Commentary

Coaches, fans hold their breath as more players flirt with NBA

Originally Published: April 30, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Scottie Reynolds wanted out of Oklahoma and in to Villanova.

It was May 2006, and the McDonald's All-American had decided that without Kelvin Sampson as coach, he wasn't much interested in a four-year career in Norman.

So he and his high school coach scoured the country, looking for a place that appealed to Reynolds' playing style and his newfound interest in staying closer to his Virginia home.

They landed on Villanova.

Bad things happen and will happen. ... They're not looking for advice. They're looking for confirmation.

--NBA scout

For coach Jay Wright, it was like his birthday and Christmas all wrapped up in one. All-American point guards don't just drop on your doorstep four months before their freshman year asking whether it would be OK if they came to play.

There was just one hitch. Wright didn't have a scholarship for Reynolds, or more accurately, he wasn't sure he would. Sophomore Kyle Lowry had just decided to test the NBA draft waters.

Thus began a six-week tap dance that ended perfectly for the Wildcats. Lowry was the 24th pick in the NBA draft, and Reynolds slid into Lowry's scholarship and starting role.

The few months in between were strange, even tense.

"We were fortunate that Kyle was very honest with us, but at the same time Scottie was visiting other schools," Wright said. "We had some guys who were considering transferring, but at the time, we didn't know if they would for sure or not. So you are counting players to an extent."

[+] EnlargeA.J. Abrams
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonA.J. Abrams would like to show NBA teams he's capable of running the point.
From signing period to recruiting to preseason to in-season to postseason, college basketball can add a new item to its calendar: the holding pattern. For the next six weeks, college coaches will wait to see who is on their roster; players will wait to see whether their NBA future is now or later; and fan bases nationwide will wait in a fever pitch of anxiety to see how decimated their once deep, talented team looks for the 2008-09 season.

This year, 35 underclassmen have decided to test the waters (an apt phrase if ever there was one, since jumping in with both feet can be lethal, just ask Florida's Matt Walsh or Anthony Roberson), throwing their name into the draft pool without signing with an agent. With the NBA and NCAA this year eliminating the rule that returning players must pay back any costs they accrue during their workouts, there is nothing shy of a stampede with players who make perfect sense (Arizona's Chase Budinger) tossing in their names alongside head-scratchers (BYU's Lee Cummard).

Of the 20 starters in this year's Final Four, only three are locks to return. UCLA's Darren Collison will return to the Bruins, and North Carolina's Marcus Ginyard and, stunningly, national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough will be back at Chapel Hill.

From the national championship game between Memphis and Kansas, every single starter has graduated, has declared or is testing the waters.

It is so en vogue that it's to the point that when juniors don't test the waters -- a la Hansbrough and Pittsburgh's Sam Young -- it's almost more newsworthy than when guys do jump in.

Fraschilla on early entrants

Testing the waters will be a positive experience for some players like A.J. Abrams, Antonio Anderson, Josh Carter and DeMarre Carroll, all of whom should come back to school. Blog Insider

"With the rules the way they are, everybody and their mother can do it," said NBA assistant director of scouting Ryan Blake, adding that with so many players to choose from, whittling down the Orlando pre-draft camp rosters can get more confusing.

Texas junior A.J. Abrams has spent the past two years playing off guard to D.J. Augustin's point. It's been an easy pill to swallow, what with the Longhorns' success, but Abrams considers himself a natural point guard and would like NBA folks to view him that way as well.

That's why Abrams, who hasn't signed with an agent, will work out for NBA teams and likely play in the Orlando pre-draft camp at the end of May.

"Hopefully, I can show them what my true position is and how I play it," Abrams said. "The way I see it, I can go, see where I stand and find out what I need to work on. There's no bad to come out in this."

But is that really the case? Is this flirtation with the NBA a good idea for college players -- or for the college game?

Played the right way, Abrams is right. It can't hurt.

The NBA's undergraduate advisory committee, made up of 10 league general managers, tells a player at the end of his run whether he's a likely first- or second-round pick, making a decision to stay in or head back to college presumably an easy one.

But the catch is not everyone plays it the right way and, like the one-and-done allowance that helps the NBA while turning the college game into baby-sitting, the testing the waters rule works well for the league -- an early look-see at what's available for the future -- but leaves college players potentially in over their heads.

Jameer Nelson
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJameer Nelson flirted with the NBA as a junior, but decided to return to Saint Joe's for his senior season.

There are, after all, plenty of sharks in those waters.

"Bad things happen and will happen," one NBA scout said. "Truthful people will tell them, 'Look, you're a second-rounder or you're undraftable,' and then they call somebody else. They're not looking for advice. They're looking for confirmation."

To navigate the waters, players need good direction and, more important, good ol' common sense. Frankly, neither necessarily abounds in big-time, big-money sports any longer.

Blake points to a quartet of players from 2005 as perfect cautionary tales -- Florida's Walsh and Roberson, Arkansas' Olu Famutimi, and Alabama's Kennedy Winston. All four stayed in the draft, following the advice of people less in the know. Not one was drafted, and none is in the league.

"Things can go to hell in a handbasket; there are plenty of examples of that," Blake said.

But bad advice is only one pothole players need to avoid.

Wright, who went through the process with Lowry after Villanova's run to the Elite Eight skyrocketed the point guard's NBA value, has no qualms about urging players to see what their NBA stock is. But he did caution Lowry not to go through the process unless he was serious. If he was merely putting his name in to see where he stood in comparison with other players, with no designs on being drafted, he was wasting his time and potentially, Wright believed, stagnating his draft stock.

Wright points to Jameer Nelson, the Saint Joseph's point guard who tested the waters as a junior but elected to return for his senior season. In that final year of college, Nelson only led the Hawks to an undefeated regular season, got within a hair's breadth of the Final Four and earned himself national player of the year awards.

But when June came, Nelson was still the 20th pick.

"I think there's a danger that you get labeled; they decide what you are and no matter what you do your senior year, that's who you are," Wright said. "I think it's great that Jameer came back. He became a legend and did something incredible for his school, but no one could have had a better senior year than he did. No one. And I'd bet if he came out his junior year, he would have been around the same pick.

"If you're a freak athlete, then maybe you move up, but I think in the eyes of NBA guys, once they see you, you are what you are."

Of course, the NBA can be wrong. Nelson just led the Magic into the second round of the playoffs and earlier this year inked a five-year, $35 million contract extension.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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