A college basketball coach once taught me a valuable lesson after I expressed confusion about an underclassman who entered the NBA draft before he was ready.
Every college player, I was told, thinks he belongs in the NBA.
I bring it up because Sunday marked a quiet milestone on the path toward a 2020 NBA draft that will be unlike any of its previous editions.
This one could wind up being especially tough on underclassmen who decide to give up what is left of their college eligibility to gamble on a crapshoot of a coronavirus-altered evaluation process.
Specifically, I’m a little worried about seven players between Illinois, SLU and Mizzou.
Illini sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu and freshman forward Kofi Cockburn still are in the draft pool. Same for Billikens junior guard Jordan Goodwin and junior forward Hasahn French. The Tigers have three players who have declared: sophomore guard Xavier Pinson, junior forward Jeremiah Tilmon and junior forward Mitchell Smith.
Sunday was the deadline for players with college eligibility remaining to declare for the draft. If you’re not in by now, you’re out. But that doesn’t mean those who are in can’t get out.
Thanks to some wise changes made to this process, underclassmen who have declared can exit the draft pool and preserve their college eligibility as long as they press eject by a certain date. This time it is June 3.
Dosunmu, Cockburn, Goodwin, French, Pinson, Tilmon and Smith should do just that. Get out of the draft. Go back to school for another season.
I admit my own bias. I would prefer to watch them play another season for area teams. But no one should root for unpaid college players to delay their dream of making it to the NBA — if they actually are going to make it. It’s the players who jump early, then miss, who spoil their shot at a degree along with a chance to become a more desirable NBA prospect. They tend to wind up in the NBA’s developmental league, or playing overseas or out of the game altogether.
“Testing the waters” has become the popular phrase for underclassmen who want to dip a toe in the draft and gauge the temperature. It’s a great idea. Players can conduct interviews with teams. They can win over scouts in workouts. They can even sign with an NCAA-approved agent, something that used to be a no-no, and still return to college if they don’t like the feedback.
That feedback comes from a group called the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which gives underclassmen an estimate on where they could be selected: in the draft lottery (Nos. 1-14), later in the first round, in the first half of the second round, in the second half of the second round or not drafted.
So, testing the waters is smart. Usually. But right now?
It’s mostly pointless.
You can blame coronavirus for that.
NBA teams cannot hold in-person workouts or interviews with prospects at the moment because of social distancing guidelines. Hopes of some sort of combine have diminished. Teams can’t even request fresh videos of workouts, because of pointless rules. Teams can only interview prospects virtually, and there are strict time limits on that. The draft is scheduled for June 25 in Brooklyn, but ESPN reported that teams are asking the league to postpone the event until August.
This has the makings of a mess. A big one. The only players who should not be sweating the pandemic’s effect on their draft stock are surefire first-round picks. None of the seven players we’re talking about are on that list. Each one could suffer from a watered-down evaluation period. Each one could benefit from some more college seasoning.
The difference between being drafted in the first round and the second round is significant. First-round picks get two guaranteed contract years. On top of a lot more money, they get more security out of the gate. Second-round picks get less money, less security and more hurdles to clear. Most of our seven are not even projected to make the second round.
Basketball website HoopsHype.com publishes a helpful aggregation of the most trusted draft experts’ most recent mock drafts. It’s a good way to get a big-picture snapshot about the industry’s view of a player. The compilation includes opinions from analysts at ESPN, CBS, Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, NBADraft.net, The Athletic, SB Nation, Sporting News and USA Today.
Three of the nine outlets included in the latest HoopsHype aggregation see Dosunmu getting drafted somewhere in the second round, while six don’t think he will be drafted. None of the nine outlets see the other six underclassmen getting drafted.
Dosunmu (29.6%), Goodwin (28.2%) and Pinson (27.9%) all shot lower than 30 percent from 3-point range last season.
French has missed 243 of his 371 free throw attempts as a Billiken.
Cockburn, a traditional center hoping to find a role in a modernized NBA, shot just 28.7% on field-goal attempts that were not at the rim.
Tilmon’s foot and foul problems limited him to 11 starts, 17 games and a career-low 340 minutes.
Mitchell Smith? Let’s just say he will not be drafted.
The point is not to diminish any of these players.
They’re all important parts of their teams.
More importantly, they will be better off if they prioritize one more year of college development over betting everything on long odds in a draft that could be even crueler than usual.