This past week, rumors have been swirling about Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman spurning the NBA draft and returning for school. Tillman, a 21-year-old rising senior, was a fringe first-round candidate in the eyes of many and a sure-fire draft pick with his unique blend of frontcourt passing and intense defense.
The clear is and should be Tillman's alone based on what he values. Some players want the four-year degree and college experience. Others are hungry to leave their alma mater with a championship–in 2020, the abrupt cancelling of the season certainly is a difficult note to leave on. Each situation should be viewed through an individual lens for what is important to the prospect, their families and the likelihood of the draft situation involved.
This article will focus on prospects who are debating a return to college from a purely strategic point of view, and won't even try to address the myriad factors of emotional connection that pull people in different directions. There needs to be somewhat of a blueprint for why and how prospects make their decisions, so I'll take a gander at putting one together.
Question #1: Who am I getting advice from?
Any frequent readers of my work know I spend a ton of time talking about bias. In this conversation specifically, inherent bias factors in a great deal. A cheap, working definition of the term: underlying factors or beliefs that go largely undetected but influence your decision-making.
When it comes to getting advice as a draft prospect, there are two main influencers who are, at their core, inherently biased. Those are college coaches and agents.
Over the last few years, prospects testing the draft waters have become able to sign and take advice with NCAA-certified agents without losing their amateur status, which allows them to return to college. Such a stockpile of pre-vetted advisors sees an opportunity to make a paycheck sooner, although their fiduciary responsibility should lead them to put the player's best interests at the forefront. By having a likely financial stake in the prospect, we've largely accepted that means the agent will do what's best for the prospect's ability to make the most money, which in turn is the right decision for that player.
That stance comes with a minimal view of all the external factors pressing on an agent. Hitting quotas for signing clients, relationships with NBA folks who might want to bargain shop and get a high-quality prospect for cheap based on their own draft assets in the next two years -- they all make some sort of impact. Are they data? Yes. Is the data collector able to be easily swayed by those factors? Also yes.
The second stakeholder to be aware of is the college coach, and it's a very complex one to understand. The surface-level assumptions are that the coach stands to profit on the recruiting trail by pushing more players to the NBA, but the coach also wants to win games, which is how they make money, so they have a clear reason to advise the athlete to return to school.
While that dichotomy is large enough, the understanding of the recruiting cycle is a large part of this. Most recruits sign their letter of intent (LOI) to join an institution at least six months before the NBA draft takes place. When advising the player in their program whether to stay or to leave, the coach has a very clear picture of what the roster will look like next year and how playing time would work.
Perhaps the best recent example of this might be at the University of North Carolina with Roy Williams. This season, freshman point guard Cole Anthony came into Chapel Hill as a top-five recruit, and someone Williams wanted to give the keys to. Why did the Tar Heels go so hard after Anthony on the recruiting trail? Because they identified (correctly so) the point guard from the class above, Coby White, as a one-and-done lottery pick.
Carolina couldn't be left empty-handed, so they planned on White's departure by signing Anthony before hand. A year later, they did the same with Archbishop Stepinac and prolific NYC scorer RJ Davis, who will be a freshman next year.
One domino that falls wrong screws up the entire order and sales pitch for Williams. If White doesn't perform to his level and wants to return to school, that impacts Williams' ability to deliver on his promises to Anthony for playing time, which impacts their ability to sign Davis.
The domino falling can go either way. It can nudge a prospect out the door before they're ready, as to not mess up the envisioned roster. Or returning to play alongside another similar player can damage draft value, now sharing the spotlight with a player a year younger and showing off less of what you can do.
Coaches dealing with early entrants are typically in Power Five conferences and recruit similar players who are high on national recruit rankings and have the same NBA stars in their eyes. The path to playing time and the understanding of which prospects are coming in after you is a huge part of this process.
Question #2: What's my draft range?
The framing of this question needs to be player-specific and skill-specific. Who you ask it to is addressed in the section above, but how you contextualize the answers is important.
Think about it in terms of three separate but highly overlapping questions:
Last year, the Duke Blue Devils were a transcendent college program. Zion Williams, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish were all top-ten selections, and all shared the floor. The fourth cog in that wheel was Tre Jones, a facilitating point guard with a wretched 3-point shot. That outside shooting ended up costing Duke in the NCAA Tournament. In a second-round game against UCF, their opponent put 7'8" Tacko Fall on the 6'2" point guard, sagging off and daring him to shoot.
Scouts were pretty clear with Jones on feedback. If you leave now, you're likely a late-first round selection. But staying at Duke and showing great improvement in your 3-point shooting will tighten up the biggest flaw in your game. By doing so, next year you can be in the discussion for a lottery pick and move your name slightly up the board.
Only Jones could answer prong number three about how likely it is he accomplished that goal. To his credit, Jones did that this year at Duke, going from 26.2 percent shooting last year to 36.1 percent from 3 as a sophomore.
Question #3: What is the overall draft landscape like?
None of these discussions are had in a vacuum. The draft is, and always will be, about relative value: is the skill you offer better at this draft position than what others can offer?
Analyzing the relative strength or weakness of a draft class. For example, this 2020 draft is widely recognized as one lacking high-end talent. A year from now, we're gearing up to see the most loaded draft class since the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony show in 2003.
That factor, and the front-end depth of the 2021 draft, has a huge impact on what any potential first-rounder decides this year. A name like Tyrell Terry of Stanford comes to mind. Terry is highly skilled as a 3-point shooter and had some dark horse mentioning as a mid-first round selection. But the common chorus sings loudly: he should consider going back to school to add strength, as his body isn't NBA-ready.
To me, this is a ludicrous claim. If Terry is sniffing on a pick in the teens, he'll be a year older and firmly outside the top-fifteen in next year's class. Returning is a risky proposition when it comes to securing the bag, especially in an age where general managers fall in love with the notion of drafting younger.
We'd call this analyzing the draft landscape. It's not just about projecting where each player falls this year as opposed to next year, and we're seeing that with COVID.
Nobody in the world can tell us what the upcoming college basketball season will look like. Not one. Will we have a season? Will it be conference competition only? Will there be an NCAA Tournament? As NCAA schools close their campuses for the fall semester, cancel football and athletics, the next collegiate hoops season looms large.
The trickle-down effect is real. If Power Five schools go to conference-only models, what do mid-major prospects do to prove their draft stock holds up against major competition? What about players who made the decision to return to improve a skill this year - if there's no season, how badly did they hurt their own stock by being a year older? What do one-and-done prospects do, and how do NBA teams scout them for the 2021 draft, if there is no season altogether?
Question #4: The deciding factor question
When I was a child, I was mentally tortured by my father with his penchant for brain-teasers and logic puzzles. He used to ask a question about ascending into the afterlife and there are two doors, one leads to heaven and one to hell. Standing in front of each door are two guards, one of whom always tells the truth and one of whom always lies. As you ascend to them, you get to ask one question to either (not both) guard, and then make a determination which door to take.
The goal is to outsmart either guard with the type of question asked, developing a fool-proof formula that gives you the right answer regardless. His conclusion was to ask this question:
Which door will the other guy say is the door to hell?
Whichever door he says, take it.
In that same vein, how do you navigate a tumultuous, self-interest laden landscape to figure out what is best for you as an individual? A lot of it comes down to which question you ask and how you play different stakeholders against each other.
My advice to draft prospects debating on entering is to ask their agents, coaches, advisors or NBA folks they interview this question:
If I return to school next year, improve what I need to improve and am a year older, where would I go in relation to this current draft class?
It's not exactly a fool proof question, but it can lead to an understanding of how others perceive the likelihood of why your draft stock is where it is.
Think back to Tre Jones at Duke. If he is in the draft last year as a 36 percent 3-point shooter, he's asking if he'd be a lottery pick in 2019. If the answer is no, then how high can he really raise his ceiling by coming back next year? That largely depends on the landscape and quality of the next draft class, but it also means there's a cap on the value of the skills you currently offer.
If the answer is yes, there's a clear-cut reason to return because the added skill benefits outweigh the risk of being a year older.