For college athletes, making it to the pros is the dream, and for a vast majority of them, it’s a dream that can’t wait one or two years.
Playing out all four years of eligibility is considered a stigma for NBA teams, who back away from an older prospect who needed more time to develop. Conversely, players feel the push from family, friends and agents to enter the draft and start earning a paycheck as soon as possible.
Granted, out of the 60 players selected in the 2016 NBA Draft in Brooklyn last Thursday, a quarter of them were seniors. But a record 30 underclassmen, including USC’s Nikola Jovanovic and Julian Jacobs, went undrafted.
That number is way too high, considering the NCAA altered its rules this year to give underclassmen more flexibility and time to choose to stay in school. In prior years, student-athletes had to declare for the draft in April before the draft combine in May. But now, players have until a week after the combine and can work out with one NBA team before making a decision, as long as they don’t hire an agent. This allows them to gauge interest and likelihood that they will be selected and for them to remain in school if the feedback is unsatisfactory.
For a prospect, an invite to the combine means they are on teams’ radar. Only two of the college players drafted this year did not receive an invite. Still, the rule change did not deter many eager NBA hopefuls. Neither Jacobs nor Jovanovic received an invite, but Jacobs had already hired an agent and Jovanovic went ahead and hired an agent anyway, even after being snubbed for the combine.
Jovanovic didn’t appear on many mock drafts, and being from Serbia, may receive some interest overseas. Jacobs was projected by some as a late second round selection, but went uncalled and could be bound for the D-League. Both juniors last season with a year of college eligibility left, we can only imagine what next year’s team would have looked like with the full squad returning and how much both of them would have improved with one more year to develop.
There certainly would have been no shame in that. USC, a team on the up-and-up after a breakthrough season in which it made its first NCAA tournament appearance in five years, seemed primed to return all its starters and key bench players and make a deeper run in 2017. But a slew of underclassmen either transferred or graduated early, and Jacobs and Jovanovic, who could have bolstered their draft status with another year of development and being leaders on a team that experts had in the top-20 nationally in preseason rankings, decided to take a gamble.
It’s a gamble that did not pay off for anyone. The Trojans will likely slip out of the Top 25 in future rankings and have to adjust to life without two of their top players, while Jacobs and Jovanovic face an uphill climb to stepping foot in the NBA.
To be fair, every prospect’s situation is different. Some need the money immediately to support their families. Others may feel like they’re ready and don’t want to risk a major injury in college, or they’re happy with playing in the D-League or overseas if they’re not selected.
But it’s also fair to say the majority of undrafted underclassmen would benefit from another year to develop, improve and potentially have a breakthrough, not to mention graduating and earning a valuable college degree.
Contrary to popular opinion, staying all four years — especially for players who aren’t hotshot prospects — should not be a scarlet letter. I have no issue with guys like Ben Simmons or Anthony Davis who go “one-and-done” in college in order to maximize their career value. But those talents are few and far between, and it’s not like there is zero track record of four-year players having success in the pros.
Draymond Green, who spent four years at Michigan State, immediately comes to mind. The 35th overall pick in 2012, Green exceeded expectations when he made the All-Star team last season. His versatility and high basketball IQ is apparent, and can be partially attributed to staying in school and gaining valuable experience and development before turning pro. He’s not alone – Tim Duncan, Damian Lillard, Chandler Parsons and David West are just some other four-year players who have seen tremendous success in the NBA.
It’s entirely possible that Jacobs and Jovanovic would not have been drafted next year, either. Nonetheless, I would sleep better at night knowing that I took full advantage of the scholarship I was given, maxed out all the development and experience I could get at the college level, received my diploma and entered the draft as the best player and person I could possibly be. But, as someone whose NBA dreams died a long time ago in my local YMCA league, that’s easy for me to say. Others with more realistic dreams have no time to waste, even just one more year.
Eric He is a rising sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Wednesdays.