Decisions, decisions. The official NCAA draft deadline is just so NCAA, isn't it?
Two years ago, when the organization made its NBA draft withdrawal deadline almost comically early, it did so to appease coaches who proposed they shouldn't have to spend the spring signing period wondering whether their former star player was going to be former or not. They wanted to know right away.
So the NCAA moved its deadline up to abut the spring signing period, and prospects who used to have months to gather as much information as possible in advance of their life-changing professional decisions could just, you know, suck it up.
The only problem? The NCAA's early entry deadline means nothing. Instead of declaring for the draft and then withdrawing in a week's time, many prospects have essentially ignored the NCAA deadline altogether, staying quiet until the NBA's declaration deadline -- the one that matters, on April 28 -- forces their hands. Their ability to officially gather information (from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, most notably) is lessened, but they do get a bit more time to mull their personal stakes, stare at Internet draft boards, see what their coach is hearing and, sure, work a few back channels, too.
This is still far from an ideal situation, decisions-efficacy-wise, but even so it is comedically gratifying to see the NCAA make a new rule -- which a sizable number of players actively ignore -- for the benefit of the only millionaires in college sports (coaches).
Anyway, the point of that schadenfreude-filled preamble is this: Despite the immediate wave of draft decisions in recent weeks (the most recent being Russ Smith's return to Louisville), there remains a swath of undergrads who haven't yet announced their professional intentions (or lack thereof), many of whom could have a profound impact on their team's success (or lack thereof) in 2013-14.
They've been laying back in the cut, weighing those proverbial options, preparing to make an announcement one way or another in the coming days. Here's a look at what each decision could mean for the teams involved, listed alphabetically.
Isaiah Austin, Baylor (Fr., PF, 7-1, 220)
As you can see, Austin is listed as a power forward, which might be the biggest misnomer in positional naming of all time; Austin's gifts have very little to do with power, that's for sure. But he is clearly gifted, a Gumby-esque 7-footer with legitimate guard skills -- he went 30-for-90 from beyond the arc last season -- who also rebounded well and recorded 5.4 blocks for every 100 possessions. He played hard (which was an unfair question mark, given the history of his Immediate Forbear in Perimeter Lank, Perry Jones III). He had a solid freshman year. Pro scouts should be interested.
Still, because Austin was so physically slight, NBA types are only moderately convinced of his upside -- Austin grades as a low first-rounder at this point. Perhaps the NBA has officially fallen out of love with skinny dudes who can dribble -- and it's hard not to wonder how much more Austin can get out of his game by staying for a second season in Waco. If he does, and fellow forward Cory Jefferson (two spots lower on this list) also returns, Scott Drew could have one of the nation's best frontcourts.
C.J. Fair, Syracuse (Jr., F, 6-8, 215)
The makers of over-the-counter acid reflux medicine should send a check to Fair, because the heartburn levels in upstate New York must have skyrocketed in the past couple of weeks. No player in this group has waffled -- or seemed to waffle, according to a steady stream of chatter -- than Fair.
The good news for those Syracuse fans afflicted is that if Fair does leave, the Orange will still be the Orange, which means they'll still be coached by Jim Boeheim, which means they'll still have a hearty group of versatile forwards -- Baye Keita, DaJuan Coleman, Rakeem Christmas, as well as freshman Tyler Roberson -- to throw at the vacancy. Fair's ability to catch-and-shoot and drive at the rim from the midrange, baseline corner and wings would be missed, no doubt, but let's be real: Syracuse will be fine either way. (Editor's Note: Several hours after this story was published, Fair announced he would be returning to Syracuse for his senior season.)
Cory Jefferson, Baylor (Jr., PF, 6-9, 230)
Austin, listed above, is by far the sexier (sorry) potential draftee, because he's the player targeted since adolescence as not only preternaturally tall but coordinated and skilled, a combination of traits with which you could lure NBA scouts into the most rudimentary of Elmer Fudd's traps. (You could even put a "Salad" sign on the front; they'd still go in.) But Jefferson had by far the better season in 2012-13.
He finished with a 128.1 offensive rating (among the top 15 in the country) as well as sterling shooting numbers (61.5 effective field goal percentage, 61.8 percent 2-pointers), good work on the glass and a higher block rate than Austin. He also got to the line often and very rarely turned the ball over. And it's not like he's a conventional big; Jefferson is 6-9 but can handle and moves really well.
This combination of traits would be useful on any team, obviously, and while it may not set NBA folks' smartphones ablaze with exclamation points, it would certainly make Baylor a far more intriguing team in 2013-14 were he to return. Not to cry wolf, but with Austin and Jefferson, the Bears are at least in the discussion -- the discussion, that's it -- for Big 12 title contention.
Shane Larkin, Miami (So., PG, 6-0, 180)
I presume there is precisely one thing Shane Larkin, Miami Hurricanes point guard and the son of MLB Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, shares with most of Stillwater, Okla.: A deep, abiding love of Marcus Smart. Other than Cowboys fans, Travis Ford and possibly Trey Burke, no one stands to gain more from the freshman of the year/surefire top-five pick's decision to remain in school for another season. Smart's call made Larkin the third-ranked point guard on Chad Ford's board behind Burke and Michael Carter-Williams, and while he's a first-rounder right now, any team in desperate need of a point could draft him earlier based on sheer scarcity. Ka-ching.
Of course, Larkin has to actually decide to go, and while the chatter indicates he's likely to do so, it's not an easy decision: How much could he gain from returning to school without many of his now-graduated running mates? Would a starring role help or hurt his stock? In Miami's case, keeping Larkin would be a huge boon; the Hurricanes are already losing seniors Reggie Johnson, Durand Scott, Kenny Kadji, Julian Gamble and Trey McKinney Jones, otherwise known as "their entire team." One thing to watch here: Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez is reportedly in talks with Miami to be his transfer destination. If he seeks a hardship waiver from the NCAA and can play right away, that helps. Otherwise ... yeah. Ouch.
Ray McCallum, Detroit (Jr., G, 6-3, 190)
McCallum was by far the most important player on his team in 2011-12 and again in 2012-13, even if Doug Anderson's face-melting dunks tended to grab most of the highlights. McCallum ran the point effectively, turned the ball over rarely, got to the rim with relative ease, picked up steals and finished with a 118.1 offensive rating in 91.5 percent of his team's available minutes. The Titans were outstanding on offense as a result. (Had they not been so ineffective defensively, well, look out.) If that was Little Ray's final season playing for his father, Ray Sr., it was a good way to go out.
But will he leave? McCallum's size at the position is fine, but his struggles shooting from the perimeter could keep him from being a first-round pick. If he does leave, Detroit is bound to take a step back. That would leave McCallum Sr. without his top four contributors -- Anderson, guard Jason Calliste and forward Nick Minnerath were all seniors -- with just one starter (Juwan Howard Jr.) remaining. Does Ray Jr. leave his dad hanging in pursuit of his NBA dream? Or does he return and hope his senior campaign propels him into the first round?
Doug McDermott, Creighton (Jr., PF, 6-8, 225)
Rather than spend time pointing out the startling similarities between the McCallums at Detroit and the McDermotts at Creighton -- even down to the surname prefix! -- can we talk about the offensive season Doug McDermott had as a junior? The Iowa native posted the 15th-highest usage and 12th-highest shot rates in the country in 2012-13, which is the kind of frequency that is supposed to make you less efficient as a scorer. But McDermott still shot 57.3 percent from 2, 49 percent from 3 and 87.5 percent from the line, where he made frequent stops thanks to his ability to draw fouls (6.4 for every 40 minutes, to be exact). The dude's a scoring savant. Like all savants, it was a thrill just to watch him work. I'll admit my greed: I want to watch him play in the Big East.
I imagine his father, though he would probably never say it publicly or even at the dinner table, has to agree. Greg McDermott's program is indeed making the jump to the Phoenix Big East, borne from the ashes of conference realignment and the Catholic 7. Needless to say, that will be much tougher than the Missouri Valley Conference, and especially so without senior point Grant Gibbs (whose intuitive passing to McDermott was a major part of Creighton's beauty) and center Gregory Echenique. Creighton has some guys they could put around McDermott if he stayed -- in particular, sharpshooting Ethan Wragge looks ready to take on a larger role -- but if it's possible for opposing defenses to pay even more attention to McDermott, they will next season.
It's a hard call for him professionally and personally, because he's far from a first-round guarantee. Would that change by next summer? What's the cost-benefit? Whatever he decides, no one player will have a more outsized impact on his team's -- or his father's -- fate in 2013-14.
Shabazz Napier, UConn (Jr., PG, 6-1, 171)
It's been a lot of fun to watch Napier grow up. He was never a bad kid, but it was almost sad to watch him try to lead UConn's apathetic post-Kemba Walker group to a middling season, during which he publicly expressed his frustration that his teammates didn't see him, or treat him, like a leader. That is no longer the case. Napier not only developed into a great locker room guy in his third season (and first under new coach Kevin Ollie), he had his best all-around season. Unfortunately, thanks to NCAA Academic Progress Rate penalties assessed last year, UConn wasn't eligible for the NCAA tournament.
They will be eligible in 2013-14. Napier has to do what's best for him, no doubt, but it would be a bit of a surprise to see him not want to come back and make one final run with a still-growing group that would have gone to the tournament this season if eligible -- particularly since he's not considered a first-round pick at this point. And really, if you're training to be a long-shot NBA point guard with a long career, who better to apprentice with than Ollie?
Adreian Payne, Michigan State (Jr., PF, 6-10, 230)
Payne has always had talent, but it was obvious talent: The dude combined length and leaping to complete some of the freakier things you'll see on a college basketball court at both ends of the floor. He was raw, but boy could he go. In his junior year, Payne suddenly flashed talent we didn't know he had, including better ballhandling and movement and -- wait for it -- an outside shot. Yes, an outside shot. (Ask Indiana fans, who were the first to really feel Payne's rush of perimeter confidence in a Big Ten game this past season, how they felt about it. The Hoosiers won the game, but IU fans experienced at least a few of the classic stages of grief. No way he just made that! OK, so he can shoot a bit, but this has to stop soon.) That addition has made Payne even more desirable to NBA folks, for good reason.
With so many talented small forwards and "stretch" 4s coming into the college game in 2013-14 (and thus the draft next summer), it may be wise for Payne to cash in now. If he does, Michigan State will still be OK. Shooting guard Gary Harris will be back for his sophomore year and looks every bit an All-American candidate; he'll star alongside senior point guard Keith Appling, junior forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine. Freshman forward Matt Costello should be able to pick up some minutes on the low block. But if Payne returns, not only should he have a featured role (senior forward Derrick Nix is gone), but he could elevate Michigan State from "surely good" to "legitimate national title contender." There's a big difference.
Andre Roberson, Colorado (Jr., PF, 6-7, 210)
Roberson didn't break out as expected in 2012-13; indeed, he regressed. He was still a top-10 defensive rebounder, and good enough on the offensive glass, but neither of his rebounding rates matched his excellent sophomore season, and his block rate and overall offensive rates both disconcertingly dipped. Some of that may be due to solid work from freshman forward Josh Scott, but it doesn't explain the all-around worse offense.
He may be in a position similar to Payne's, and that of some of the other forwards still considering the plunge, in that next year's draft appears much more loaded. But of all the forwards, Roberson might really need another year to prove he can match his past efforts. If he does so, he'll rejoin a Buffaloes lineup that should return all five starters and will be a key interior peg alongside the excellent guard combo of Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker.
Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee (So., PF, 6-7, 215)
A raw quantity of returning players does not guarantee any measure of success; we see this popular axiom rebuffed each and every year. (See: Vanderbilt 2011-12, Saint Joe's 2012-13 and many others.) Even so, what Tennessee could bring back next year -- alongside Cuonzo Martin's first "marquee" recruiting class in three years at the school -- is mighty tantalizing. Will Stokes stay?
It is easy to assume so, since he didn't take the world by storm as a sophomore and isn't considered a first-round pick at this point, but Stokes has yet to announce his return to the Vols for his junior season. The good news for his draft stock is that he was yet again one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and no ability translates to the pro game so seamlessly. If Stokes leaves, the good news for Tennessee is that injured forward Jeronne Maymon will return. But Stokes still has a long way to go to prove he's worth a first-round pick.