New Rule Could Hurt College Seniors in Upcoming 2016 NBA Draft

Jonathan WassermanNBA Lead WriterMarch 24, 2016

KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 11:  Perry Ellis #34 of the Kansas Jayhawks shoots a free throw against the Baylor Bears during the semifinals of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament at Sprint Center on March 11, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Good idea in theory: A new NCAA rule offering early NBA draft entrants the freedom to seek feedback while retaining college eligibility up to 10 days after May's combine. 

It was designed to benefit underclassmen and help prospects make more informed decisions about whether to stay in school or go pro. It's also screwing college seniors. 

We're still in March, and the rule has already inspired a boatload of young prospects—as well as every eligible member on Kentucky's roster—to throw their names into the ring. With nothing to lose (unless they hire an agent), a record-setting amount of freshmen, sophomores and juniors are expected to declare early. 

The NBA invited 62 players to the combine in 2015. Though the May 11-15 event is expected to "invite a few more guys," according to DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony, underclassmen seem guaranteed to steal spots from four-year players. 

That would eliminate a major opportunity for seniors to make an impression in front of dozens of NBA coaches, executives and scouts, both on the floor and in the interview rooms. Were the rule to have kicked in last year, players like 76ers guard T.J. McConnell, a standout last-minute invite at last year's combine, might not be where they are today.

Feb 11, 2016; Syracuse, NY, USA; Syracuse Orange forward Michael Gbinije (0) brings the ball up court during the second half of a game against the Florida State Seminoles  at the Carrier Dome.Syracuse won  85-72. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY S
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, there is always the Portsmouth Invitational, a seniors-only showcase tournament in Virginia mostly comprised of fringe second-rounders. But that showcase takes place in April—early in the draft process. Most seniors expecting a combine invite traditionally pass on Portsmouth to avoid being lumped in with lower-tier prospects. 

"I think [the rule change is] great for the undergrads, probably unfortunate for seniors who won't make the combine but don't accept Portsmouth invites thinking they would get to the combine," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "I wish Portsmouth was later now." 

More eligible underclassmen at this year's combine naturally means greater competition for seniors, who don't have the same margin for error, given their perceived smaller window for growth.

"Seniors don't get the same opportunity [this year]," one NBA executive told Bleacher Report. "Plus, we like upside of young players, as seniors are pretty much who they are."

"Seniors are always pushed to the back because of the 'potential' aspect," another NBA scout told me. 

Jan 14, 2016; Stanford, CA, USA; California Golden Bears guard Tyrone Wallace (3) takes a free throw against the Stanford Cardinal in the 2nd half  at Maples Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

And though the new rule was created so potential long-term prospects don't prematurely give up college, teams could ultimately be motivated to convince as many young players to stay in the draft as possible. 

For The Vertical, Givony touched on the possibility of teams persuading underclassmen to stay in with guaranteed money:

If a team can select a player in the second round who might develop into a lottery pick in a year or two, should a team do that? The number of open roster spots is extremely limited, but there is no question that some younger players will be lured into staying in the draft with the promise of guaranteed second-round money. ...

For the Philadelphia 76ers, with a roster full of D-League-caliber talent, it might make sense to use their collection of second-round picks on players who could end up becoming significant assets down the road.

A general manager may feel better about giving his final roster spot to a teenage project over a more accomplished, low-ceiling college veteran. Picturing 19- and 20-year-old kids being charmed by specific NBA interest and guaranteed money doesn't require a stretch of the imagination, even if it means going in the second round.  

If underclassmen start taking over the second round, you have to wonder how it will influence older prospects down the road. More players may start looking to bolt from college before their senior years arrive, given how tough it could be to compete for draft position with so many younger players.

Robert Franklin/Associated Press

The new rule was written with good intentions, and there are more prospects who benefit from it than don't. Cliff Alexander and Christian Wood are two underclassmen who declared early last year and may have reconsidered had they been given the chance to talk to teams in late May.

Neither was drafted and both had five combined years left of college eligibility.

But the rule no doubt works against seniors, who, with the exception of stars like Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine, Baylor's Taurean Prince and North Carolina's Brice Johnson, will have a much flashier crowd to distinguish themselves from.

It was never easy being one of the older guys looking to cash in at the NBA draft. In 2016, it may be harder than ever.