Not long after Eric Montross helped lead North Carolina to the 1993 national championship at the end of his junior season, he met with Dean Smith, who had gathered information and was ready to advise Montross about his NBA draft prospects.
“Coach Smith told me I could leave after my junior year and be a top-10 pick,” Montross said recently. “I remember like it was yesterday. He had done his research and said, ‘You’re going to be a top-10 pick if you go. I’d like to support you if that’s what you’d like to do.’”
For Montross, though, the decision was easy. He said he “didn’t even think about” turning pro, and so he returned to school, played his senior season, graduated and then was selected ninth in the 1994 NBA draft.
Smith’s projection had proven correct, even one year later: Montross became a top-10 pick.
More than 20 years later, the path Montross traveled to the NBA seems foreign and unfamiliar. It’s a path, in many ways, that is the one less traveled, what with college basketball players – many of them, at least – so eager to leave school and pursue a career in the NBA.
In the year the Boston Celtics selected Montross in the NBA draft, 20 college players – most juniors – left school early. Among those 20 was one freshman, Dontonio Wingfield, a forward who left Cincinnati and became a second-round pick.
By the standards of today, the makeup of the 1994 draft class is unrecognizable. Forty-eight players, including 14 freshmen, left school early to enter this year’s draft.
That college basketball players are leaving school early in large numbers to enter the draft is nothing new. Perhaps never before, though, has college basketball appeared so expendable to players with such marginal draft prospects.
Tokoto, Lacey taking the risk
J.P. Tokoto left North Carolina knowing that he’s not projected as a first-round selection. N.C. State’s Trevor Lacey did the same.
They are but two of 48 underclassmen competing with college seniors and 44 international players – some of whom will undoubtedly withdraw from the draft pool – for 60 spots in the draft. And of those, only the first 30 – the ones in the first round – come with a guaranteed contract.
DraftExpress.com projected Tokoto, who was invited to the NBA Combine, as a mid-round selection in the second round. The website doesn’t include Lacey, who wasn’t invited to the combine, anywhere in its draft projection.
During interviews with Yahoo! Sports and the Charlotte Observer, Tokoto said he believed he’d benefit more by leaving school and dedicating himself to improving rather than returning as a role player – albeit one who has started the past two years – at UNC, which is likely to be a preseason top-five team.
“That (extra) time I can put in in the gym is crucial,” Tokoto, who has been training at IMG Academy, told the Observer. “That was one of the main elements in my decision: The time-management element. Getting into the gym and not worrying about getting enough sleep to be up for class the next morning.”
Among the early entrants are Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, the potential No. 1 selection, and Justise Winslow, who like Okafor is projected as a lottery pick. Yet for every player like Okafor, who is assured of being picked highly, there are more – like Tokoto and Lacey – whose status is far less certain.
The number of underclassmen who declared for this draft nearly set a record.
Only the 2010 draft, when 50 left early, included more. Fifteen went undrafted. The record for undrafted draft-eligible underclassmen, according to data stored on realgm.com, which tracks early entries, is 18. That’s happened three times, most recently in 2012. That’s also the last time 48 underclassmen declared.
That college players are leaving school early in large numbers is nothing new. Perhaps never before, though, has college basketball appeared so expendable to players with such marginal draft prospects.
Two years ago, for instance, N.C. State’s Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie left school after their junior season knowing they faced long odds to be drafted at all, much less in the first round. The first round came and went, as expected, without either player taken.
Finally, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected Brown late in the second round. Leslie, once considered among the best high school recruits, wasn’t drafted at all, and he spent the 2013-14 season playing in the NBA-Developmental League.
The cases of Brown and Leslie illustrate the risk involved, and the potential reward, for players on the margin. Leslie’s story has provided a cautionary tale of a player who left school early and, at least to this point, has failed to overcome the reasons he went undrafted.
Brown’s story, meanwhile, provides hope for players like him who enter the draft without the comfort that a large contract awaits. He didn’t make the Timberwolves’ roster but the Philadelphia 76ers signed him as a free agent and assigned him to its Developmental League team. Brown spent parts of 2014 flipping between the D-League and the 76ers, and played in 26 NBA games.
Earlier this year, he signed two 10-day contracts with the Timberwolves, who then signed Brown for good to a contract that paid him $280,000, according to basketball-reference.com. If he sticks with the team next season, Brown would earn a little less than $950,000.
The value of staying
Regardless of what Brown and Leslie earn during the rest of their careers, they lost something, too, when they left school early. Maybe it was the chance to be a part of an N.C. State team that could have been among the ACC’s best their senior season. Maybe it was the chance to improve their draft stock.
More than 20 years after he last played a college game, Montross spoke recently of the invaluable experience of staying four years. So did Duke’s Grant Hill. Both players came from affluent, financially secure backgrounds, yet both believe they maximized their careers by staying in school.
“I’m glad I played when I played,” Hill said during a recent interview.
A four-year player at Duke, Hill was a sophomore when the Blue Devils in 1992 won the second of their consecutive national championships. In the college basketball of today, those Duke teams – led by veterans Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley – likely never would have taken form.
Would a player of Laettner’s caliber today have remained in school for four years? He and Hurley might have been gone by the time Hill arrived. Hill might have played one season before deciding, like Okafor, Winslow and Tyus Jones did in April after leading Duke to its fifth national championship, to move on.
“I would have missed out on those experiences and the relationships and the team,” Hill said. “And then the opportunity to play for coach (Mike Krzyzewski).”
Like a lot of players today, Hill’s talent was never in question. Unlike a lot of players today, though, Hill had a chance – like Montross did during the same time at UNC – to develop from a heralded recruit to a trusted leader.
Hill said his senior season at Duke – which ended with a loss against Arkansas in the national championship game – “best prepared” him for the NBA. It’s an experience that many players today – the vast majority of them – never have before leaving school early.
“Being that guy, the responsibility of everything on my shoulders, the best player, the leader, the bond with Coach K – that more than anything really helped differentiate me and prepare me as I entered the league to jump in and be ready to play right away at a high level,” Hill said.
1995 helped shift draft
Hill and Montross shared that same 1994 draft class, the one that included 20 early entrants – a climbing number given that nine players, including Michael Jordan, left school early to enter the 1984 draft. After their rookie seasons in the NBA everything changed in 1995.
That’s when Kevin Garnett entered the draft out of high school and, the next year, 29 underclassmen – and a high schooler named Kobe Bryant – declared for the 1996 NBA draft. If there was a turning point in draft history, a point when staying in school no longer became as attractive or necessary as it once was, it was then during the mid-1990s.
Another turning point came after the 2005 draft, the last when high school players were eligible to enter. Montross, an eight-year NBA veteran who is now the UNC basketball radio analyst, is one of many who’d like to see the NBA revert to its old rule and allow high school players in the draft.
He favors a model, similar to the one used in college baseball, in which players would commit to remaining in school a certain length of time. Division I college baseball players, some of whom who were drafted out of high school, don’t become draft eligible until after their third season.
“I can never second-guess that as an outsider, as to which decisions are right or wrong,” Montross said. “But I think a lot of times what these kids don’t think about and what their parents don’t think about when they put pressure on these kids to go is that the NBA, if entered into at the right time, can be a 15-, 17-year job.
“And if you come in underdeveloped, then your life span in the NBA is more like three to five years.”
Montross came along just before it but insisted he’d follow the same path today. A large number of other players are following their own, hoping it pays off. Tokoto, the UNC wing forward, is among them.
He left school believing he’d developed as much as he could at UNC. The chance of playing on a team that could potentially compete for a national title didn’t outweigh his perceived benefits of leaving.
“I had to do something about my jump shot,” Tokoto told the Charlotte Observer recently at the NBA Draft Combine. “I didn’t want to worry about school, just worry about basketball.”
It’s a gamble, but one Tokoto is comfortable taking. He could find his way onto an NBA roster, which would provide financial security, or he could make his way overseas, where players in some European leagues start with six-figure contracts.
Tokoto could become a cautionary tale, too. A number of players who left early likely will. During the past five NBA drafts, 79 underclassmen went undrafted. Some wound up in the NBA, anyway, but the great majority were forced down another path.
Staff writer Laura Keeley contributed to this report.