Apr 29, 2019

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

Happy Monday! Welcome back.

  • Tonight on TNT: Sixers vs. Raptors (8pm ET); Trail Blazers vs. Nuggets (10:30)
  • Tonight on NBCSN: Blues vs. Stars (8:00)
1 big thing: 🏈 Football's underclassmen problem

QB prospect Tyree Jackson forfeited his senior year at Buffalo, then went undrafted. Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

A whopping 49 of the record 144 underclassmen who decided to end their college careers early and enter this year's NFL draft went undrafted, per The Athletic's Max Olson, leaving them without a school to return to or a true developmental league to join.

  • Many undrafted players will sign with NFL teams, but those deals guarantee them very little money and almost zero job security.
  • So, unless their sole mission was to never attend another college class or eat another slice of dining hall pizza, the majority of undrafted underclassmen would have been better off returning to school.

How it works: Leaving school early is risky for all collegiate athletes, but it's a far tougher and more permanent decision for football players.

  • In basketball, underclassmen who don't hire an agent can participate in the NBA combine and gather direct feedback, all while maintaining their college eligibility. Baseball is even more lenient: if an underclassman is drafted but doesn't sign a contract, they can return to school no problem.
  • In football, underclassmen must make the "stay or go" decision months ahead of the NFL combine, and there's no turning back. This forces them to rely solely on intelligence gathered by their coaches; an official evaluation by the College Advisory Committee (CAC); and the advice of agents, many of whom provide false hope to lure clients.

The big picture: The number of underclassmen who have declared for the NFL draft has more than doubled since 2011, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down.

  • During the 2016 and 2017 drafts, 80 underclassmen who were advised to stay in school by the CAC declared anyway. Some were given bad advice, some decided against better advice and others simply had no interest in continuing to play football for free.
  • "There are 50 to 60 guys every year now that are going out for the draft that probably shouldn't. And they would all be in next year's draft," Alabama coach Nick Saban told The Athletic following a similar outcome last year.
  • "So it becomes almost a vicious cycle because if those 50 to 60 players didn't come out, it would be a horrible draft. Because there wouldn’t be enough players — they all left last year."

Potential solutions:

  • An underclassmen combine would help prospects gather more information about their draft standing before making their final decision.
  • A true developmental league would create more opportunities for undrafted players to continue their careers. Here's an idea: why not expand the NFL's practice squad and turn it into one?

The bottom line:

"Every player thinks they're going to play in the NFL, and only 2% make an NFL team. Somebody is creating an unrealistic reality. ... There's no alternative. There's no option where I can go play in Lithuania. There isn't one. You're out."
— Nick Saban (via The Athletic)

More NFL draft:

2. 🏀 Officiating controversy out west
Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Just like the NFL has no idea what a catch is, the NBA has no idea what a close-out foul is — and it could determine who wins the Warriors vs. Rockets series.

What's happening: In last night's Game 1 loss, the Rockets felt like they were on the wrong end of multiple no-calls involving closeouts by Warriors players on Houston's three-point attempts.

  • Watch: Klay Thompson doesn't give James Harden much room to land on these three closeouts. ... And Draymond Green could have easily been called for a foul on Harden's potential game-tying shot. But you also understand the no-calls.

The intrigue: All the NBA rulebook says about this situation is that "a defensive player must allow an airborne player the opportunity to land." Not very helpful.

The bottom line: Look for this storyline to dominate the series, especially now that we know the Rockets have been working on a data-driven case that proves the Warriors benefit from a major officiating advantage.

3. ⚾️ Bellinger, Yelich off to historically good starts
Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Dodgers slugger Cody Bellinger and reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich both reached 14 home runs over the weekend, joining Albert Pujols (2006) and Alex Rodriguez (2007) as the only players to hit that many before May 1.

  • Be smart: Now that the season starts earlier, every "before May 1" stat should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, these two are clearly off to some of the best starts we've ever seen.

By the numbers: Some of the best Aprils ever:

  • Bellinger, 2019: .427/.500/.913, 14 HR, 36 RBI (29 games)
  • Yelich, 2019: .350/.459/.810, 14 HR, 34 RBI (28 games)
  • Pujols, 2006: .346/.509/.914, 14 HR, 32 RBI (25 games)
  • Rodriguez, 2007: .355/.415/.882, 14 HR, 34 RBI (23 games)

Fast-forward: Pujols would end up slashing .331/.431/.671 with 49 HR and 137 RBI and finishing second in NL MVP voting, while A-Rod (.314/.422/.645, 54 HR, 156 RBI) went on to win AL MVP.

Go deeper:

  • Look: Bellinger leads the league in an absurd array of stats, including hits, runs, total bases, batting average, slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging (OPS) and wins above replacement (WAR).
  • Update: Yelich (lower back) was pulled from the Brewers' loss to the Mets yesterday. Please don't let it be anything chronic or serious. For baseball's sake.
4. 🏀 The NBA playoffs are a global affair
Expand chart
Table: Axios Visuals

The semifinal round of the NBA playoffs got off to a rousing start this weekend, and we'll spend plenty of time over the next few weeks breaking down the on-court matchups.

  • For now, though, I wanted to take a few minutes to appreciate all the international talent in the playoffs. It's truly remarkable how global the game of basketball, and the NBA, has become. It wasn't always like this.

By the numbers:

  • 31: The total number of international players on the playoff rosters of the remaining eight teams, an average of just under four players per team.
  • 7 out of 20: The number of international players in the starting lineups of the four remaining Eastern Conference teams.
  • 5: The number of Australian citizens on playoff rosters: Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving (born in Melbourne, has dual citizenship), Aron Baynes, Andrew Bogut, Jonah Bolden.
5. ⚽️ Meet YouTube's favorite soccer team
Screenshot: Hashtag United on YouTube

"Hashtag United isn't particularly easy to explain," Adam Elder writes in the Times:

  • "It's a three-year-old semipro soccer team from London's suburbs that laboriously films their games, adds witty commentary, then posts episodes on YouTube."
  • "Oh, and until this season, they played ... in an imaginary league."

The backdrop: Hashtag United was created by 30-year-old YouTuber Spencer Owen, whose funny FIFA (video game) channel had garnered him a massive following.

  • Owen wanted to bring that video game experience to life, so he put together a team of "guys with day jobs" and invented a soccer league, complete with a season schedule.
  • Soon enough, Hashtag United was playing local reserve teams and company teams as part of its fictional soccer world. They even went on a Coca-Cola-sponsored tour of the U.S. thanks to their exploding online fan base.

Then things got crazy: Last August, Hashtag United hired an experienced manager and entered a real league — the 10th division of English soccer.

The bottom line: In a world overwhelmed with information, the only way to break through is by creating engaging content, and Hashtag United is a perfect example of just how powerful a strong content strategy can be.

  • Also, as Elder points out: "Hashtag United's ethos and its success remind us that sports can actually be enjoyed, rather than experienced as a weekly life-or-death ordeal or as a battlefield for a proxy culture war."
6. 📺 April 26, 1961: "Wide World of Sports" debuts
Jim McKay, Howard Cosell and Eddie Arcaro (L to R) at the 104th Kentucky Derby in 1978. Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

58 years ago today, ABC's "Wide World of Sports" debuted with coverage of the Penn Relays at Philadelphia's Franklin Field. The show was a massive hit, and host Jim McKay's introduction soon became a national catchphrase:

"Spanning the globe ... to bring you the constant variety of sport ... the thrill of victory ... and the agony of defeat."

The big picture: Over the course of its 37-year run, "Wide World" fundamentally changed sports television, showcasing events that viewers had previously only been able to read about.

  • Fun fact: NCAA March Madness, Wimbledon, the Daytona 500, the Little League World Series, the British Open and the X Games all made their U.S. TV debuts on "Wide World."

🎥 Watch:

7. 🏈 NFL draft trivia

On Thursday night, Michigan LB Devin Bush became the Steelers' first top 10 pick since the year 2000, when they had the eighth pick.

  • Question: Who did the Steelers draft that year?
  • Hint: He won a Super Bowl last decade — with a different team.

Answer at the bottom

8. The Ocho: ⛷ Summer skiing

I have no idea what's happening here, but I love it. The blurriness of the video makes it better somehow.

Source: Giphy
Source: Giphy

Full video.

9. 📸 A weekend of racing
Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

LONDON: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge won his fourth London Marathon in 2:02:37 — the second-fastest time ever. The world record of 2:01:39 was set by Kipchoge, himself, at last year's Berlin Marathon.

Photo: Peter J. Fox/Getty Images

BAKU, Azerbaijan: Valtteri Bottas won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and his teammate Lewis Hamilton came in second, giving Mercedes its fourth straight 1-2 finish this year.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

TALLADEGA, Alabama: Chevrolet's Chase Elliott won the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway to become the first driver not from Team Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing to win this season.

Kendall Baker

See you tomorrow,

Kendall "Big Ben looking fast" Baker

Trivia answer: WR Plaxico Burress

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