Apr 10, 2013; Bloomington, IN, USA; Cody Zeller at his press conference for the NBA draft. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Sports

College Basketball: NBA-Hopeful Underclassmen Should Leave Now

Here’s free advice for aspiring pros on the fence about entering the draft: File your paperwork immediately. There won’t be a better time to leave.

Opportunities are fleeting. The high-stakes game of draft stock roulette is no exception. The time is now for those collegians with legitimate first-round upside to throw their hat into the ring before their hat loses its appeal. This is their chance to strike while the iron is hot. If they wait any longer, next year’s draft class will scorch their future earnings potential.

Bravo, Cody Zeller, DeShaun Thomas, Michael Carter-Williams, Steven Adams, Archie Goodwin, Jamaal Franklin, Tony Mitchell, Allen Crabbe, C.J. Leslie and Russ Smith. None of your decisions were clear-cut, but if playing in the NBA and maximizing your asset value is your aim, you’ve made the sagest business choice. (That does not apply to any of you, Ricardo Ledo, Marshawn Powell, Norvel Pelle, Amath M’Baye and Eric Moreland).

If the next wave of possible early entrants wishes to optimize its professional future, just say the magic words: “I’m gone.” Otto Porter, Alex Len, Kelly Olynyk, Adreian Payne, James McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and Mitch McGary — your value will never be higher. Capitalize. As so many past college defectors have done before, you can always complete your degree later. Most pros who manage their money properly won’t need one anyway. For those who do, the spike in available online courses makes reworking towards a degree much more convenient.

Selfishly, fans want their best underclassmen to serve as mercenaries for the school they support. Diehards pontificate as though they know what’s best for the kids, even invent faulty narratives to lure them back. They swarm in packs on social media and use scare tactics to influence their decision. Here’s the latest example of fans hounding a kid for chasing his dream and making the best business decision. Sadly, that coercive behavior has become the norm more than the outlier in today’s Twitter-empowered sports culture.

The most overused platitude parroted by agenda-driven fans to compel a player back to school: “He’s not ready! Come back for one more year and improve your game!” Bag it. “Being ready” hasn’t been an obstacle to leaving early since the 90s.

Ready for some myth-busting 101? The prime place to develop for the NBA is not in college, where practice time is limited, distractions (classes, parties, co-eds) abound and coaches run college-specific systems irrespective of whether they translate to the pros. The best environment to prepare for the NBA game is…in the NBA, against other pros. How novel.

It’s true that the big money in the league is made on the second contract. It’s not true that staying in college past a player’s peak value enhances his chances of earning one. NBA players who have stayed two years or fewer in college are earning more per year, on average, than those who stayed three or four, and by almost 60-percent, no less. Of course, the best talents seldom stay three or four years in college, which skews the data, but many of those who do aren’t necessarily getting their bang for their buck.

Think staying in school four years served Tyler Hansbrough’s pro career well when his game peaked by his junior year? The ’09 title legitimized his decision, but also cost him one or two years of seven-figure salary. Recall the cautionary tale of Jared Sullinger, who undermined his stock by returning for his sophomore year? How about Cody Zeller and James McAdoo, a pair of Top 8 picks had they come out last year who will never again be drafted so high? Returning to school can yank the bloom off the rose if the production in years two and three doesn’t justify the hype. It’s difficult to rebuild value that was inherently artificial to begin with.

If a player has a flat jump shot, a weak left hand, a high dribble or isn’t fully polished, he’s more likely to refine those elements of his game when he’s playing ball permanently. This long-perpetuated myth that unprepared players can only become NBA-ready by playing with other collegians has no basis in reality. Or logic.

Variables including strength of draft class and whether a player realistically has room for large improvement carry more weight in an educated early entry decision than whether a player is ready. Guess what? Only a handful (maybe five or six in any given draft class) are truly conditioned for the NBA game as soon as they leave college. Practically no one’s ready!

It’s approaching high noon for fence straddlers juggling their basketball futures. Given this year’s especially weak draft class, one side of the fence is far more inviting than the other. Unless the opportunity to win a national championship or max out the college experience trumps financial leverage — for most NBA-hopeful college kids, it doesn’t — expect to hear the phrase “I’m ready…” on repeat over the next week.

Even if the players mouthing the words really aren’t.


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