The consensus among NBA scouts after two months of the college basketball season is that this freshman class is thin on one-and-done prospects. There are solid options at the top (LSU's Ben Simmons, Duke's Brandon Ingram and Croatian Dragan Bender), but it's not a deep draft, and that is going to create an interesting scenario: Would freshmen who wouldn't typically be advised to leave early end up bolting at the chance of getting guaranteed money in the first round?
More players will likely test the waters this spring because of the NCAA's new rule that no longer limits the number of times a prospect can declare for the draft. But by the NCAA also pushing back the deadline to withdraw to 10 days after the final day of the NBA combine, players should be able to make more informed decisions.
The NBA stance has always been that it wants players to stay in school. "The league has always preferred being able to take a longer look at everybody," one scout told Bleacher Report.
But you wouldn't know that by league-wide drafting tendencies. Last year, a record 13 one-and-done freshmen went in the first round, and the number of freshmen leaving has been trending upward.
|Freshmen drafted since age-limit change|
|First round||Second round|
Even with a belief that this class is thin on one-and-done talent, mock drafts are still littered with freshmen—DraftExpress.com has 12 freshmen in its current mock.
But while the league hasn't exactly changed its approach based on drafting tactics, the line of logic with the draft is starting to morph thanks to the success stories of some four-year college players who went overlooked and are now shining.
"The reason there won't be as many freshmen drafted in this class isn't there are great freshmen who aren't coming out. It's a combination of this just isn't a very good freshman class, and the trend in the NBA is toward older players and older guys who are ready to play," another NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "Everyone wants a Draymond Green or an Isaiah Thomas or a Jimmy Butler or a Chandler Parsons. No one wants to take the next Anthony Bennett."
That makes sense, yet the fascination with chasing potential would have to subside to change the thought process of high-profile prospects.
A player like Kentucky's Skal Labissiere, for instance, is still projected to go in the lottery despite putting up modest numbers (7.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game) and falling out of Kentucky's starting lineup. His lack of strength has challenged him in the college game, and on the defensive end, he's been foul-prone, averaging 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes. Yet, I haven't talked to one scout who believes he'll slip out of the lottery.
"He'll probably be picked somewhere in the teens at the latest, and there's a chance if he comes on and shows some signs of life late in the season, he could crack the top 10," the second scout said.
So, most likely, Labissiere will leave after his freshman season.
But here's the question that needs to be asked by a coach like John Calipari, who has encouraged his players to leave when guaranteed money is on the table: Is Labissiere better off staying in school?
The family end of that decision is a difficult one. Labissiere is from Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, but from a strictly basketball perspective (and maybe even a financial one), absolutely he should stay in school.
Staying means he can learn how to produce at the college level and be coached by a Hall of Famer in Calipari. The other option is to likely either spend the next few years on an NBA bench or in the D-League.
This freshmen class, more than most, has a long list of players who could be facing a similar scenario, and if they test the waters, they could end up getting feedback that suggests they stay in school.
Who Should Stay
I picked out the freshmen appearing on mock drafts and asked one scout a simple question: Of this list, who would you advise to stay and why? It's still mid-January, so things could change, but these players got the "stay in school" treatment.
Jaylen Brown, California
"Brown is a terrific athlete, but he's a poor shooter and doesn't have a good sense of what a good shot is or how to move the ball and play team basketball. He'll get drafted, there's no doubt about it, but another year of staying in college would allow him to be ready right away.
"He could go in the top 10 and will certainly get drafted in the top 10, but is he ready? Does he need to develop more? Yes."
Cheick Diallo, Kansas
"Diallo hasn't had a chance to play, and I think he's really at risk. The last time we saw Diallo (before he got to Kansas), he was a high-motor player who was still learning the skills to be effective offensively. He was making progress but still had a ways to go.
"He hasn't had a chance to play in a lot of games this season, which wasn't his fault, but now he's probably a little behind. Again, it's a weak draft, so if he did well at workouts and at the combine, he'll be able to play himself into the first round, but he'd probably be better-served coming back and proving he can contribute to a college team."
Thomas Bryant, Indiana
"To me he's a guy not ready to play in the NBA. There are people in his ear saying that he needs to come out because he'll be a first-round pick this year, which may be true, but he could just as easily go in the second round. And even if he does get drafted in the first round, he's so far from being able to play in an NBA game that he's one of these guys who could play himself out of the league very quickly, and before he knows it, he'll end up in the D-League."
Malik Newman, Mississippi State
"I think he's gotta stay. I don't care what his ranking was in high school. If you didn't know his reputation before he showed up in a Mississippi State game, you'd have no idea. If his name was Joe Smith, you'd say, 'Hey, this is a decent player. Shows some skills. Good, but not great athlete. Plays multiple guard positions. Probably needs to play the point guard in the NBA, and he's someone we should watch to see if he develops his skills.' That's who he is.
"He's gotta be willing to put the work in and realize there's no shortcuts. Ben Howland has proven he can get guys ready for the NBA—he did it at UCLA—so that's probably the best place for him to develop."
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky
"Briscoe needs to learn how to shoot the ball. There's a lot of guys who can learn how to shoot after they come into the NBA and become better shooters. Some guys do it in the D-League. It's better if you can already have that skill before you come into the NBA. ... This is a guy who struggles to make free throws before you even talk about three-pointers.
"If he could become [a] shooter, he'll put himself in a better position to get drafted higher and to be successful in the NBA. There's other things he needs to work on too to prove he can be a point guard—he has to be a point guard at our level—and even though he's not going to be the point guard at Kentucky in every lineup, he's got to make point guard plays and show good instincts. But first and foremost, he has to learn how to shoot the ball, and there's a lot of work to be done there."
Deyonta Davis, Michigan State
"Davis is a really intriguing player. He could very well get drafted in the first round, but that doesn't mean he should come out. Obviously he needs to get stronger. His bread and butter is going to be a guy who blocks shots, rebounds and finishes plays around the rim. The more he can expand his game, the higher he could go up the draft board, and I think it's safe to say if he had another year, he'd have an opportunity to work on those things, and Tom Izzo's track record is the more time he has with a guy, the more likely that guy is to exceed expectations in the NBA. If I were him, I would stay."
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon
"He's a short shooting guard and has a knee injury. Can he become a point guard? I don't think he's done enough to be a first-round pick, and if I was in a position advising players, it would be tough for me to advise an underclassman to come out as a second-round pick. As a second-round pick, your odds are stacked against you. I would tell him to go back to school and see if you can solidify yourself as a first-round pick."
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
"He's done a great job getting his body into shape. I'd like to see in another year how much further along he gets with (his body). He needs to continue to develop his skill set, extend his range on his jump shot, learn the game better and then see next year how he does playing off of [Isaac] Haas after [A.J.] Hammons leaves. I'm not sure he's done enough to solidify himself as a first-round pick yet."
Allonzo Trier, Arizona
"He lacks the size for the shooting guard position, and he hasn't proven he's a point guard. So he really needs to refine his game. Again, a player who had a really good reputation coming out of high school, but you have to throw the high school rankings out when you're talking about the NBA, because the size and athletic profile and the game is so different that just because you were ranked highly coming out of high school doesn't mean you're going to rank high on a NBA draft board."
Skal Labissiere, Kentucky
"I think there's a strong argument for him to stay in school. His awareness is very poor, and he doesn't look comfortable out there. We do everything we can to develop players in the NBA, but college is the best place to develop, and he hasn't really earned the minutes to develop, so his development is behind schedule."
It would be nice if it were as simple as players listening to feedback from a large number of NBA decision-makers and going with that advice. But the criteria players use to make their decision to stay or go extends beyond "Are you ready?"
One argument for leaving early is to speed up the process of getting that second contract, which comes for first-round picks two to four years after entering the league, depending on whether a team picks up a player's option in his third and fourth seasons.
So, someone advising the players above might say, "If you're going to be a first-round pick, start your clock."
In some ways, however, that's shortsighted. A guy like Labissiere, for instance, could actually increase his earning potential by making sure he's a productive pro once that second contract arrives.
The counterargument to that would be that by staying, there's a chance the potential tag fades and scouts realize you're not very good. San Diego State sophomore Malik Pope is one current example. Pope was projected as a borderline first-round pick last year. He returned to school, and his stock has plummeted, as he's averaging just 5.7 points per game and shooting 34.3 percent from the field.
But in most cases, if there's potential there, players eventually develop in the college scene, and there are more horror stories for unproven players who left too soon than there are for guys who stayed and floundered.
Two recent players scouts point to are former Kentucky center Daniel Orton and former Florida forward Chris Walker. Orton left after averaging 3.4 points per game in his one year in school and went 29th in the 2010 NBA draft. Over three seasons (from 2011-12 to 2013-14), he got a couple of cups of coffee in the league in between stops in the D-League, but over the last two seasons, he's been exclusively in the D-League.
Walker was the sixth-ranked player in the 2013 high school class by Rivals.com. He spent two years at Florida, and despite putting up lousy numbers, he declared for the 2015 draft and went undrafted. He's yet to play a minute in the NBA and is in the D-League.
"You want to put yourself in position where you're drafted high enough and you're part of that team's plans and the team has to play you, because the NBA is brutal and very quickly teams can move on to the next guy," the second scout said. "Your opportunity can be here and gone in a second."
That's what players like Labissiere have to consider. The tools are there for the UK freshman to eventually become a productive college player whom NBA teams will then trust to play, but isn't he more likely to end up damaged goods if he leaves after his freshman season than if he stays and waits until he's ready?
"That league can pummel you pretty quick," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak told me earlier this year when discussing the decision his center, Jakob Poeltl, made to stay in school. "It's like ending up in a heavyweight prize fight when you're not quite ready to fight Tyson back in the good ol' days, and it can be pretty detrimental."
Most coaches feel this way, although not all are as willingly vocal about it as Krystkowiak. But the logic is starting to get through to some players.
Not everyone is making a mad dash for the cash. There's a stay, improve and then get paid movement happening that appeared to start with former Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, who likely would have been a lottery pick in the 2013 draft following his freshman season but decided to spend one more year in college.
The 2016 lottery could include two such players: Utah's Poeltl and Providence's Kris Dunn (Dunn is a junior).
"As you see in the last couple years, there's been a lot of guys go in the first round who turn out to be nothing and just went to the D-League," Dunn told me this summer. "I felt like I needed to improve more on my game so I'm not just an NBA talent; I can be NBA-ready."
There's another handful of players who may have been borderline first-round picks a year ago and are seeing their stock increase this season: Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield, Michigan senior guard Caris LeVert and Maryland sophomore point guard Melo Trimble.
If these players who improved their draft stock by staying end up as some of the best NBA success stories in this class, more players in the future could end up following their path.
Every case, obviously, is unique. But progress is at least being made in that this line of thinking—why wait, let talent evaluators pick at your flaws and risk getting hurt?—is slowly fading.
The fear of injury, logically, makes sense, but sports medicine has come a long way in recent years, and something like an ACL tear is no longer a death sentence. Can you think of the last player who came back to school and ended up costing himself money because he got hurt?
Look at Nerlens Noel, who tore his ACL midway through his freshman season, yet New Orleans still took him with the sixth pick in the 2013 draft, and the 76ers traded for him two weeks later, knowing it was possible he'd miss most of his rookie season.
We're also getting to a point where age matters less in the evaluation process. At one point, being an upperclassman seemed to be viewed as a red flag. That's less the case now, although drafting tendencies still cater more toward the younger players.
"What (staying) four years does is it leaves less to your imagination," the second scout said. "You know a little bit about what this person is and what he's probably going to become, how much growth he's actually had. I think to a certain extent, the league and scouts, they enjoy using their imagination, and the other side of it is most the good players leave early."
For the guys at the top of the draft—the eventual superstars like Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis—this is true. But there are plenty of examples and data that suggest if you're not a phenom, the guys who stay in school longer end up becoming more productive pros. (I ran some numbers two summers ago that support this theory.)
"If you're picking a guy who you see his upside as being a role player and you have a choice between a guy who can be a role player halfway through his rookie year because he's an experienced guy versus picking a guy who is going to be a role player but won't be ready for three or four years because he's 19, yeah, that's how you look at it for sure," a third scout said.
Teams actually applying this mindset to the draft would be good for both the college and pro games, and if there's a year for the league to make a point, this would be it.
The line, one scout said, between who is a late first-rounder in this draft and who goes undrafted will be murky, so the feedback players receive could be all over the place. The scouts also believe that the lack of options on the college side could lead to more foreign players declaring.
"I think what you'll see is more overseas guys in the draft and more first-round picks used on those overseas guy, especially if you're picking 25 through 30," the first scout said. "I think it's worth probably reaching on some of those guys you'd otherwise pick in the second round."
Hopefully the NBA and college coaches do a good job this spring of relaying that possibility to the players and their advisers.
But, ultimately, money talks. Staying in school longer will only become a trend if drafting habits really do change and the college game produces more Draymond Greens, showing that experience translates to success in the league and fattens the pockets of those players who waited.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.