Posted by Matt Jones
My rule of thumb when determining what college players will enter the NBA Draft is usually quite simple. If it makes sense for a player to enter the draft from a business perspective, he almost always will do so. Often reporters and fans will debate whether a player likes being in school, what type of team is coming back or if his stock can improve, but in reality these things are all secondary. Generally, if the player will be a lottery pick, he will enter the draft, with few exceptions.
But this year things seems to be different. For reasons that are not entirely clear, a significant number of the most tantalizing NBA draft prospects are returning to school. Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, John Henson and Tyler Zeller of North Carolina and now Perry Jones of Baylor have all announced they will return to college and forego a chance to be a potential lottery pick in this year’s draft. In the case of Sullinger and Jones, the potential for a top 5 selection was on the table, but both players have, as of now, vowed to return. And even potential No. 1 overall pick Harrison Barnes is reported to be leaning towards returning to North Carolina as well, a decision that would leave the top spot in the draft wide open.
There is clearly a fear of a NBA lockout involved, but even with such a result, the players would still be drafted prior to its occurrence and the amount of money they would paid is no less than what they will get in college. Some players may be motivated by a desire to win again on the college level and some could be simply hoping for a chance at a slight improvement in a 2012 draft that might be weak due to a 20 year age limitation in the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. But no matter the reason, the reality is that the top of the 2011 draft has gotten much thinner in the past few days.
However with every change comes an opportunity and now a new batch of players are poised to reap the rewards of what is shaping up to be an extremely weak draft. At the top, players like Arizona’s Derrick Williams, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and UConn’s Kemba Walker have seen their chances of becoming top 5 picks in June increase exponentially. For each of these players, the decision by Sullinger, Jones and potentially Barnes, means a rise in draft slot and a corresponding increase in salary that can push their first contract into a higher bracket. For a player like Terrence Jones, that change in slot could be the ultimate difference in deciding whether or not to return to college or stay in the draft and reap the benefit of a rise in the rankings.
The effect continues on down the draft board where mid to low level first round picks, now have dreams of the lottery. Kansas’s Marcus Morris, Colorado’s Alec Burks and BYU’s Jimmer Fredette have now seen 3-4 lottery spots open up, potentially moving them from late first round into mid-level picks. With a good series of workouts, these players, who were thought to be selected in the 20s just a few weeks ago, can see their final position rise to the 12-15 range instead.
And maybe most importantly, players who were questionable to get in the first round and receive a guaranteed contract, now have the opportunity to be ensured three years in the NBA. Tennessee’s Tobias Harris, Georgia’s Travis Leslie and Illinois’ Jereme Richmond now can potentially make the decision to enter the draft with a slightly higher degree of confidence, as more slots are open to get inside that magical top 30 range. Especially for a player like Harris, who has NBA talent but could potentially have been lost in the mix behind big men such as Jones, Sullinger and Henson, the opportunities have become much brighter in the past few days. Tobias was projected to be anywhere from late first round to a second round pick, but it is now hard to envision a scenario where he would not find a first round taker if he leaves his name in the draft.
Ask any NBA scout or GM and they will tell you that the 2011 pool is shaping up to be one of the worst in recent years. But, the draft will still occur and players still must be selected. With the top players leaving the festivities, SOMEONE has to get picked in those 30 slots and each will receive guaranteed money, whether or not they deserve it. College basketball will surely benefit by the decisions of many top players to return to school. But the true winners may end up being the players who keep their names in the Draft and collect the ultimate benefit of a return to student-athlete status from college basketball’s finest.