When the deadline for aspiring professional basketball players to file for early entry to the NBA Draft passed just before Sunday turned to Monday, it was known to contain the names of nearly 160 players who participated in NCAA basketball in the 2019-20 season.
A few of those are no-doubt/no-brainer lottery picks, such as Dayton’s Obi Toppin and Georgia’s Anthony Edwards. Some are unlikely to be chosen in prominent draft positions, such as Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley, but have determined they wish to begin their professional careers, regardless.
And some are seeking to experience the pre-draft process, to learn more about how NBA teams view them, perhaps to dazzle one or more teams with a surprisingly spectacular performance in a setting different than a college practice or game. In the vernacular, they are “testing the waters.”
All the pools are closed, though. There is no water. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there almost certainly will be no NBA Combine in 2020, no individual-team workouts for a player to experience the protocols and perhaps demonstrate to teams that there is more to his game than shown to date.
Why, then, are there so many players on that list?
One high-major coach who had a player enter said this: “He’s just putting his name in because it’s the cool thing to do.”
That appears to be the only logical explanation.
“We typically have a robust process for underclassmen, and I place a high value on it. But the wheels are not even turning,” one Western Conference executive told Sporting News. “That process doesn’t exist this year.
“We’re not going to be having workouts, as far as I can tell. I like bringing in the underclassmen to test, and it’s very valuable. We can’t even watch a workout of a kid on video, because that would put kids in gyms when they shouldn’t be there.”
Darius Days averaged 11.1 points in 23 minutes per game for LSU. Brendan Bailey averaged 7.1 points as a sophomore at Marquette. Dexter Dennis averaged 9.2 points in his second year at Wichita State. All filed for NBA early entry.
There are more accomplished players on the list, as well, including Sporting News Player of the Year Luka Garza of Iowa and wing Cory Kispert of Gonzaga.
Any of these players, if interested, had the opportunity to receive an evaluation from the NBA’s undergraduate advisory committee. It was not necessary to file for early entry to receive this draft grade, which comprises evaluation from all 30 teams and a five-person leadership committee. A player who asks for the advisory committee grade will be told whether he is a likely lottery pick, a late first-rounder, a second-rounder or expected to be undrafted.
“There are so many guys that applied for the advisory committee that I’ve never heard of,” the Western Conference executive said. “And I’m not even sure I’m ashamed to admit that.”
In this uncommon circumstance, the advisory committee was about as far as it was necessary to take the process for those who are considered to be testing. However, many choose not to believe the assessments they receive.
“Some of these kids get that feedback and think it’s just rigged. It’s not. The NBA does a really thorough job of asking,” one Eastern Conference executive told SN. “They’re so diligent with getting the right amount of feedback. They’ve really standardized it over the past three years. They’re not leaving it to the device of individual teams.
“You have to put hard numbers on it now. And some kids get that feedback and say, ‘Nah, it’s not real.’”
The Eastern Conference executive told SN that he feels for those players who will be denied the opportunity to go through the NCAA Draft process. It’s not as rough as losing the opportunity to play in league championship tournaments or the NCAAs, but it’s one more blow in a rugged spring for college basketball players.
A year ago, power forward Reggie Perry of Mississippi State finished his freshman season with a flourish, helped the Bulldogs get into the NCAA Tournament and then filed for early entry. He had displayed enough potential to be invited to the NBA Combine.
“He interviewed well, played well, then decided to take his name out, played USA Basketball and was incredible at the U19 World Championship. So we have information on him,” the Eastern exec said. “Some of these guys are not going to have that same level of exposure.
“This more hurts these kids, and I don’t know if they’re getting the most responsible amount of feedback. They want to participate, and they’ve seen their peers involved, but there is no combine. Sorry. I feel badly for them.”
In a typical year, the opportunity to experience the draft process can be a positive even if the player expects to return for another year of NCAA basketball. It’s can be like a hybrid of a summer internship and a first attempt at taking the SAT.
As with an internship in journalism or accounting or business, the player gets to see what the professional world is like, meet some of the principals, perhaps make a strong impression with an interview or an obvious work ethic. As with that first lap through a standardized test, the athlete gets exposed to the procedures, to what is expected, to whatever little devices might promote success when it’s time to take the shot that will count.
“The feedback part is great, but this is just different,” the Eastern conference exec told SN. “They’ve seen all their peers do it, so they want to say, ‘Yeah, I declared for the draft.’ But you got no feedback.”
Entering the draft is not without risk for the athlete. A negative first impression can endure among the scouts and personnel executives who eventually will determine whether to employ him. But that’s a chance many athletes are delighted to take because they believe in their ability and want the opportunity to show it to the people who can help them to achieve their dreams.
Essentially none of this will happen this spring. A player may be able to get an online video interview with a team, but not a lot more. And those are likely to be limited to the players who have a serious chance to be selected.
“It’s not like teams will say, ‘Here’s the underclassman list, let’s start rolling through interviews A to Z,’” the Western exec told SN. “There’s only so many Zoom calls we can ask our staff to sit in on.”
Players can make agreements with agents while they’re on the early-entry list, so long as they’re NCAA-certified. According to the college coach, many top agents don’t bother with certification because they’re not interested in trying to talk marginal prospects out of school on the off-chance they might be chosen. There’s not much an agent can do for a player this year; possibly the prospect could be flown to a state where gyms are open to get some workouts in, but as of now teams would not be permitted to observe in any way.
One reason there are so many marginal prospects on the early-entry list is many college coaches have determined that the most prudent approach with players who express a desire is to tell them to go ahead.
“I tell them, ‘If you’re even thinking about it, put your name in,’” the high-major coach said. “If they don’t, they’re going to blame me.”
That puts NBA teams in the position of having to explain to aspiring pros that they are not ready to be chosen. If the college coach says it, that can create a divide with the player. If someone in the league says it, the college coach can’t be charged with just trying to keep a player in his program to win more games.
It almost seems as if players are filing for the draft so they can have the opportunity to make a Twitter announcement and then, upon their return to college basketball, issue another that proclaims how committed they are to winning for their program’s fans.
The truth: Villanova did a press release when forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl said he would not be filing for early entry. Kentucky did that, as well, for Keion Brooks. Robinson-Earl got 1,200 likes for a Twitter post that simply said, “Excited for next season! #NovaNation #UnfinishedBusiness”
This year, because of the pandemic, sending out the “coming back” tweet is about the same whether a player enters the draft or not.
“To me, don’t be silly. Don’t try to reach for something that isn’t there yet,” the Western Conference executive told SN. “We don’t have time to be the people who do the ass-kicking this year.”
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