How Will the Coronavirus Impact the 2020 NBA Draft?

As the NBA season remains on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, what will happen to the 2020 draft?
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With the NBA on extended hiatus as necessitated by the outbreak of the coronavirus, the basketball industry at large continues to operate without a defined off-season timetable, casting uncertainty on the timing of the 2020 draft and free agency. Concern over the calendar has created challenges for teams and for players hoping to enter the draft, and a situation that not only the league, but the entire industry has been forced to navigate without a strong sense of clarity.

As ESPN first reported Tuesday, the NBA has begun accepting applications to the Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which is annually tasked with giving feedback to college prospects before they can officially enter the draft. The deadline for players to apply is April 16. At that point, if things remain on schedule, teams will at the very least have a better sense of the draft-eligible player pool, which is obviously a crucial step forward in the pre-draft process. With college basketball season over, that gives prospects an entire month to make their initial decisions, with the draft currently set for June 20. But at the moment, that appears to be the extent of the developments in a crucial league cycle that appears in many ways to be irreparably fraught due to the circumstances.

As we reported Friday, the logistics for both teams and agents in scheduling players’ pre-draft travel for workouts, pro days and meetings are widely expected to be difficult given the overall health concerns surrounding travel and potential coronavirus transmission. There are clear challenges that will likely inhibit the NBA’s ability to hold a proper draft combine, which doubles as an annual spring summit for NBA front offices and gathers players, their families, and media members from across the globe. It feels concrete at this point that there will be fewer chances for teams to evaluate players in intimate settings moving forward, no matter when the draft eventually takes place. There’s some speculation surrounding the possibility of holding the draft toward the end of summer, creating a longer runway for a potential level of normalcy in the pre-draft process. Conversely, the draft could still take place as scheduled in June, irrespective of other changes to the schedule. But there’s little use projecting too far ahead when the entire league is essentially working to try and hit moving goalposts: preparing for a draft that could feasibly be delayed multiple months, and doing so with potentially incomplete access to information and limited opportunity to do the ideal level of in-person diligence.

There are larger concerns tied to the fate of the NBA season, with a sliver of hope that the league could return to competition in some form in June. There is clear financial impetus for the NBA to recoup some of what was lost by returning to action, but also a degree of skepticism simmering around the league that a truly palatable solution exists. Even in a best-case scenario where the coronavirus threat levels out to the point where games can resume, there will be bigger matters to address, like the league’s fiscal year, which ends June 30. Contracts for players and team employees then expire or roll over on July 1, and free agency opens. With the draft scheduled for June 20, if the NBA decides to play games in July and August, it’s pretty fair to infer that everything else will move back, as well. In that event, an obvious solution would be amending the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and NBPA to fit a revised financial calendar.

A range of items including contract guarantee dates and trade exception expiration dates will also need to be addressed at some point. And so long as the league decides to keep its general order of off-season operations intact, the draft will need to take place before free agency opens, so that players’ contracts can fall in concert. There are plenty of scheduling and logistical impediments to picking play back up, on top of the national pandemic. Needless to say, that’s not an ideal place to be. All things considered, it could end up simpler to keep things in place, provided there are no more games this season. And the sooner there’s real directive on the matter of the calendar, the sooner teams’ off-season preparations can start to take place with some level of normalcy.

On a different level, what’s yet to be seen is how the unusual situation will impact prospects’ individual decisions to turn pro. On one hand, there may be some added financial incentive for fringe players to make the leap now and secure their money, given the pervasive economic uncertainty taking hold with the impact of the coronavirus. On the other hand, limited opportunities for in-person contact between prospects and teams may make it difficult for some players to get the type of exposure that could be truly beneficial for those on the cusp of being drafted. But there’s no penalty for ‘testing the waters,’ and that’s an issue that will come to the fore whenever the early-entry deadline ends up actually taking place. After a number of high-profile college freshmen kept their names in but went undrafted last season, it’s yet to be seen whether that’s the trend, or if it will serve as caution for the next wave of prospects.

Speculatively, we could see teams work more proactively than usual to try and keep players they like in the draft via the form of backdoor promises and guarantees. It’s been generally agreed upon for months that the talent level in the 2020 draft is relatively down, with a flat talent curve already cultivating the type of environment that would encourage that type of behavior, where teams and agents attempt to engineer a match by shutting prospects down and cutting off their availability to other teams. If there’s no combine and no travel to begin with, the logistical issues of ‘hiding’ a prospect become much simpler in theory. Safe to say this is shaping up as a high-variance draft landscape, marred by unusual circumstance. But for now, beyond agents continuing to recruit players, and those players making their initial decisions on early draft entry, all anyone can really do for now is wait things out.