The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NBA Draft is Sunday, and what was already shaping up to be an unimpressive draft is becoming murkier and shallower by the day. Since the NCAA Tournament, no fewer than 6 legit lottery prospects have announced they will return to the college game next season instead of chasing NBA riches. At one point or another throughout the process, Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones, and Harrison Barnes have all been in heavy consideration for the #1 overall pick, and yet all three are staying in school.
An NBA-ready player (as Barnes and Sullinger are) can only get so much better spending another season with inferior teammates and competition. While Ohio State’s Thad Matta and Roy Williams at North Carolina are two of the best coaches in their game, the level of teaching pales in comparison to what the NBA has to offer — nutritionists and private chefs to keep Sullinger’s weight from becoming a problem, strength coaches to make Jones slightly more physically imposing than Shawn Bradley, and veterans to teach Barnes footwork tricks to get him to the free throw line more often.
Both the NBA and NCAA (and, of course, their billion-dollar TV buddies) should be thrilled about this bucking of the trend. Amateur basketball, and its powers-that-be, have absolutely nothing to do with the NBA’s early-entry rules that are in danger of being made even more restrictive. As the quality of college basketball increases, the NBA gets the NCAA and CBS to front the bill for advertising its future stars, while the franchises themselves are gifted an extra year or more to scout these players and theoretically reduce some of the guesswork associated with the draft. In fact, the only ones with the potential to lose anything by returning to school are the players themselves.
Neither Sullinger nor Barnes, by the nature of their already-developed games, are going to break new ground in the NBA’s eyes in 2011-2012. All they can do is risk injury, or open themselves up to increased scrutiny and nit-picking — the more teams see of a player, the more likely they are to notice his flaws and become infatuated with the next big thing. Remember the last time a dominant-yet-undersized big man had this kind of impact on a championship contender as a freshman? The longer Tyler Hansbrough stayed in school, the more draftniks and NBA scouts became disenfranchised with his lack of explosiveness and physical deficiencies.
A Columbus native, Sullinger is returning to school out of a commitment to both family and team. An Elton Brand/Carlos Boozer clone who averaged over 17 points and 10 rebounds a game for the Buckeyes as an 18-year-old, the Naismith candidate has shown his consistency, durability, and ability to produce against inferior competition. The only question left to be answered for Sullinger is how he uses his 6’8 frame against bigger NBA power forwards, and that cannot be answered by dominating small college centers with no pro prospects.
Barnes also has little left to show against college players. Not a naturally aggressive scorer, he took a little while to get accustomed to North Carolina’s style of play, but his efficient, intelligent court presence is reminiscent of a young Paul Pierce. From the start of the ACC season through the Tar Heels’ Elite Eight run, he scored 17.9 points per game, with only 2 turnovers. A top prospect since high school, Barnes lived up to his pedigree, and while his staying in Chapel Hill with Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Kendall Marshall, and adding incoming freshman James McAdoo and PJ Hairston, will make UNC the prohibitive preseason favorite, it can only damage his initial NBA resume and earning potential.
For most of the elite college players, the free education is only a side consideration, if at all. For surefire first round picks, top high school players who choose to attend powerhouse Division-I programs, their college experience is markedly different than yours or mine. The college game has become a de facto minor league for the NBA, and once you’ve killed it in AAA, there’s no reason to do it again before trying the big show.