- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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With the end of UCLA’s basketball season Saturday, Ben Howland’s role switched from coach to adviser.
Howland said that over the next week to 10 days he would meet individually with any of his players who are considering entering this year's NBA draft to discuss the pros and cons of leaving school early.
UCLA has no seniors, but junior guard Malcolm Lee, sophomore forwards Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson and freshman center Joshua Smith are all considered pro prospects.
Players have until April 24 to declare they are entering the draft and can then withdraw on or before May 8 and maintain their college eligibility, so long as they have not hired an agent.
Smith, who is still working on his conditioning, and Nelson, whose brother, Raymond, will be a freshman tight end for the UCLA football team next season, both hinted last week that they would be back next season.
Lee’s Tuesday knee surgery figures to set him back a bit in preparing for NBA workouts and the draft combine, so that leaves Honeycutt, who said he would talk it over with his family and others close to him this week, as the most likely to leave.
ESPN.com's Chad Ford has Honeycutt projected to go in "late first to early second round," should he decide to come out. Ford has Lee and Smith both projected as "second round to undrafted." Howland said any player that is projected to go among the first 15 picks would have his blessing.
“I’m going to do some more research and we’ll go through the whole process,” Howland said. “If anybody in this program is projected to be in the lottery, then, yeah, they would have my blessing.”
Howland said the most important factor in deciding whether to enter the draft of stay in school is figuring out if each player has the tools to stick with an NBA team long enough to make a decent career out of it.
“The whole point is when you go, you want to be prepared to stay,” Howland said. “It’s not just about getting there, it’s about staying there.”
Howland cited former USC guard Gabe Pruitt as an example of a mid-draft selection who probably should have come back and improved his draft status. Pruitt was selected by the Boston Celtics with the 32nd overall pick in the 2007 draft, played sparingly for two seasons and was waived prior to the 2009-10 season.
He is now playing in Israel.
“That was a huge mistake that he didn’t come back for his next year,” Howland said. “He would have definitely been way higher in the draft than the first pick in the second round.”
Howland’s conversations with the players considering leaving UCLA this year will certainly focus on the projected draft position of each player. The earlier a player is drafted, the bigger the contract tends to be, which means a bigger commitment from the drafting team.
“I’ve done all the research,” Howland said. “If you go look at all the guys who get picked between 25-31 and where they are five years later versus the guys who are on to 15 it’s vastly different when you look at the career paths and the future.
“And I understand that kids want to play in the NBA and that’s always a dream for them and we’ve had a lot of them that have gone on and done well, but you want to be smart about it.”
The potential of an NBA lockout and a lengthy work stoppage next season is also a part of the conversation Howland must have this year. Labor strife, similar to that going on in the NFL right now, is lingering over the league and the draft.
“I have enough contacts and friends in the NBA; This is going to happen,” Howland said. “I can’t speak for what’s going to happen in the NFL, but I can tell you the NBA, in my opinion, there is going to be a serious lockout. They’re all preparing for it. They will not be playing, in my opinion, next December, maybe even January.”
And that makes it even more important for players to make the right decision about leaving school for a potential pro career.
“If you are a guy who is in the 20-30 or late first round/early second round, definitely you want to improve yourself because you’re not even going to get paid next year for half the year.”