Stay or Go? San Diego State forward Malik Pope
Thanks to an NCAA rule change this season, underclassmen are allowed to declare early for the NBA draft, go through the evaluation process and then choose to go pro or return to school (if they haven’t signed with an agent). From now until May 25, which is decision day, SI will periodically weigh in on the most interesting decisions left to be made.
Season review: After playing just under a third of the Aztecs’ minutes as a freshman, Pope played a little more than half as a sophomore, averaging 7.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in coach Steve Fisher’s ultra-slow attack. His offensive rating of 98.9 was fifth among the team's top eight regular rotation players.
The Case for College: Pope is currently projected to land in the early to middle portion of the second round, which would mean missing out on the guaranteed contract that accompanies a first-round selection. If he may have to play his way onto a roster after the draft anyway, Pope could be better served by another season in college to push him into the guaranteed range.
Much of what seems enticing about Pope as a prospect is based on the potential offered by his standout athleticism at 6' 10" and the fact that he is as skilled as he is despite missing his entire senior season of high school after breaking his left leg twice and tearing his meniscus. Another year at San Diego State would allow him to further convert that potential into the kind of production that will convince scouts he is the real deal. Pope averaged 12.3 points and 7.3 rebounds during March, helping push the Aztecs to the NIT finals. If his junior season is like his last nine games as a sophomore—and if he is able to pack more muscle onto his 215-pound frame—Pope’s stock a year from now will be much clearer and higher.
The Case for the NBA: As easily as Pope could play his way into the first round, that’s no guarantee. He could instead find himself in the same range of the draft a year from now, in which case he would have unnecessarily missed out on a year of an athlete’s fleeting window to capitalize on their earning potential. Aside from any athlete’s potential for injury, there is also the fact that his efficiency dipped in his bigger role this past season, with his offensive rating dropping from 106.3 to 98.9 (per kenpom.com) and field-goal percentage from 45.5% to 40.1%. If that trend continues, his draft stock will slide and his potential will be that much less appealing to front offices. Sometimes it’s best to cash in on what you might become than give scouts more time to poke holes in what you are.
Plus, it’s not as if Pope is considered a fringe draft prospect altogether. The early second round can still be a fine place to end up, especially as it typically means a weak team with playing time for the taking. Pope is a quality rebounder and ball-handler with the versatility to find a place in the league and develop well in the right spot.
Pope Big Board rankings: SI (top 30 only): Unranked; DraftExpress: 100; NBAdraft.net: 67
Final verdict: He’d have a strong shot to be a first-rounder next year, and that seems like a compelling enough reason to spend another season in San Diego.