A rule change in 2016 allowed college basketball underclassmen to declare for the NBA Draft and return to school as long as they didn’t hire an agent. This has been put to good use. John Calipari announced his entire Kentucky team that year would take advantage. Hundreds of non-prospects’ hats are in the ring in the name of valuable feedback. Maryland’s Justin Jackson entered the draft with an agent this spring, and teammates Bruno Fernando and Kevin Huerter have declared without one.
It doesn’t seem like every fan has caught on to this new trend. There’s always a swath of commenters who equate players entering the draft to thinking they’re NBA-ready, even though that’s not always the case. They’ll ask questions like “who are advising these players?” They’ll make jokes like “hope his passport is ready” or simply shout “G League” (which is more of an unsolicited assessment than anything). When Purdue’s Nojel Eastern declared without an agent this spring after averaging 2.9 points and 2.5 boards in his freshman season, his decision was met with chuckles by actual reporters.
If you think of declaring for the draft as basketball’s equivalent of signing up for a career fair, then it makes sense for any player with professional aspirations to seek out an assessment of their prospects. Maybe there’s a way to create this “career fair” atmosphere without requiring players to enter the NBA pool first, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The declaration cycle affects different schools in vastly different ways. Duke and Kentucky freshmen are often essentially forced to leave because more blue-chip freshmen are coming to replace them. Kansas has lost four of its starting five to graduation and/or the draft and might lose its fifth, although this comes after a year in which no Jayhawks left early. Villanova seems like the perfect model—nearly every Wildcat lasts three or four years, but there’s a strong pipeline of NBA contributors from the program—but this year’s team will lose somewhere between two and four of its core players.
Nearly every major program goes through this to some extent. Underclassmen from 31 different schools declared with an agent, while 42 more programs saw at least one player declare without an agent. Over 150 underclassmen have declared in total.
The deadline to declare was Sunday. The most complete list of entries I could find was from Sports Illustrated, which claimed to be current as of Thursday but includes Huerter, who declared Friday. Down the rabbit hole I went.
Here’s the list of schools with multiple underclassmen declaring.
|Kentucky||6||Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox||Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington|
|Duke||4||Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent|
|Villanova||4||Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson||Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman|
|Arizona||3||Rawle Alkins, DeAndre Ayton, Allonzo Trier|
|Auburn||3||Mustapha Heron||Bryce Brown, Austin Wiley|
|Maryland||3||Justin Jackson||Bruno Fernando, Kevin Huerter|
|Miami||3||Bruce Brown, Lonnie Walker||Damon Huell|
|Michigan State||3||Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson||Nick Ward|
|Nevada||3||Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin, Cody Martin|
|Texas A&M||3||D.J. Hogg, Robert Williams||Tyler Davis|
|Boston College||2||Ky Bowman, Jerome Robinson|
|Clemson||2||Shelton Mitchell, Marcquise Reed|
|Iowa||2||Tyler Cook, Isaiah Moss|
|Louisville||2||Deng Adel, Ray Spalding|
|Michigan||2||Moritz Wagner||Charles Matthews|
|Missouri||2||Michael Porter||Jontay Porter|
|NC State||2||Torin Dorn, Omer Yurtseven|
|Nebraska||2||Isaac Copeland, James Palmer|
|Purdue||2||Nojel Eastern, Carsen Edwards|
|Texas||2||Mo Bamba||Kerwin Roach|
|UCLA||2||Aaron Holiday||Jaylen Hands|
And here’s my new favorite NBA Draft list.
Presenting a small-ball lineup of five guys named Brown, all of whom have declared for the draft as underclassmen:
Tookie Brown, G, Georgia Southern
Barry Brown, G, Kansas
Bryce Brown, G, Auburn
Bruce Brown, G, Miami
Troy Brown, F, Oregon
Bruce and Troy have hired agents; the others haven’t. This list is completely irrelevant to the rest of the story, though. Let’s continue.
What does this all mean for Maryland?
Three Terps declared for this year’s draft. Two declared last year (one left) and three declared in 2016 (two left). Each individual case made sense; one of the common factors was players being a year older than their class (Melo Trimble, Robert Carter, Jackson and Fernando).
Maryland’s three underclassmen in the draft pool right now are the most of any team that missed the NCAA Tournament. It’s important to remember that the number of players declaring is not a direct reflection of pro talent on the roster, nor is the level of pro talent on the roster completely correlated with expected success. However, it’s easy and reasonable to conclude that for the Terps to go 19-13 with this many players with professional futures—even if Fernando’s and Huerter’s draft stocks haven’t peaked yet and Jackson was injured—was an underachievement.
But it’s not like Maryland is alone in facing this problem. Indiana has perhaps had it even worse. Last year, the Hoosiers had Thomas Bryant, James Blackmon, Troy Williams, OG Anunoby and Robert Johnson on the roster. They went 18-16 and missed the postseason. Tom Crean got fired. All five players declared. Only Johnson returned. Even Maryland’s most disappointing seasons and departure waves under Mark Turgeon haven’t been that catastrophic. (Indiana also won two recent Big Ten regular-season titles with two- and three-year players, but that success has been hard to sustain.)
These similar situations highlight the double-edged sword that is recruiting NBA-caliber athletes who aren’t bona fide college stars. If these players reach their potential in college, they can vault a team further toward national relevance. But their pro potential generally remains even if their results or health aren’t great.
Every player currently uncommitted will receive an assessment of their current NBA prospects and face a common decision: cash in on whatever stock is there or return to school in hopes of raising that stock? Having a trend of players in such a limbo isn’t a bad thing, but it does put programs in an unenviable situation. They just have to wait this process out.