To Stay or Go?

College fence-sitters see opportunity in draft filled with risk

Michigan sophomore Darius Morris left school early to declare for the upcoming draft.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The NBA is fine with waiting on college players. The NBA, in fact, in most cases would prefer college players keep playing for State U. The pipeline will carry those good enough to the NBA eventually and the product at the tap will be less diluted if it spends a little more time in the aging process.

When you’re picking in the lottery and weighing not only the commitment of millions of dollars, but the percentage of available assets those dollars represent, the surer you can be about the return on investment, the better. And it’s tough to be confident about that return when you have to project future performance without much of a performance history as a model for projection.

There’s a better chance the wheat separates itself from the chaff in four years than in three, a better chance in three than in two.

All draft choices represent a degree of risk, but the risk inherent in the 2011 draft is way over on the far right of the continuum. Kyrie Irving, the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick, played all of 11 college games, forced to the sideline for the middle three months of his freshman season at Duke by a foot injury.

Derrick Williams, the presumptive No. 2 pick, has two full years on his resume at Arizona, making him the gold standard among this year’s projected lottery picks for projectability. Yet Williams didn’t arrive at Arizona nearly as touted as most Pac-10-level recruits and was never supposed to be someone who’d leave early, so the dossier on him is lighter than you’d expect it to be for a college sophomore considered a top-two pick.

And that’s where things really break apart.

It speaks volumes about this draft that three college freshmen who decided not to come out – Harrison Barnes of North Carolina, Perry Jones of Baylor and Jared Sullinger of Ohio State – almost certainly would have been off the board at No. 7 yet all carried considerable risk of their own. Barnes had a nice final two months after a rocky start. Jones put up modest numbers despite off-the-chart measurables. Sullinger was the opposite: His production was superb but his size fostered doubters.

The No. 3 pick could be Enes Kanter, who hasn’t played a game since the April 2010 Nike Hoop Summit when he outplayed Sullinger soundly. Kanter signed with Kentucky last spring, knowing full well at the time the NCAA would heavily scrutinize his eligibility due to his pro status in Turkey starting at age 14.

Three other European big men – Jan Vesely, Donatas Motiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas – come with the usual caveats attached to international big men. The boom-or-bust quotient on them, nearly a decade after the bubble inflated and ultimately burst, remains high. NBA teams evaluate them better and more cautiously now, but they still come with no guarantees.

Vesely at least has a few seasons at the highest European level under his belt and a strong desire to play in the NBA, which makes him relatively safe – and why I think it’s no better than 50-50 he’d even be available to the Pistons at the No. 7 pick if the lottery odds play to form.

Then there’s the mother of all 2011 draft risks: Bismack Biyombo. Two months ago, even most NBA executives were either vaguely aware or not aware at all of him. Now, with 14 games in Spain under his belt and serious questions about his age, he’s projected by some to be gone if the Pistons stay at No. 7. Crazy.

Given all of that, is there any wonder why so many players who didn’t leave huge footprints on the college season are wading into the NBA draft pool? They see a vacuum and want to fill it.

Michigan’s Darius Morris is the latest example, the sophomore today going all in even before the weekend, when New Jersey will host a mass workout for underclassmen who must decide by Sunday at midnight – an NCAA deadline, not one set by the NBA – if they’re in or out in order to maintain amateur standing.

Casual fans scratch their heads over that one. Morris rarely uses his left hand and his effective shooting range is the free-throw line and in. That doesn’t sound like the makeup of a point guard with a prayer in the NBA. But he’s got plus size, good athleticism, great vision and an unusual knack for finding scoring openings in the paint. He reminds me in a lot of ways of Andre Miller, who stayed through his senior season at Utah and capped it off with a run to the NCAA championship game.

And those casual college fans are today saying, yeah, but Miller wouldn’t have been ready to leave after his sophomore year, either.

Probably not for the NBA. But there are other ways to get to the NBA than directly from college. While Morris is undoubtedly focused only on a non-stop flight from Ann Arbor to the NBA, he’s surely aware connecting flights are available. If he was going to spend the next two years wondering more about the destination than the journey, he and Michigan are both better off the break happens now.

What isn’t talked about much is the way college coaches have come to treat this process. There are some high-profile freshmen who are or have wrestled with the decision that must take into consideration the way their college coach has recruited behind them.

Take point guard Cory Joseph of Texas as a prime example. Last fall, Rick Barnes signed another point guard, Myck Kabongo. Kabongo – like Joseph, a Canadian – is even more highly regarded, already projected as a likely lottery pick in 2012. Joseph risks losing his job to the incoming Kabongo, or moving to shooting guard where he is ill-suited for the NBA, by staying at Texas. And if that happens, there’s little chance he could improve his draft stock for 2012 and, in fact, risks seeing it plummet.

Likewise for Terrence Jones at Kentucky, who started his freshman season loudly but whose play grew more erratic as the season unfolded. He’ll likely go in the late lottery this year – perhaps the top 10 – and logic would suggest he could help himself by returning to Kentucky and playing more consistently as a sophomore.

But John Calipari has three superb frontcourt players on the way. Two of them, Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist, will arrive at Kentucky with greater potential than Jones did a year ago. Barnes, Jones and Sullinger will be in next year’s draft class, presumably, along with a 2011 high school graduating class with pretty high potential.

Calipari has built his own brand, first at Memphis and now at Kentucky, by appealing to the ego of recruits who embrace the one-and-done NBA dream. A cynic might even suggest Calipari would prefer kids who would be wise to stay an extra year leave anyway, to further his profile as college basketball’s uber recruiter and producer of NBA talent.

Calipari even criticized the NCAA’s recent decision to change the rules again next season. It was just last year that the NCAA moved up the deadline for fence-sitters to early May, essentially giving underclassmen what amounted to a mere two weekends to work out for NBA teams and make decisions based on their feedback.

The impetus for the earlier 2012 deadline – it will come within a week or so of the Final Four next spring – came from Calipari’s fellow coaches, who talk a good game about doing what’s best for the “student-athlete” but unfailingly promote their own interests first. They wanted the deadline to come before the April signing period so they wouldn’t get caught with an open scholarship when they might have been able to land a ready-made replacement.

Of course, the rules might again be changed this off-season. The NBA draft is governed by its collective bargaining agreement with the Players Association. The current one expires June 30. David Stern has talked openly about his preference for raising the age limit – two years out of high school instead of the current one. But both sides have other issues higher on the priority scale. We’ll see where this one goes.

In the meantime, a draft already filled with uncertainty at the top is going to be flooded with players at the bottom with even bigger questions marks surrounding them.