It is in the Green Room that these players and their families bide their time until they are beckoned onstage to shake commissioner David Stern's hand. Getting an invitation to the Green Room is an honor in-and-of-itself, as only the top 12-16 prospects are invited in an effort to avoid the awkwardness of a player sitting alone, waiting to hear his name called. Who can forget Jumaine Jones crying during the 1999 draft after falling all the way to 27th? What about a year earlier, when Rashard Lewis fell into the second round? Four years ago, an awful rumor about a kidney ailment allowed Darrell Arthur to drop all the way to Memphis at pick No. 27.
As much as our nation of reality TV connoisseurs enjoys those painfully awkward, it-hurts-but-I-can't-stop-watching moments, they are precisely the kind of situation the NBA wants to avoid. Rest assured, the league does their due diligence researching the draft picks, trying to reach a consensus on who will be picked in the top half. In other words, the names that are on the list of the NBA draft's Green Room attendees will, more often than not, end up being a majority of the players picked in the lottery. For example, last season Alec Burks at No. 12 was the only player picked in the top 15 that was not in the Green Room, and Chris Singleton at No. 18 was the only Green Room attendee to fall out of the top 15.
This is significant not because of which 14 players were invited to sit in the Green Room on Thursday, but because of who was not on that list: Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones III.
After the 2010-2011 season, both Sullinger and Jones had the opportunity to leave school and become lottery picks. Actually, if we are being truthful, simply being a "lottery pick" would have been a worst-case scenario; it was unlikely that either player would have made it out of the top five. Sullinger was coming off of a freshman campaign where he was the centerpiece for what ended up being the best team in the country, a 6-foot-9, 270 pound grizzly player who averaged 17.1 points and 10 boards before getting upset in the Sweet 16. Baylor didn't have nearly the same success as Ohio State -- they finished the season 18-13, bowing out of the Big 12 tournament in the first round and having their NIT bubble burst all while Jones was suspended for the postseason because his mom needed help from his AAU coach to afford their rent. But that didn't change the fact that Jones was a graceful, 6-11 forward with athleticism for days and the perimeter skills that could allow him to eventually play the three at the next level.
Physically, Sullinger and Jones could not be more different, but one thing that the two have in common is a strong, close-knit family backing them. And both players leaned on those familial bonds when making the decision to return to school, emphasizing how much they enjoyed college life and embraced the idea of being able to remain a kid for another year.
In the process, they unwittingly became poster boys for why projected lottery picks should leave school when they are projected to be lottery picks.
(It should be noted that last season's draft was unique given the status of the lockout. No one was quite sure whether or not the 2011-12 NBA season was going to be played, which meant that, in addition to deciding whether they were ready to become a professional basketball players, these guys had to factor in the risk of missing out on an entire season of basketball. And along those same lines, there is no guarantee that whatever is ailing Sullinger's back would have gone unnoticed in last year's combine.)
"I wanted to make a statement that not everybody is using college basketball as a pit stop to go to the next level, that there's more than money and endorsements," Sullinger said about his decision to return to school at the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans. That's good. It's noble and refreshing. Sullinger's father (who also coached his high school team), mother and two older brothers all graduated from college. He wasn't a meal ticket, he wasn't being counted on to get his family out of a difficult financial situation. You can always go back to school, but you can never go back to college, and Sullinger knew that. He wanted one more year to spend being a kid, and in the process he figured that he could shed some of his excess baby fat and continue to develop a perimeter game that he was lacking.
The problem became Sullinger's back. It kept him out of games early in the year and it seemed to hamper him through much of the season. The worst news broke late last week, as a number of NBA team doctors failed him after a physical at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. The back problems he's been having could very well shorten his NBA career, they said. That news only exacerbated the fact that Sullinger's stock had dropped throughout last season, bringing us to the present, where he is no longer considered a lottery pick.
Jones had a similar ordeal this season. He didn't battle injuries in the same way that Sullinger had to, but like the Buckeyes' big man, Jones didn't make the jump that everyone expected. Instead of improving on his flaws -- his lack of aggressiveness and his inability to consistently dominant at the collegiate level -- Jones only made them more evident. He looked like the best player in the country when he went for 28 points, eight boards and four assists in a win at BYU, but he was dominated by West Virginia's Kevin Jones and Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie just a few weeks later, combining for 12 points on 6 of 22 shooting in the two games. He followed up a four-game stretch where he averaged 18.5 points and 10.5 boards with a combined nine points on 3 of 20 shooting in back-to-back losses to Kansas and Missouri.
The thinking goes if Jones can't find it in himself to consistently dominate when he knows the entire NBA is watching his every move, is he going to be able to play up to his potential when he's matched up with the best players in the world every night?
Returning to school didn't give Sullinger or Jones a chance to improve their game as much as it gave NBA scouts a chance to pick apart their flaws. No longer were these two players freshmen who had some holes that need to be filled in. They are now prospects with legitimate, long-term question marks.
And they aren't the first players to hurt themselves by returning to school.
Back in 2008-09, freshman Willie Warren played the role of Blake Griffin's sidekick to perfection, helping guide Oklahoma to the Elite 8. He was an athletic and powerful scoring point guard who looked capable of becoming the next Ben Gordon or Baron Davis. He was projected as a lottery pick, possibly a top-10 pick, but decided to return to school to see how good he could be. Oklahoma ended up having a disastrous season -- bad enough that it got coach Jeff Capel fired and was even worse for Warren individually. The Sooners suffered a couple of ugly losses early in the season, Warren was benched for undisclosed reasons for a game, he was called out by his head coach in the media and he had to deal with a nagging ankle injury and a bout of mono. He ended up being picked 54th.
Another example is Western Kentucky big man Chris Marcus. Marcus had a chance to become a lottery pick in the 2001 draft -- after he averaged 16.1 points and a nation's-best 12.7 boards -- or in the 2002 draft. But the big man spent his final two seasons of eligibility dealing with a foot injury and alcohol problems, eventually going undrafted.
The issue here isn't whether or not Sullinger or Jones -- or Warren or Marcus -- ruined a potential professional career by returning to school. Spending an extra year in college didn't make them a different player, even if the NBA views them that way. Sullinger is still a load on the block and an excellent rebounder. Jones is still long and lanky with freakish athleticism and coordination. That hasn't changed. In fact, being picked later in the first round may be even better for their careers. Getting picked in the top half of the lottery gets you pegged as the savior of a franchise, the future of a team that spent last season watching the playoffs from the comfort of their couch just like you and me. But getting picked by a playoff team in the mid-to-late first round means a player is expected to fill a role. There isn't the same amount of pressure, which means that they can go about their business, developing the skills needed to carve out a career at the next level.
What it did cost them, however, is a fortune. Literally. On last year's rookie salary scale, the No. 5 pick in the draft will make almost $9 million in his first three seasons. The No. 18 pick is guaranteed less than $4 million in their first three years. The No. 24 pick will average around $1 million per. That's still a seven-figure contract, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is much less than what they would have made had they entered the draft last season.
And that is where the difference lies. Sullinger and Jones may have cost themselves upwards of $5 million by returning to school. That is a lot of money.
I hope that year in school was worth it.