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How the NBA combine complicated Bruno Fernando and Kevin Huerter’s draft decisions

Both players will have to decide between turning pro now and returning to raise their stock for the future.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

With the NBA Draft combine wrapping up over the weekend, the clock is ticking on underclassmen without agents to declare their intention to either remain in the draft or return to school. For Maryland, that means Bruno Fernando and Kevin Huerter each have until May 30 to make a decision.

Both players had combine performances that suggest they should be drafted, but there’s only 30 picks in the first round. Since they entered without agents, Fernando and Huerter both had the opportunity to meet with the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee at the combine, where they received evaluations and recommendations on whether to stay in the draft or return to school.

Nothing’s been reported regarding what either was told, and there’s unlikely anyone will tip their hand until near the deadline; Melo Trimble and Justin Jackson announced on the final day possible in 2016 and 2017, respectively. With the clock running down on this year’s two undecided prospects, here’s a look at their cases for staying in the draft or returning to school.

Fernando’s case for staying in the draft

Lamar: At this point, scouts know what Fernando brings to the table: athleticism, solid post footwork and an abundance of energy in an NBA-ready body. What he could still add to his game is what tantalizes scouts. En route to an Big Ten all-freshman team nod, he showcased a burgeoning jumper, consistent out to 15 feet, and growing defensive instincts.

One thing that should at least be in the back of Fernando’s mind when making this decision is how much money Jackson left on the table by returning. After only getting measured at the combine last week, Jackson left before day two due to lingering shoulder soreness. After being considered a fringe first round pick last offseason, with stock ranging from 25-45, it’s a real possibility Jackson goes undrafted.

What Jackson’s case could teach Fernando is to leave while you still hold that “upside” tag. Already a year older than his peers, the 6’10 big man displayed both his skill base and his potential in his freshman year. The worst-case scenario is probably him going in the second round, to a team buying his upside.

Fernando’s case for returning to school

Thomas: It’s hard to gain traction the NBA if you’re not an impact player when you get there. This plagues the majority of players in the draft every year, including the occasional lottery talent. While a first-round label will inherently make teams more patient, the association is ultimately a meritocracy.

Fernando showed both in college and at the combine that he has the physical tools to help an NBA team right away, but that his game is still more raw than most teams would like from their first-round selection. His draft stock has been incredibly varied from site to site for months; with the combine complete, he’s viewed most commonly as a second-rounder, with more outlets pegging him to go undrafted than come off the board in the first round.

The only consensus on Fernando seems to be that he could play his way into a surefire impact player with another year of development. And he’ll get more opportunities to showcase a well-rounded skill set as a focal point of the Maryland Terrapins than as a rotational piece in the pros (whether that’s on an NBA bench or in the G League). It’s somewhat of a financial gamble, but with the upside not as high now as it could be, it makes plenty of sense.

Huerter’s case for staying in the draft

Thomas: Before the NBA combine, Huerter was a relatively unknown prospect who was drawing mostly second-round grades. But then he was one of the breakout stars in Chicago. He put up eye-catching numbers in both shooting and agility drills, then was one of the best players on the floor during the ensuing scrimmage. Now teams are just starting to get excited about him, and he’s being increasingly slotted as a first-rounder.

It’s hard to recapture the magic that comes with being a fast-rising prospect. Jackson experienced this to some degree and got hurt. While Huerter isn’t a likely candidate to see his weaknesses overexposed during another college season—this happened most notably to Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo this season—that risk will naturally remain. Plus, shooting and defensive versatility will make Huerter a strong rotational piece for whichever team takes him. That’s good work if you can get it at age 19.

Huerter’s case for returning to school

Lamar: Even after a strong showing on the first day of the combine, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported a first-round guarantee may not be enough for Huerter to remain in the draft. The reasoning Huerter gave was two-fold: he enjoys College Park and thinks he could be a lottery pick if he works next season.

Huerter’s desire to be great is the strongest case for returning. So far in his college career, he’s never won a Big Ten or NCAA Tournament game, and is coming off a season where the Terps completely missed the postseason despite his personal growth. If he and Fernando return, along with what’s currently a five-man top-10 recruiting class incoming, multiple outlets have pegged Maryland as a potential top-15 team. From hearing him address reporters all season as the team’s unofficial spokesman, it’s clear Huerter knows all of this.

At this point, Huerter should only return for one reason: to take his game to the next level on what’s expected to be a better team. But if he does, expect head coach Mark Turgeon to do everything in his power to run his offense through its most versatile weapon.