The NBA Draft is quickly approaching, and the underclassmen deadline came and went. Before you know it, the likes of Jay Bilas will take over your television preaching his WINGSPAN gospel. The word “potential” will be said more in the next two months than the other ten combined. At the forefront of the “potential” revolution is the young underclassmen.
Each year, numerous underclassmen declare and eventually sign with an agent (officially eliminating their ability to return to school) for the NBA Draft. There wasn’t a Marcus Smart-level player this year who decided to stay. (The Kentucky Harrison twins probably rank at the top, right?) There’s no point in getting fancy about this; we all know how it works. The cream of the crop college player typically stays one, maybe two years in college before leaving for the much greener pastures of the NBA. But not every underclassman that declares gets drafted, and many of those fortunate enough to get drafted find themselves picked much lower than they expected.
The common rule of thumb is to leave if you’re projected in the lottery, but from there the water gets murkier. Bad pre-draft workouts, interviews or even luck can be the difference between a projected 15-20-range player ending up sliding to the late first round or even second round. For some fringe players who leave early, getting drafted anywhere is hard enough. Staying an extra year or two doesn’t always end up being the best decision either. Those who are more potential than player risk scouts falling out of love with them if they don’t perform exceptionally. Case and point is former Tar Heel James Michael McAdoo, a once-projected top-ten draft pick, who after returning to school two more years is now projected to go in the late first round-second round area.
This year is no different from any of the last few years. There are countless underclassmen officially in, and drastically less upperclassman. But the question remains: did those underclassmen make the right decisions? Let’s take a look.
Tidbit on my thinking process: if he’s projected to go high, coming back is never a good option. (Financially at least… stay in school, kids!) I also follow the Urban Dictionary definition of an underclassman, meaning juniors are not on this list.
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1. Joel Embiid
Freshman, Center, Kansas
Surprised? Regardless of the outcome of the countless physicals tests teams will put Embiid through, the writing was on the wall for Joel to declare. What does he gain by staying? More injuries? Sure, there will be some scouts and whatnot who are scared to draft a possibly fragile big man given the history (they should make an Embiid version of the Lillard commercial where he says “I don’t want to be an injury-prone big man drafted before a star!” with Oden nearby looking heartbroken. Then Embiid says “No, no, not you Greg. I mean a big man drafted before a legend!” with Sam Bowie nearby. Make it happen, adidas!), but Embiid’s as talented a big man in recent memory. He’s been compared to Hakeem Olajuwon!
Embiid stands 7-0, 240-pounds, with quick feet, athleticism, and a rapidly improving game. You have to love how coordinated he is for his size, and offensively the sky is the limit for his ceiling. He’s shown ability on the midrange jumper, and even extended his range to the occasional three. Defensively, he’s a force blocking shots. Like many 20-year-old big men, Embiid needs to add strength to his slight frame. Right now he’s projected to go anywhere between 1-4. The point is, Embiid had little gain by staying another season at Kansas
2. Andrew Wiggins
Freshman, Guard/Forward, Kansas
You all know about Wiggins. Their was an actual debate as to whether Wiggins would be better off spending his freshman year training for the draft instead of actually playing college ball. Scouts began to knock his motivation and his supposed lack of a killer instinct, comparing him to T-Mac instead of the Jumpman himself. Listen, I’m no NBA GM, but if Wiggins finishes as a seven-time All-Star and a two-time NBA scoring champ (like T-Mac) then I’m saying “Job well done, me” when it’s all said and done.
The 6-8, 197-pound small forward/shooting guard is actually oozing with potential. Is he ready to come in and have a LeBron or Durant type of rookie year? I don’t know. But there are very few players with the combination of physical gifts that Wiggins possesses. We haven’t even mentioned him defensively. Wiggins has the potential to be an All-NBA defender if he chooses to be.
I can’t wait for the draft. Who wants to bet Bilas and friends scream the words WINGSPAN and POTENTIAL at each other at least ten times when discussing Wiggins? Do you realize how gifted Wiggins is? They say he can get from the three-point line to the rim in one dribble! Go to the YMCA and try and take one dribble from the top of the three-point line and please tweet me where you end up. (I’m confident I get to the foul line.) Wiggins started the year numero uno, and after coming back down to Earth during part of the season, returned to the top of most draft boards by the end of the season.
3. Jabari Parker
Freshman, Small Forward, Duke
To be honest, I was pushing for him to return to Duke for his sophomore year. Not because he needs it; there is no prospect as ready right now for the NBA as Parker. But because the Blue Devils would have been a super team. Parker stands 6-8 and weighs 241 pounds and can score from any spot on the floor. He’s a tough player inside, unafraid of going up and grabbing rebounds. Touted for having high basketball I.Q., Parker knows how and when to take over and when to set up his teammates. He’s an outstanding passer and a pretty strong dribbler for his size.
The knock on Parker is he lacks that second level of freak athleticism so many forwards possess, and some worry he’s tapped out a considerable amount of his potential. I like Parker, and I think he would be a hand and glove fit in Utah. (Mormons Unite! Plus, you know, they could kind of use a talented small forward.) I believe Parker would have faced a similar predicament to what Marcus Smart faced this year had he returned for another year. Scouts seem to have a pretty good grasp of who Parker is as a player, which means they’ll spend more time wondering what you won’t be, rather than the other way around.
Parker is projected to go in the top five in most mock drafts, meaning there was really no way of bettering his stock by coming back for another season.
4. Julius Randle
Freshman, Power Forward, Kentucky
Randle was a double-double threat every night his freshman season (finishing the season with an average of 15.0 PPG and 10.4 RPG). The 6-9 Randle is a beast in the paint, and knows how to get to the free throw line (Randle scored more than 1/3 of his points at the foul line in college). He’s not a threat defensively and for all the hoopla surrounding his jump shot, we didn’t see much of it at Kentucky.
Now there are conflicting reports on just how big he is physically: ESPN lists Randle at 225 pounds, but most scouting sites say he’s closer to 250. Randle is ready to come in and bang at the NBA level. Is he going to make more than a 10-point, 10-rebound impact, though? Randle lacks that elite level of athleticism, and that has to be somewhat of a concern going forward. I’m not saying he’s a bust, but Thomas Robinson was an undersized, double-double threat in college… Randle struggled to score against the length of the UConn bigs, and they aren’t going to get any smaller in the NBA. Regardless, top Kentucky players never stay more than one year, so Randle’s departure comes as no surprise. Right now he is projected to go somewhere in the top 4-8 range. I’m putting a buyer beware on Randle, though.
5. Aaron Gordon
Freshman, Forward, Arizona
What position does he play at the next level? That’s a concern, but when you have the type of athleticism and physical skills that Aaron Gordon possesses it’s a much smaller blemish on the resume. The 6-8, 210-pound tweener will have to step out on the perimeter to succeed at the next level, and his shot is anything but perfect–but it isn’t broken. His motor and finishing ability are off the charts, and he has all the physical skills to be a special defender. This is my biggest point on Gordon: fans, but not GMs and coaches, underestimate the value of a player who can guard multiple positions on the floor successfully. We’re driven to look straight to the stat sheet, and Gordon may not become an All-Star offensive talent.
It’s worrisome to hope a player will develop offensively at the next level, but Gordon is not devoid of offensive ability. He’s a better ballhandler than most power forward prospects, and his shot needs fine tuning, but doesn’t have the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist type of hitch. Plus, we’re seeing a resurgence from MKG in the playoffs right now, so maybe there is hope for such players? Either way, when you’re projected in the top 5-8 like Gordon is, you don’t have much room to improve stock-wise. It was time to leave ‘Zona for the big league.