NCAA’s new NBA draft early entry rule finds right balance

Former Duke teammates Justise Winslow, left, and Jahlil Okafor embrace after Okafor was selected third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2015 NBA draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Former Duke teammates Justise Winslow, left, and Jahlil Okafor embrace after Okafor was selected third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2015 NBA draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Getty Images

You have to hand it to the NCAA: About once per decade or so, it gets something right.

That might be an exaggeration – only slightly – but, nonetheless, the NCAA’s move to push back the NBA draft early-entry deadline for college basketball players joins the 30-second shot clock and stricter rules limiting physical play as good things that have happened recently for the college game.

And the early-entry rule, in particular, had been long overdue – at least as long overdue as any rule can be after only six years of existence. You probably remember the old rule: Players had to declare for the draft in April, the day before the spring signing period for incoming recruits.

That meant that outside of guys who were guaranteed to be high lottery picks – those like, say, former Duke players Jahlil Okafor and Jabari Parker – there was little concrete awareness of where a prospect might be drafted.

Sure, players might have thought they knew where they’d be picked. And those surrounding the players – college coaches, agents, advisers, family members – might have thought they knew where a guy might be picked, too. Largely, though, it was an exercise in guesswork.

Which is why the new rule will help: It should eliminate a greater degree of the uncertainty surrounding draft position. Under the new rule, which the NCAA passed earlier this month, college basketball players now have until 10 days after the NBA draft combine to declare for the draft.

This year, the combine runs May 11-15, which gives players until May 25 to declare for the June 23 NBA Draft.

They can participate in the combine, if they’re invited, and work out with one NBA team before making a final decision about whether to go pro. And players can do this as many times as they desire – after their freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, if they want.

The new pre-draft process will allow college players to learn more about where they stand in the eyes of NBA personnel. And that, in turn, should lead to more educated decisions about whether to stay or go.

The rule hurts college coaches in a sense because now the spring signing period will begin without the benefit of knowing for sure which of their current players might be staying in school or entering the draft. Even so, coaches have been enthusiastic in their support for the change.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said recently that “it helps the kids more.” Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach, called the new rule “terrific” though he acknowledged the challenge it might present late in the recruiting calendar.

The new rule is something of a compromise between the system that has existed since 2009 and the one that was in place before that, which allowed college players until the middle of June to decide whether they’d enter the draft. That meant that in 2008, Williams had to wait a while to find out whether Danny Green, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington would enter the draft or remain in school.

“That was terrible,” Williams said recently, reflecting on the experience.

He was on the way to Omaha, Neb., to watch UNC’s baseball team in the College World Series when he found out for sure that, yes, Green, Lawson and Ellington would all be back. If they’d instead decided to leave, there would have been virtually no time to make a late recruiting push with an undecided high school prospect – assuming there were any undecided prospects at that point in the summer.

“It’s not as bad as it used to be by any means for the coaches,” Williams said of the new early-entry process. “So I think that’s a good compromise, too.”

The question now is how the new rule will affect players who will have a decision to make after this season. It would be stunning if Duke’s Brandon Ingram returned for his sophomore season given he’s viewed, along with LSU’s Ben Simmons, as one of the top two prospects playing in college.

Other ACC players – UNC’s Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks and N.C. State’s Cat Barber, to name three – will have more difficult decisions to make. And now they’ll have a chance to make more informed decisions.

Not that ACC players have often made poor decisions in recent years about their future. Those who have left school with eligibility remaining have more often than not been rewarded with a place in the first round of the NBA draft, and the guaranteed three-year contract that comes with it.

In the past five draft classes – those between 2011 and 2015 – 35 ACC players have left school early to enter the draft. That includes the likes of UNC’s P.J. Hairston, Louisville’s Chane Behanan, Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin and others whose decision to enter the draft was made easier because of disciplinary problems that either rendered impossible their return to school or made it more difficult.

Of the ACC’s 35 early entrants since 2011, 22 were drafted in the first round – 10 of those among the first 15 selections. Six of those 35 early entrants went undrafted, which, as former UNC forward James Michael McAdoo has shown, doesn’t necessarily doom a player’s NBA prospects.

McAdoo eventually caught on with the Golden State Warriors and was paid well last season to play a bit part on an NBA championship team. Not bad work, if you can get it.

Among others who recently went undrafted, it’s fair to wonder whether the revamped early-entry rule would have made much of a difference in their decisions. Would Trevor Lacey have come back to N.C. State had he gathered more intelligence about his less-than-stellar draft prospects last season? Would C.J. Leslie have done the same in 2013?

It’s probably doubtful. Both players seemed intent on leaving – intent on moving on. That’s how it was last year, too, for UNC’s J.P. Tokoto, who left school a year early to become the second-to-last pick in the draft.

So for players who want to leave school, regardless, the new rule isn’t likely to make a tremendous difference. But for those who find themselves on the margin of the draft, wondering whether to stay or to go, the new system is a welcome change – one that will benefit the NBA and college game alike.