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Why You Shouldn't Freak Out About NBA Draft Projections

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At the end of the day, the NBA cares far more about whether you can play basketball than it does about when you were drafted.

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Christian D'Andrea has been keeping us up to date about NBA Draft projections for Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones.  Today's update from NBAdraft.net has Baldwin going 35th and Jones going 26th, for what it's worth.

Both former Commodores are projected to be late first-round or early second-round picks, depending on the source.  If either of them is drafted in the second round, there will be the usual gnashing of teeth about how they made a bad decision by leaving early and should have returned to school, because reasons.  Granted, a lot of this is motivated by simply being fans of the Vanderbilt Commodores and preferring that the 2016-17 edition of the team had those two players on it rather than not on it, which, well, fair play.  But to the points about them potentially having made a bad decision, two things:

1.  Nobody is projecting that either player will go undrafted, and

2.  The distinction between being a late first-round pick and being an early second-round pick is smaller than you think.

In other words, yes, there has been some difference between being taken with the last pick of the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft (Festus Ezeli) and being the first pick of the second round in the same draft (Jeffery Taylor.)  Specifically, per basketball-reference.com, that difference amounted to around $1 million over their first three years in the league, which are the three years that are guaranteed for a first-round pick, with the fourth year being a team option (one that's almost always exercised unless you've literally played your way out of the league in your first three years, but still.)  The fact that Ezeli's contract was guaranteed and Taylor's wasn't would have made a difference if Taylor had failed to make an NBA roster... except that he did.

More to the point, Festus Ezeli made about $600,000 more in his first three years in the league than did his teammate drafted five picks later (Draymond Green).  Draymond Green signed an $82 million contract last summer.  Literally nobody cares that Green was a second-round pick.  The cardinal rule of the NBA is that if you can play basketball, you will get paid.  It may not necessarily be on your rookie contract, which is dictated entirely by when you were selected in the draft, but then rookie contracts are nothing compared to free-agent deals or contract extensions that players can sign after their rookie contract is over.  In fact, for guys who can play, getting drafted in the second round (rather than the late first round) removes the team option for the fourth year.  Ezeli is still on his rookie deal in his fourth year in the league; Green became a restricted free agent after his third year.

Which doesn't mean that going in the first round is completely overrated.  There are some players for whom the distinction matters.  It matters for a player like Fab Melo, who got paid several million dollars simply because he got drafted in the first round, which is several million dollars more than he would have gotten had he been drafted in the second round.  But that distinction is entirely related to Fab Melo not being very good at basketball.  While some people may think either Baldwin or Jones (or both) will get drafted in the second round, I haven't seen anybody arguing that either player will fail to make an NBA roster.  It's certainly possible simply because either one of them could get caught up in a roster crunch (or because of some unforeseen off-the-court issue), but on the merits both of them should be playing in the NBA next year.

And neither player was likely to improve his draft stock much by returning to school.  Aside from the 2017 NBA Draft reportedly being much deeper than the 2016 draft, the NBA drafts on potential -- and what more was either player going to show in another year of college?  If a prospect who's already NBA-ready comes back to college for another year and dominates, well, that was simply what you expected.  From an NBA perspective, it doesn't change your perspective that much.  And if he doesn't dominate?  His stock is probably going to drop, because while you can still dream on potential to some degree, the longer you stay in college without hitting that potential, the more NBA teams think you're never going to hit it.  Baldwin did, in fact, improve his draft stock by returning for his sophomore year by showing NBA teams that he was more than just a guy with elite measureables.  Jones, though, may have actually hurt his draft stock by returning for his junior year -- and he certainly didn't want to risk hurting it again by being "merely" good in his senior year.  Even if you do think that getting drafted in the first round is important, if either player gets drafted in the second round, then the decision was simply a matter of when they wanted to be a second-round pick.

As for that vaunted Vanderbilt degree?  They can finish it later if they want.  But unlike finishing a college degree, there's a finite amount of time in which a player can have a professional basketball career.  In that context, delaying their professional career by a year or two in pursuit of a college degree means sacrificing a year or two of income -- in exchange for finishing a degree, something they could have done after their professional career was over either way (or, hell, while their professional career is going on.)

So how exactly is either player making a bad decision here?  In both cases, there was almost nothing they could have gained by returning to school.