Mandatory Credit: Anna Mills, The Easterner.
The early entry deadline for the 2015 NBA Draft has come and gone with a slew of both international and college basketball players electing to put their names in the hat. The most fascinating group, though, is likely the twenty juniors who have have opted to forgo their final season of collegiate eligibility.
Sure, this group includes potential lottery picks in Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein and Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker, but it’s also comprised of seven guys who CBS Sports‘ Sam Vecenie ranks as likely to go undrafted. There are another seven who are projected to go somewhere in the second round or slip out of the draft entirely, like Tyler Harvey of Eastern Washington.
College juniors are in a difficult position when deciding whether or not to return to school for their final year of eligibility. These players–most in their early 20s–are for the most part a known quantity with a defined set of skills. For some, their draft stock is likely at its peak. For example, Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter is leaving college after knocking down one of the most memorable shots of the NCAA Tournament. He’s perceived to have the potential to be a floor spacing shooter at the next level despite hitting just 30 percent of his attempts from behind the arc this season.
For others, like Cauley-Stein, the college game has little more to contribute to their development. The Kentucky forward showed himself to be the best defender in the NCAA this season, and while he needs to establish a more polished offensive arsenal, he’s more likely to be helped by NBA coaching than another year in Lexington.
While Hunter and Cauley-Stein have the potential to be NBA success stories, though, players like Charles Jackson of Tennessee Tech and Walter Pitchford of Nebraska are unlikely to find their way into the league. So, why leave early?
I’ve recently found it increasingly difficult to criticize college basketball players who decide to forgo their final season of eligibility, including those who won’t hear their names called in June. Basketball careers are short. For perspective, the average NBA career lasts approximately five years. Most of these individuals have a short period of time to earn a living playing a game they love. With their skills mostly defined and no monetary compensation in college, the choice to play professionally often makes sense. Even the meager salaries of the D-League have the potential for 10-day contracts that can turn into season long deals. Many of these players will end up overseas playing in foreign leagues where they’ll be able to make a roster that lacks the talent of an NBA side.
Players like Kansas’s Perry Ellis, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield will return to school with borderline first-round draft grades–probably the most popular grade given to college players–as they chase potential championships next season. That does not make their decision better or worse than those who have chosen to leave early despite their draft prospects. It’s important to keep in perspective the choice being made here. When these players leave college, it’s not necessarily to play in the NBA. There are numerous other ways to be compensated for your play including the D-League and overseas. Many of them, like Michael Qualls from Arkansas, are looking to support their family.
So, rather than criticize these players, we should celebrate their successes and wish them well on their journeys as they take the next step in their basketball careers.