The NCAA’s deadline for college prospects to withdraw from the NBA draft came and went on Monday, inching the pool of eligible prospects one step closer to final as the new October 16 draft date approaches. Given the circumstances—with what’s already regarded as a weak draft class, all eyes on the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, and COVID-19 casting doubt over what next season will look like at all levels of hoops—this was far from a dramatic few days of final decisions, at least from the league’s perspective.
The next key date on the calendar is the August 20 draft lottery, which follows the conclusion of the seeding games and won’t have finalized odds until the eighth seed in each conference (well, really the Western Conference) has been determined. Non-NCAA based prospects still have until October 6 to withdraw their names from the draft, and there are still a handful of draftable international prospects weighing decisions, but by now, teams are more or less certain of what they’re working with. With the draft lottery just a few weeks away, here’s the latest news, notes, and buzz surrounding the draft and this week’s round of prospect decisions.
– After Tyrell Terry’s announcement that he’d leave Stanford for the draft (which I’d assumed would happen), the top undecided prospect on SI’s Big Board (last updated in May and now due for an adjustment) was Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman. Tillman chose to stay in the draft and will end up being one of the better bigs available in the 20-40 range. It’s unclear exactly how on-the-fence he really was about returning to school, but the sense I get is that there will be plenty of teams prepared to pounce if he makes it out of the first round. Tillman last rated as the No. 28 prospect in my rankings and may still move up a few more slots, given his extremely well-rounded skill set that should immediately play up off of someone’s bench next season. For what it’s worth, it might be the best passer amongst bigs in this draft, which greatly helps his case as a small-ball rotation piece and ball-screen weapon.
The primary knock on Tillman amongst NBA scouts has stemmed from his lack of vertical pop, below-average jumper, and less-than-ideal height for a big, as accomplished as he is from a defensive standpoint. It’s undeniable how much he contributed to Michigan State’s success, and his excellent, positioning, rebounding, screen-setting and efficient finishing should translate in a way that matters. That type of low-maintenance bench piece is generally viewed as more useful to a team with playoff hopes than one in midst of a long-term rebuild. Regardless, Tillman is ready for the league, and I trust he’ll end up comfortable with his decision.
– Other than Terry, Tillman and Mississippi State’s Robert Woodard, the vast majority of still-on-the-fence, strongly draft-relevant players listed in our Top 60 decided to return to school. The prospects I’d keep the closest eye on moving forward are Jared Butler (Baylor), Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert (Gonzaga), Isaiah Joe (Arkansas), Yves Pons (Tennessee) and Colbey Ross (Pepperdine), quality prospects who will return to high-opportunity situations that might be conducive to improving their chances in the 2021 draft. Of course, that’s assuming college basketball season resembles its usual self.
– It’s worth noting that there’s actually a degree of surprise circulating around the NBA right now with regard to how many prospects decided to return to college, rather than turn pro. In defense of the players, it’s extremely to make a career-altering decision in any field while working with incomplete information. And for underclassmen who weren’t viewed as consensus Top 40 prospects, this has been an especially difficult year, with no opportunity to work out for teams or play their way into guaranteed deals of some sort via traditional predraft events like the combine (more on that shortly) and the Portsmouth invitational.
Anyway, there are two ways of looking at this wave of final decisions. Some around the league feel that many of these prospects may have been better off staying in the draft and hoping to walk away with some type of guaranteed deal or two-way contract. At this point, it’s close to universally understood in NBA circles that the 2021 draft class is shaping up as much deeper, in nearly all facets. Even a year out, I’m not the only one who feels comfortable enough to posit that it will not be an easy year to play your way into the first round, or perhaps into the draft at all. If a player is currently viewed my teams as a second-round pick in this relatively thin draft, I’d argue that given the information at hand, the odds of that changing a year from now aren’t necessarily favorable. Plus, with the likelihood that COVID-19 will impact the upcoming college season in some form (be it a shortened schedule or worst case, no games at all), returning players might be looking at limited on-court opportunities as far as performing in front of scouts and enhancing their draft stock is concerned.
Admittedly, that sounds a little dire. In defense of these players, here’s also some legitimate value in returning to school, particularly for prospects who are serious about improving. College teams around the country have already arrived on-campus for summer workouts. There’s certainly something to be said for staying in school, returning straight to campus, working on a degree and having consistent gym access. From a sheer competitive perspective, you can understand why a player would return to school and focus on getting better both individually and as part of the group, when the alternative is waiting out the next couple months until the draft, followed by another wait until NBA training camps start up, and likely another wait to see how the G League season ends up being scheduled (and in what capacity). On an individual level, the stability of returning to a college program might be preferable—but I’d be remiss not to underscore that there’s not always a correlation between going back to college and maximizing your opportunity in the draft. We’ll see how it works out for these guys, but it’s certainly a boon for a lot of college teams.
– As far as the combine is concerned, I’ve alluded to this situation in the past, but the strong vibe I’ve gotten from sources around the league is that it will likely take place in name only and in a digital capacity, and is unlikely to include any in-person component beyond players conducting medicals, which can be done without needing them to physically congregate from across the country. I’m told that for the most part, teams feel comfortable with the breadth of interviews they’ve already conducted, and that the potential inclusion of a video-chat combine component may end up being redundant. Also, for clarification, the list of 104 potential invitees that leaked last week included the top vote-getters for the combine. Not all 104 of those players would actually receive invites (typically the number of invitees hovers around 70). All of this would seem to be much ado about nothing, other than a cursory look at which prospects are firmly in play to be drafted in October, and could participate in the nominal “combine,” which seems ticketed for September.