Last Sunday, when North Carolina was upset by Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels’ All-American guard Joseph Forte put an exclamation point on one of the more remarkable nose dives in recent college basketball history. A little more than a month ago, North Carolina had an 18-game winning streak and was the No. 1 team in the nation. As UNC faltered down the stretch, losing five of its last 10 games, so did Forte. The normally sure-shooting sophomore guard suddenly couldn’t make breakaway layups, much less jump shots. His discipline and poise seemed to vanish overnight, as he forced up horrible shot after horrible shot and turned the ball over in droves. In the Tar Heels’ three ACC Tournament games—culminating in a humiliating blowout loss to Duke—Forte shot a horrid 35 percent. His box score for the Penn State game, when his team’s whole season was on the line, was even worse: 3-13 shooting, a career low six points, and five turnovers.
So, now that Forte has choked at the most crucial part of the college basketball season, now that his basketball stock is the lowest it’s been since he was in high school, what will he do next? More than likely, he’ll go to the NBA.
Although Forte says he hasn’t yet officially made up his mind about whether he’ll return to UNC for his junior year, the word in basketball circles is that he’s as good as gone. While this news in and of itself isn’t shocking—most good college players now leave school early to go pro—the reasoning behind Forte’s apparent decision is truly novel. After struggling in the season’s home stretch, Forte will likely turn pro because the college game is too difficult for him.
That’s not to say that college itself is too hard for Forte. From all reports, he’s a solid student who’s in good academic standing. Rather, Forte is tired of the pressures of college basketball. In the final weeks of the season, as North Carolina’s opponents finally surmised that the Heels were a one-man team, they began to gear their entire defensive schemes to stopping Forte. They’d play a box-and-one, a two-two zone with one player guarding Forte man-to-man. Sometimes they’d even double-team him. It all began to wear on the guard. After the Penn State game, when a reporter asked Forte if his struggles down the stretch had affected his thinking about whether he’d go pro, he replied, “I think so. The past six games, there’s too much attention on me. It’s frustrating me a lot. It’s something to think about.”
On one level, Forte’s thinking makes sense. Because zone defenses are illegal in the NBA, teams won’t be able to guard him the way they do in college, and he’ll get better looks at the basket. But on another level, Forte’s thinking is a red flag to any NBA team thinking about drafting him. Forte, it seems, would rather be a mediocre player in the NBA—and therefore not draw too much attention from opposing defenses—than a star in college, and shoulder the burdens that come with that star status.
Forte, in short, doesn’t want to be The Man—and that could be a crippling defect in the NBA. While there are obviously differences in talent among NBA players, the thing that really separates players at the pro level is their mental approach to the game. The players who go into each game wanting to dominate it are the ones who excel. Michael Jordan was one of the most physically blessed players in the NBA, but it was his ferocious competitive spirit—unmatched by anyone in the league—that made him great. Even if a player is a team’s second option, he needs to want to be its first—as Scottie Pippen did when he played second fiddle to Jordan in Chicago. Forte, it seems, would be more than content being his team’s third or fourth option.
NBA scouts say that because of Forte’s struggles in the final month of the college basketball season—when he couldn’t shake double teams and had a hard time creating his own shot—his draft stock has slipped. A sure-fire lottery pick only five weeks ago, Forte is now projected to be a mid- to late first-round selection. But the best indication of Forte’s NBA prospects won’t be found in any film from the last few weeks. Rather, it will be his official decision, in the coming weeks, about whether or not to go pro. If he decides yes, NBA teams might be wise not to take him with even a second-round pick.