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May 16, 2003 Columns No Comments

Off to the NBA . . . Maybe?

by Jed Tai

Who’s not going pro?

With the deadline past for underclassmen to declare for the NBA Draft, that’s the question on the minds of college basketball fans. As seemingly every top underclassman has made it known that he wants to try their luck at professional basketball, it seems that the college game will be losing most of its stars. But it’s not a done deal for many of these players, as they could still come back to the collegiate ranks next season.

With the existing rules regarding eligibility for the NBA Draft in place, you can’t really blame some of these kids for at least “testing the waters”. For current college and high school basketball players, they can declare for early entry in the NBA Draft and still retain their eligibility if they do not sign with an agent and either are not drafted, or withdraw from consideration one week prior to the actual draft. So as long as someone follows these rules, they don’t actually risk much by declaring for the draft.

Why would a player “test the waters”? Most are simply interested in gauging their NBA worth. The main lure of going to the NBA is obviously the money, and with the way the current rookie contracts are structured from the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, there’s guaranteed money at stake. All first round picks are guaranteed a three year contract, with their salary based on where they are selected in the first round. The fourth year can be picked up at the team’s option, and after that year, the player is a restricted free agent whose team can match any outside offer the player gets. However, for second round picks and obviously players that go undrafted, there are no guarantees – financial or otherwise. So the key is becoming a first round selection.

By declaring early for the draft, players can get the attention of NBA teams and scouts, and get an idea of whether or not it would be worth their while to go through with the entire draft process. The key event that most players are concerned with is the Chicago Pre-Draft Camp — the only pre-draft event sanctioned by the NBA that allows underclassmen to participate. This year’s camp will take place June 2-6 as always at the Moody Bible Institute. If a player is one of the 60 or so invitees to the Chicago camp, he will have the opportunity to work out and play in games in front of just about every important NBA scout, coach, and general manager in the league, as practically all of them will be in attendance for at least a portion of the event. Player performances in Chicago have been known to make or break a player’s draft position. In fact, some of the players who have already declared for the draft seem to be hedging their decision whether or not to return on whether or not they are invited to participate in Chicago.

This year, it seems to be even more of a factor as the NCAA has eliminated the restrictions surrounding the Chicago camp. In the past, a player not only had to reimburse for all expenses on the trip, but also had to serve a one-game regular season suspension for each game he participated in during the camp if he chose to return to school. However, the NCAA made a ruling this year that players would now be able to participate fully in the camp without further penalty, and even better yet, would not have to reimburse the NBA for costs incurred. So basically, players would get a free trip to Chicago to try and impress the scouts as a potential first round selection.

Not all players that declare early however, may be in the position to be first round picks. There are only 29 of those available, and there are still seniors such as Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, and David West who are certain first rounders. So obviously not everyone may be in a secure position to get the guaranteed money. But if these players don’t like what they’re hearing or it looks as if they won’t be a first round choice, they can withdraw from the draft – something they have until a week prior to the draft to decide.

But is it really worth it to declare, say if you are projected to be a late first round pick? An argument exists that if you are in position to be even a late first rounder, you should go because you not only will get the guaranteed contract, but can get the “clock started”. What this means is that the player starts earning the money from his rookie contract sooner, so that when he does become a free agent after 3-4 years, he can sooner earn the really big dollars – the type of money the likes of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan got after their initial rookie contracts.

But what many people fail to realize is that even if you do get the “clock started” early, you still have to prove that you’re good enough to get the big money after the initial rookie contract. All you have to do is ask former Duke point guard William Avery how life is overseas or Corey Benjamin how the ‘D’ league is working out. Just because you went through that first contract doesn’t necessarily entitle you to the big bucks. And with late first round picks, you’re usually talking about selections that are made by playoff teams; teams that don’t have much playing time available and would allow someone to develop into a position where they could command big dollars after their rookie contract. Why not return to school and increase your draft stock for next season?

Another things that players don’t consider is name recognition. By playing in college, players make a name for themselves, especially when they excel on the national stage. Four year players such as David Robinson, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, and in recent years, Shane Battier and Jay Williams – all became superstars at the college level so that endorsements were lining up at their door by the time they entered the NBA. By staying in school for such a long time, they also were able to build up a fan base that followed them to the next level. For some of these kids who declare so early in the college careers – or even out of high school – they don’t get these advantages. For example, two freshmen who went pro – Tim Thomas (Milwaukee Bucks) and Larry Hughes (St. Louis) – were lottery picks and have proven themselves to be solid NBA players. But having played so little in college, it could be argued that they really never made themselves marketable, and never really built themselves a fan base. Remember, there is no salary cap on endorsements, but unfortunately most young kids don’t realize this when choosing to leave school early.

A lot of noise has been made about the actual number of players who are declaring for this year’s draft, that it may be an all-time high and that it is alarming how many people seem to be leaving the college game. But the number, at this point or even after the deadline, isn’t really all that relevant, especially when you consider the number of players who are merely “testing the waters”. Also to be considered will be a good number of players who declare for the draft simply because they have run out of options at the college level, whether it be due to academics, team suspension, or other issues (not all that declare are “dreamers”). The important number when it’s all said and done will be the number of players who remain in the draft after the deadline to withdraw one’s name from consideration. After that point, there is no turning back for players (unless they go undrafted). And if the number is high at that point, then maybe there’s cause for alarm.

But players will still go pro and will always go pro as long as the current rules stay in place. How can the tide be stemmed? There has been talk of an age limit on the draft, and perhaps underclassmen shouldn’t be allowed at the Chicago camp. But as usual, the college game will move on and continue to prosper. Even if everyone who has said they’ll try the draft decides to stay in, there are still some great players returning. The college game has always survived the loss of a few stars, and will again do so in 2003-04.


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