Should they stay or should they go (now): college basketball’s biggest stars have just a few weeks to make the decision of a lifetime

Photo by R. Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Photo by R. Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

By Joe Manganiello

In the basketball universe, April marks the end of the collegiate season and the beginning of NBA draft talk. With the deadline to enter the draft on April 28, a lot of talented young ball players are toying with the idea of going pro.

Simply put: some guys should stay while others should go.

 Louisville/Michigan

The best players from the season’s biggest game are in the most unique position of any potential draftees. The uber-national spotlight that has been shining on players from Louisville and Michigan the last few weeks has the power to both inflate an individual player’s resume or weaken their draft status entirely.

Then again, I believe that players from Gorgui Dieng to Mitch McGary – whether receiving appraisal or criticism – should be thankful that they are at least the spark of NBA conversation. The basketball universe isn’t talking about Otto Porter Jr.’s frame or how Cody Zeller‘s game compares with LaMarcus Aldridge right now; basketball fans want to know if Russ Smith is the next Jason Terry or Jonny Flynn and if Glenn Robinson III is going to stay in school or not. Why? Because they contended for a championship and America worships winners.

I can only imagine the Otto Porter Jr.’s of the world feel something like Jan Brady, although something tells me Gorgui Dieng doesn’t go by Marcia.

But while Dieng, Smith, and all of those young cats at Michigan have played – and mostly excelled – on the game’s brightest stage, it doesn’t always mean they are all ready to go pro.

They should go:

Gorgui Dieng (JR, C) and Russ Smith (JR, SG)

Dieng and Smith couldn’t be any more different on the court, but they enter the heart of NBA draft chatter with incredibly similar resumes.

Both Cardinals have elevated their game significantly each season under Pitino (Dieng’s ppg: 5.7 to 9.1 to 9.8; Smith’s ppg: 2.2 to 11.5 to 18.7) and have tightened key elements of their game that translate to the pros: Dieng is a shot-blocking machine, who collected 13 swats in the final four games of the NCAA tournament, and who posted three blocks or more in 14 games this season; and Smith, who is only listed at 6-1, can get to the rim whenever he wishes, as he has turned himself into a weapon off the dribble and on the fast break.

These two players do not come without their question marks. Dieng is 23-years-old and has a limited offensive game. Smith is short, and despite playing off the ball most of his career at Louisville (alongside Peyton Siva), Smith will have to play point guard in the NBA, a position that does not best utilize his skill set.

But Dieng and Smith’s draft stock will never be higher. Over the last four weeks, millions of fans watched Dieng dictate the lane against many of the best teams in the country and Smith average 25.0 ppg and 3.0 spg in the first five games of the NCAA tournament before winning the championship Monday.

Dieng is projected to go outside the lottery, somewhere between the mid-teens and early 20s. Depending on how many other young bigs declare for the draft, Dieng could certainly sneak his way into the late lottery if the right team needed a young center (ala Philadelphia or Dallas).

Smith is not garnishing much first round attention in mock drafts, but good interviews and measurables should keep him in the early second round, where some lucky team will jump at the chance to take a low-risk, high-reward selection like him – something tells me San Antonio wouldn’t mind trading down to grab him.

Dieng and Smith will not turn into lottery picks as seniors, but they could certainly fall out of the draft all together if they wait another year. They will never have a better opportunity of entering the NBA then this year’s draft following their championship run.

Trey Burke (SO, PG)

Burke has been celebrated most of the last month, winning national player of the year awards and leading his Wolverines to the national final. While Monday’s game was not the brightest spot in Burke’s fantastic season, the year in its entirety has elevated Burke from a late-first, early-second round prospect (similar to where Smith projects to be drafted) into a lottery pick.

And so it is time for him to go.

Would Burke have the opportunity to be apart of something special at Michigan again next year: yes, unquestionably. If Burke comes back to Michigan, they would be the team to beat all season long, and would have an excellent chance to claim a national championship.

But does Burke really need to win a college ring before he can say he is ready for the NBA?

Burke scored 1,231 points in two seasons, along with 416 assists and 133 3-pointers. His sophomore year shooting splits of .463/.384/.801 are incredible for a player who has the ball in his hands as often as he does. Burke lowered his turnovers and raised his steals from year one to year two. And playing as a No. 4 seed in the tournament, he led the charge past the alluring press defense of VCU, hit the biggest shot of the season to force OT against Kansas, where he scored the first five Michigan points, had a heavy influence in the 20-point (and it wasn’t even that close) beat down of Florida, and made enough plays on both sides of the court to push Michigan past Syracuse.

Oh yeah, and looking past the comically low 26 minutes played against Louisville, Burke still stuffed the stat sheet: 24 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, .636/.600/.778 splits.

His stock could never be higher. He finishes the season as the best point guard and player in the country, and his team was within a few possessions of winning the national championship. Burke isn’t the type of prospect that could ever go No. 1 overall; he doesn’t have the superstar potential of Kyrie Irving (most recent No. 1 overall PG) or the flashy athleticism of John Wall (No. 1 overall selection in 2009).

Burke, however, has all but locked up a #6-10 spot in the lottery. It will never get better than that for him, and if his dream is to play professional basketball – which it is – right now is his moment to be an NBA franchise’s first round pick.

Should not go:

Luke Hancock (JR, SF) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (JR, SG)

Hancock won the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player prize. Tim Hardaway Jr. maintained a 14.5 ppg average all season long, while improving his FG%, 3PT %, rebounding and assist figures.

In essence, these players too can argue that their stocks will never be higher. And while this is true, it is not very accurate; while Hancock and Hardaway Jr. have never had a better resume for NBA team’s to look over, in reality, there does not seem to be enough interest to warrant them throwing away their otherwise very promising senior seasons.

Both players will be at the height of the college game next season. Hancock will be asked to play an even larger role for a Louisville team that will remain competitive even if Dieng and Smith declare for June’s draft and without Siva. With no pressure to “win the big one,” Hancock will play out his senior season rocking the “I’m The Reigning Final Four MOP Winner” smile, averaging 9-10 shots per game and around 13-14 ppg and finishing as one of the great, four-year players in school history.

Hardaway Jr. will be the senior leader of a Michigan team with A) Final Four experience, B) arguably the most talent in the country and C) a lot to prove. Hardaway Jr. will be asked to do even more offensively for the Wolverines, which will boost his chances of convincing NBA scouts that he can score points at the NBA level.

If these two players go pro now, the best case scenario they can wish for is pulling a Landry Fields: get drafted in the second round, work your butt off for a roster spot, and carve out a role on the team, executing for an entire season in minimal playing time.

(Within the Landry scenario, there is also the option of getting completely too comfortable after one year in the league and stop working on your game, then regress for successive seasons while stealing a whole lot of money from your new team. But again, that’s optional.)

Hancock and Hardaway Jr. could totally grind out an NBA career on minimum contracts and limited playing time after the senior season’s are done. That option will always be there for them. But what won’t always be there is the chance to remain nationally relevant for another calendar year and play at the highest level of the sport.

Glen Robinson III (FM, SF)

Robinson III should not go pro for a lot of reasons. But the largest reason is obviously because he doesn’t pass the eye test just yet. When you think of one-and-done players, Carmelo, Durant and Rose come to mind: the ones that worked out. And while Robinson III has a lot of talent, and is an assumed lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft, he isn’t ready for the professional game yet.

Robinson reminds me of Marvin Williams. Williams was a can’t miss prospect with wonderful size/athleticism who left after one year at North Carolina playing in the background of Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants. The Atlanta Hawks drafted Williams on potential over the likes of Felton, David Lee, Danny Granger, Deron Williams and Chris Paul. Williams never really figured out how to use his God-given ability to dominate games in the pros, because, well, he never figured out how to do it in college.

I’ve always thought that if Marvin Williams stayed the following season for what would have been his sophomore year, he would have put up Len Bias (RIP) numbers, and would have been a runaway No. 1 overall selection in 2006.

Now, is Glenn Robinson III THAT good? Is he even Marvin Williams good? I mean, come on, the guy averaged 11 ppg this season. We have no idea, and neither does he. But he has an opportunity to stay at Michigan for another year, compete for a national championship, and figure it out.

Mitch McGary (FM, C)

There might not have been a player I enjoyed watching more this tournament than McGary. He is huge, hits everything inside of 12 feet and rebounds like the basketball is his dinner. At 6-10 and 265 lbs, McGary has plenty of size to guard NBA centers, and for a freshman, his mid-range game is crazy advanced for a big.

But McGary was an unknown as recently as February. He put up 14 points and six rebounds against Ohio State on Feb. 5 and that snowballed into a starting spot. But McGary had just two double-doubles on the season before the NCAA tournament, and they both came with exactly ten points. McGary only eclipsed 14 points two times the entire season, both in the NCAA tournament.

McGary struggled in the early-goings of the season but came on strong at the finish and helped lead Michigan to the Final Four. That tells me a couple things: 1) John Beilein is one heck of a coach and 2) McGary is only beginning to tap into his potential. The McGary that scored 25 points against Kansas and dominated the Syracuse 2-3 zone was really only around for a third of the season, if that.

McGary can’t go pro because his resume needs time to catch up to his ability. McGary averaged 7.5 ppg and 6.3 rpg on the season, but that’s misleading: McGary exceeded his point-per-game mark in seven of his last eight games; he had at least nine rebounds in six of his last eight games; and had either multiple steals, blocks or both in six of his final nine games.The big guy is getting projected in the 20s in most mock drafts, but I don’t see why he couldn’t lock up a spot in the 2014 lottery after a full season in Beilein’s starting lineup.

If teammate Trey Burke doesn’t have anything left to play for – not even a national championship – McGary has everything left to play for. In fact, a national championship might be the best barometer for if McGary is ready for the pros or not. Not because that’s fair, but because if McGary can find a way to average 14.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg with a few assists, blocks and steals for an entire season like he did during the NCAA tournament, I don’t think anyone will beat Michigan.

That’s the McGary – and the only McGary – that the NBA is interested in drafting.

5 Responses to "Should they stay or should they go (now): college basketball’s biggest stars have just a few weeks to make the decision of a lifetime"

  1. Casey   April 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    There was a sequence in the second half of Monday night’s game where Dieng looked Bill Russell-like. He had the pretty turnaround jump hook from the baseline and followed that with a move across the lane and another baby hook for the finish. Great stuff. He would look OUTSTANDING in a Spurs uniform. The Big Fundamental could tutor him like the Admiral did for him.

    Glenn Robinson III looks like Marvin who? Oh yeah, I completely forgot about him.

    McGary ABSOLUTELY HAS TO STAY at least one more year. A good March does not equal NBA success.

  2. Casey   April 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Joe,

    How well do you think Russ Williams’s game will convert to the NBA level? He’s as ready as he ever will be. I just don’t see him getting the open floor points he scores at the college level. He’s going to meet up with guys (many of them) who can match his court speed.

  3. pgotham   April 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    There was a sequence in the second half of Monday night’s game where Dieng looked Bill Russell-like. He had the pretty turnaround jump hook from the baseline and followed that with a move across the lane and another baby hook for the finish. Great stuff. He would look OUTSTANDING in a Spurs uniform. The Big Fundamental could tutor him like the Admiral did for him.

    Glenn Robinson III looks like Marvin who? Oh yeah, I completely forgot about him.

    McGary ABSOLUTELY HAS TO STAY at least one more year. A good March does not equal NBA success.

  4. pgotham   April 14, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Joe,

    How well do you think Russ Williams’s game will convert to the NBA level? He’s as ready as he ever will be. I just don’t see him getting the open floor points he scores at the college level. He’s going to meet up with guys (many of them) who can match his court speed.

  5. Joe Manganiello   April 16, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    I really like Russ’ game. As any player, his success is subject to who takes him. But if Russ finds himself on a high-octane offensive toward the bottom of the first-round (Nuggets, San Antonio or Oklahoma City, Miami) I think he could make a contribution much sooner then most are predicting. The NBA game is more open than the college game, and while the talent is a fraction, Smith is not going to forget how to get to the basket. He will need to develop more of a 3-point shot, without question, or else defenders will play way off him. But Smith can make a 12-man rotation and score points as a rookie at the next level.

    Am I the only one who see’s him running on the fast break at SG with Parker, Manu and Leonard in San Antonio? I think Pop would have a field day with him.

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