Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor is leading the conversation for national player of the year, carrying the Blue Devils to a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky freshman Karl-Anthony Towns is starting for the No. 1 team in the country, helping lead the Wildcats to a potentially undefeated season. Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell is slicing through defenses and garnering the rep as the next James Harden, making his case as the slickest, most dynamic scorer in the country.
All three of them are two weeks away from playing on the biggest basketball stage in the world: March Madness. Meanwhile, 8,000 miles away in China, Emmanuel Mudiay -- who before the season was slated to play for SMU -- is packing his bags, preparing for the long trip home to Dallas after spending the past five months playing pro basketball overseas.
Okafor, Towns and Russell are strolling along the tree-lined sidewalks of three of the best universities in the country. They're figuring out how to write papers, study for tests and how to balance the paradox of being celebrities and unpaid students.
Mudiay has been riding his bicycle to practice through the crowded streets of Guangdong, China, for the past five months. He doesn't speak the language. He lives with his mother. There are no classes, no Midnight Madness, no nightlife to speak of. He's making a ton of money but has nothing to really spend it on right now.
While Okafor, Towns and Russell are building their brands by starring weekly in front of millions on national TV, Mudiay, on most game nights since late November, has taken his position at the end of the bench, the highest-paid 18-year-old part-time cheerleader, part-time practice player in the world.
Okafor, Towns and Russell are being mentored by three Hall of Fame coaches with a long track record of getting their players drafted at the top of the lottery. Mudiay's head coach, Du Feng, is a former Chinese Olympian and pro basketball player who has never gotten anyone drafted.
One of these four top prospects in the NBA draft is not like the other -- for good and for bad.