A rule change a few years ago gave college underclassmen the option of declaring for the NBA Draft, going through the process, and returning to school so long as they do not sign with an agent.
That’s created an awkward situation for college teams and coaches. It’s one thing for players who declared for the draft and signed with an agent; they’re gone. For SEC teams, that list includes Florida’s Devin Robinson (somewhat surprisingly); Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Briscoe, and Isaac Humphries; LSU’s Antonio Blakeney; and South Carolina’s PJ Dozier.
(On the flipside, some coaches can breathe easy, like Texas A&M’s Billy Kennedy, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, and Mississippi State’s Ben Howland — all of whom had young talent on the roster that will be back next season.)
But for coaches and teams who have players who entered their names in the draft before April 24, but didn’t hire an agent, they’re in limbo for the next month. They’re waiting until May 24 to find out if a star player will be back next season. They can’t exactly move on from the player or sign someone else — because if the guy might be back next season, you’d probably prefer him over a freshman, no matter how talented — but they can’t exactly build their team on the assumption he’ll be back. So who’s playing the waiting game? Here are the six possible early entries, ranked in order of importance.
- Yante Maten, Georgia: This one seems fairly obvious. Maten was a first-team All-SEC player in 2016-17, and he’s the only one who is on the fence for the NBA Draft (KeVaughn Allen will be back at Florida next year.) Georgia went 19-15 and 9-9 in the SEC last year, and with JJ Frazier graduating, Maten returning could be the difference between the Bulldogs competing for an NCAA Tournament berth... or fighting to avoid the cellar. Okay, I might be a little hyperbolic there, but he’s pretty damn important to Georgia. That said, I can see both why he would stay in the draft, and why he might return. There’s really no doubt that Maten is ready to play pro ball after averaging 18.2 ppg and 6.8 ppg; or, at least, he’s as ready as he is ever going to be. On the other hand, he’s not a big NBA prospect; NBADraft.net has him going 43rd overall... in the 2018 draft. What’s holding him back is that he’s best suited to play the four or even the five... but at 6’8” and 240 pounds, that’s not going to work so well in the NBA. But it’s also something that won’t be fixed by spending another year at Georgia. So really, it’s a matter of when he wants to fight for a spot on an NBA roster — or play in Europe or the D-League. Not if. That said, Maten didn’t get invited to the NBA Draft Combine, which is generally a sign that you’re not going to get drafted.
- Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky: You mean you haven’t heard of Hamidou Diallo? Diallo enrolled at Kentucky at midseason and didn’t play in 2016-17, instead taking a redshirt year. But because he graduated high school in 2016 before spending a semester at prep school, he’s eligible for the NBA Draft. Diallo could be a lottery pick on potential alone, which makes spending a year at Kentucky a bit of a gamble: as we saw in the 2016 NBA Draft, NBA teams are fine drafting guys with upside who haven’t played against a high level of competition (Thon Maker), moreso than similar players who struggled against high-level competition (Skal Labissiere), so there’s some risk to playing a year in college. For Kentucky, the Wildcats are already losing seven of their top eight players from 2016-17, and while of course Kentucky has more talent coming up the pipeline, Diallo likely would be Kentucky’s best player in 2017-18. So yeah, I think Kentucky will be good either way — but Diallo could be the difference between being a top 25 team and a top 10 team. (Of course they’ll probably be ranked in the top 5 preseason, but I’ll have more later on why that might be overselling them.)
- Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, Arkansas: I’m cheating by listing these two as a pair. The Razorbacks will already be losing at least three of their top five players in terms of minutes from last year in seniors Dusty Hannahs, Moses Kingsley, and Manuale Watkins, but Barford and Macon returning would give them some hope of contending for a NCAA Tournament bid for the second year in a row. But if both of them leave, Arkansas is probably headed for a rebuilding year. That said, neither of them are very high on the NBA’s radar, so unless they just want to play professionally and don’t mind going to the Euroleague, they should return to Arkansas. Of course, lots of guys want to play professionally and don’t mind going to Europe.
- John Egbunu, Florida: This one’s tough. Egbunu tore his ACL in February and as such, he won’t really be able to go through the process as he rehabs; he won’t be able to participate in workouts. But you can also see why a guy might be concerned that a setback in rehab could cost him if he comes back to Florida and isn’t the same. Florida probably has the depth to weather Egbunu leaving, though, and their guard play should be good enough to make them a contender next year regardless.
- Braxton Key, Alabama: I’m ranking Key last not because he isn’t a good player, but because I would guess there’s about a 99 percent chance he’ll return to Alabama. This is a classic “go through the process” situation: Key will get feedback from NBA teams to figure out what he needs to work on, then go back to Alabama to work on it. He won’t get drafted, largely because while NBA teams will draft a not-ready freshman with superstar upside, they won’t do the same for a guy with role player upside. Why draft Braxton Key and wait for him to develop when you can just grab the guy you think he might be in two years in Yante Maten?