program seeking to maximize the earning potential of its players as much, if not maybe even moreso, than seeking to win? When being brutally honest … maybe there is. You hope it’s not the primary motivating factor for building a program, as it makes basketball on the whole feel like a cynical exercise. I’m sure no one would ever publicly say winning isn’t the number-one goal. But it’s the kind of thing that at least makes you ponder, as my mind does when it goes in odd directions. Consider it something to think about when you’re struggling to fall asleep at night.


MORROW-LESS: Ed Morrow has left Marquette Basketball, though he remains enrolled at school. While no official reason has been given, sources are telling me it’s mostly due to his reduced role.

At best, Morrow had to rely on a whole lot of heart and hustle. He was undersized for a five and seemed limited as a four or a three. With the emergence of Jayce Johnson, Morrow stopped being a great fit, though I still don’t understand why he wasn’t on the floor when a rebound was needed in overtime against Providence. Apparently, though, he won’t be on the floor again.

Any reduction of depth, without a replacement, stings a little, though Marquette hasn’t lost a game without Morrow, so they seem to be making do without.

EAGLES TAKE FLIGHT: Marquette’s next two are on the road against No. 13 Butler, losers of three-straight, and Xavier. I was going to make the trip to Indy, but business this weekend will keep me in Milwaukee. Still, if MU wins both games, we’ll have a streaking MU team to discuss in next week’s blog.

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