I want the truth!
On Wednesday, we finally received a glimpse into what Wayne Ellington is being told about his draft status. Ellington, who had just completed a workout with New Orleans indicated he had been told by teams that he is anywhere from "on the first round bubble" to as high as the 20th pick overall. I, for one, found this sort of disturbing. Since this process began I have kept a careful eye out for any news on the three Tar Heels so I could post it here on THF. In doing so I have read numerous assessments by experts and also tracked mock drafts to determine if they are in or out. Ellington's name has been notably absent through most of that research and the only bona fide critique we received on him came from Orlando. I assumed that this was a result of his stock being so terribly low, no one was thinking of taking him, therefore no one was talking him up.
Then came the statements from Ellington in New Orleans, which seem to run contrary to the general expert consensus. On one hand, the expert opinions out there are not the end all, be all of this process. These guys have been notably wrong before and it is possible that the information they are getting is simply not as specific as what Ellington is being told. On the other hand what if NBA teams are generally lying about a player's status during individual workout? Given the nature of the NBA beast I do not think it is beyond reason.
Here is the theory. Say you are an NBA GM and you are looking at a player who you think is very good but maybe not a 1st round pick yet. You know it would imprudent to use you first round pick on his when there are better players available but you also know that the player will not stay in the draft unless he thinks he is in the 1st round. As a GM you also consider how things might change in a year and the fact it will be much cheaper(upfront) to grab this player as a 2nd round pick now than wait and take him in the 1st round next season. So you tell the player what he wants to hear, entice him to stay in the draft, then pick him up in the 2nd round where you have the flexibility sign him to whatever contract you like or cut him if it does not work out.
Now, I am probably missing a whole slew of valid points which render this scenario inoperative, however I also think that it is possible and the reason it has become so lies in the fact players are less discriminating about their draft position than past drafts. Commenter McGoody posted a quote from Jay Bilas this morning that fits into this perfectly:
“We have reached a new low in the NBA draft process. Players are now saying that they will stay in the draft if they get a guarantee. … in the second round. Remember the good old days when the Maginot Line was the lottery? Then it became the first round, because each of the thirty players selected received guaranteed money. Now, with no guaranteed money, they are deluding themselves into thinking they’re the next Carlos Boozer, Michael Redd, or Gilbert Arenas — players that were passed over for one reason or another as first rounders and made it big. Of course, there are precious few examples of that, and ten-fold more examples of flameouts. I don’t know where this idea took hold among players, but it is even more evidence that the “test the waters” rule needs to go. The players who have declared are not testing the waters, they are in. And, they are not getting out unless they get kicked out and have no choice but to go back to school. Enough.”
Now, to understand how we got here it is necessary to remember that the whole reason we have an age limit is because NBA GMs got so wrapped up in trying to find the next Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett that they were expending high draft picks on unproven high schoolers. So the NBA decided to force players into a one year tryout in college so GMs would not be as stupid with their picks. It was also designed to spare the soft hearted world sob stories of kids who gambled on getting drafted out of high school and lost thus ruining their lives.
The consequence of the rule and the current draft process is instead of high school grads gambling on the draft you have 19-21 year old kids with a year or two of college under the belt gambling on the draft. And since GMs are making better picks upfront with the year minimum of college aiding their evaluations, they are more than happy to move the risk takers to the back of the line and pick them up at a lower cost. As Bilas points out, the criteria for leaving early has moved from lottery to anywhere in the top 60. It is a perceptible shift. Many players used to stake their draft stock on NBA GMs drafting with potential in mind. The one year in college has eased that mentality and GMs are using actual performance more so than potential. Any player whose performance does not measure up but has potential, such as Ellington, is being shuffled back in the pack. Conventional wisdom says this should be enough to send them back to school but as Bilas points out they believe they can be Gilbert Arenas and find stardom from the 2nd round. Unfortunately, this mentality is merely a repackaging of the "I can be the next Kevin Garnett" mindset that led high schoolers to make ill advised moves into the draft. What is interesting is I think you still have players ruining their careers but since they are not poor high school kids, people seem to care less.
Then again, this is all very new and I do think this process is better than it has been but I wonder if we should simply split the difference by moving this whole business back to post high school but adding a 2-3 year commitment to college. We also do not know to what extent players can succeed by staying in and taking the lower pick. Some of this has to bear out over time. However I still believe that players like Ellington and Green, if they are opting to gamble on their stock, are making a mistake. Unfortunately, some folks need to actually make the mistake to learn something.