Sport Stay or go? Inside a college prospect's decision to enter the NBA draft

00:25  20 june  2017
00:25  20 june  2017 Source:   USA TODAY

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Stay or go ? Inside a college prospect ' s decision to enter the NBA draft . Scott Gleeson , USA TODAY Sports Published 3:35 p.m. ET June 19, 2017 | Updated 15 minutes ago.

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California Golden Bears forward Ivan Rabb controls the ball against the Arizona State Sun Devils.© Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports California Golden Bears forward Ivan Rabb controls the ball against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

Stay or go?

Ivan Rabb chose to stay — in college, that is — in spite of being a projected lottery pick in last summer’s not-so-talented NBA draft. The 6-10 Cal forward was undoubtedly the most NBA-ready player to delay his professional career, while his former teammate, Jaylen Brown, bolted to the league to become a top-three pick. Having waited, Rabb now barely projects as a first-round pick in what draft analyst Jay Bilas calls the “most freshmen-loaded class ever.” As a result, he will likely lose millions of dollars.

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But in a one-and-done age, Rabb sees the long-term payoff superseding the short-term paycut in staying at Cal for his sophomore year.

“I thought I needed it, I thought it was very mature for me to go back,” Rabb said at the NBA draft combine in Chicago, noting that his tenacity on the glass and ability to stretch the floor can translate right away in the league. “The plan is to stick in the league for a long time, not get there as soon as possible. So I feel like I made the best decision for me. I got better.

“Staying in school, I changed my mentality a lot. I got way more mature off the court in terms of dealing with situations — learning to say no, knowing how to work hard. Now, I’m on a whole other level.”

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 09: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks sets up a play against the Arizona State Sun Devils during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament at T-Mobile Arena on March 9, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.© Ethan Miller/Getty Images LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 09: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks sets up a play against the Arizona State Sun Devils during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament at T-Mobile Arena on March 9, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, who returned to Eugene after a breakout All-American campaign as a sophomore, similarly saw his stock fall over the past year despite spearheading Oregon to its first Final Four since 1939 in 2017 as an encore from the Ducks’ Elite Eight finish in 2016.

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“It’s just more fuel to the fire,” said Brooks, a projected late second-round pick, about criticism of some of his shortcomings in a more loaded draft class. “I say to myself all the time: There are guys who are more athletic, longer, taller. I just try to find a way to be the best. A lot of these guys are on the East Coast, and we don’t get a lot of national attention at Oregon, so I think going to the Final Four, two Elite Eights, shows something.”

Rabb and Brooks are not alone in making the difficult decision of staying in school. College coaches will point to a player like the Sacramento Kings’ Buddy Hield, who decided to stay for his final year of college eligibility at Oklahoma and turned it into a national player of the year and Final Four season before getting drafted sixth overall in 2016’s draft. He averaged 10.6 points a game as a rookie for the Kings and New Orleans Pelicans in 2016-17.

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Neither Jaylen Brown nor Ivan Rabb have declared for the NBA Draft . Will they stay , or will they go ? There are three college freshmen expected to be taken in the NBA Draft Lottery – the top 14 But, given how thoughtful each of these young men are – they both reached their decisions to attend

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Nigel Williams-Goss (5) controls the ball against North Carolina Tar Heels forward Justin Jackson (44) in the first half in the championship game of the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four at University of Phoenix Stadium.© Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Nigel Williams-Goss (5) controls the ball against North Carolina Tar Heels forward Justin Jackson (44) in the first half in the championship game of the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four at University of Phoenix Stadium.

For an All-American  like Justin Jackson of North Carolina, though, winning a national championship made his next move come natural in bypassing his senior year.

Jackson, a projected top-20 pick who benefited from the exposure of back-to-back Final Fours as a sophomore and then junior, said of his draft mentality: “Whoever decides to take a chance on me, I will try to not make them look like a fool.”

A lot of borderline NBA players realize that visibility is a crucial element in reaching their childhood dreams. That’s partly why Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss, coming off a national title game appearance, opted to leave after his junior year instead of going back to Spokane. Williams-Goss, who transferred from Washington to Gonzaga to be on a winning program and is the same age (22) as most four-year players, was an All-American in 2016-17 but could very well go undrafted — not showing up on many mock draft boards heading into Thursday.

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“Not too many people can say they played in the national championship game,” said Williams-Goss, making the point that it will be fresh in scouts’ heads. “College is a high level, and now we’re stepping it up. The pros are the best in the world. That’s why I think it’s so important to be mentally and physically ready because these are grown men we’ll be playing against.”

But Villanova guard Josh Hart didn’t ride the exposure wave like Jackson or Williams-Goss, deciding to come back as a senior despite reaching the ultimate goal of winning a national championship in 2016; Nova got bounced in the second round of 2017’s NCAAs. In Hart’s opinion, staying in school was bigger than basketball.

“Last year, I was still immature on and off the court,” said Hart, a projected second-rounder, who enhanced his stock by bettering his overall game with more responsibility in his senior year. “I felt like I needed to go back and focus on becoming a man.”

Yet it’s not just about life maturity and developing as a player as reasons to hold off on a paycheck. What about the college glory? The Charlotte Hornets’ Frank Kaminsky, who had just led Wisconsin to an unexpected Final Four run in 2014, famously said the NBA looked “flat out boring” compared to being a star on campus at Wisconsin — where Kaminsky went on to lead the Badgers to another Final Four and national runner-up finish.

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What made you decide to enter the 2016 NBA Draft ? How much of a role did those play in your decision to enter the draft ? If I went to college I could not see myself not taking my academics seriously. I would want to take serious classes and do well in them.

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Bilas is quick to note it’s not always a success story for those who stay, and  it’s extremely difficult to turn money down for players who aren’t as interested in getting their college degree and are more focused on supporting their family. Bilas said the NBA draft continues to get “younger and younger” and credited that trend, partially, to the rookie wages scale. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, rookie contracts are set to increase by 45% over the next three years.

“I don’t know that it’s ever been the best college players turning into the best pro players,” Bilas said. “But it used to be that if you were an All-American in college, you could (parlay) that into NBA (contracts). A lot more would shake out and (carry over) with older players in the draft.”

While recognizing draft picks are largely based on potential, former South Carolina standout Sindarius Thornwell, the face of this year’s surprise Final Four squad, felt a college resume with four years of experience should speak for something in terms of giving an NBA team an immediate boost by taking on a humble demeanor with a proven track record.

“You have rookies, freshmen, 18-year olds in the draft who never scored 18 points in a game. They probably average 10 points, and they go top five,” said Thornwell, a projected early second-round pick. “I think defense gives me an advantage in this draft. Guys come in thinking they’re about to be the man in the NBA. Every team already has that guy. I think being in a defensive culture (at South Carolina), it’s helped (position) me to be a glue guy to give a break to the starters and stars.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.

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