Time is right for juniors in NBA

NEW YORK -- There is room in the NBA draft for the college player. And before we get too carried away with a record number of high school players being selected in the first round, take a look at this year's junior class.

On the same night eight high school seniors went in the first round, shattering the previous mark of four in 2001 and '03, a record-tying eight college juniors joined 'em.

Yes, the juniors have figured it out. Get out in three years, with or without a degree. Do that and there's a legit chance a high draft spot, let alone a first-round selection, is still within reach.

Five juniors were selected in the first round of the 2003 and '01 drafts. And like Thursday night, eight went in 2002, the most since seven in '94.

"They draft guys on potential in the NBA and they see a lot of weaknesses in seniors," Wisconsin junior point guard Devin Harris said. "Juniors have experience but they've got room to grow. It's a big jump from your sophomore to your junior year if you do it right."

Harris was the Big Ten player of the year. He had led the Badgers to back-to-back Big Ten titles as a freshman and sophomore. But he was told if he came out after his junior season then he could be a lottery pick.

Still, Harris anguished about leaving. He knew that if he returned to Wisconsin he could have been the national player of the year. He might have led the Badgers to the Final Four. He probably would have had his jersey retired at the Kohl Center.

In the end, however, Harris left short of accomplishing all of his goals in college ... but early enough to tantalize NBA teams to take him high. Harris went No. 5 to Washington and was later dealt to Dallas.

Of the top five picks, three were juniors and the other two high school seniors. Dwight Howard went from an Atlanta high school to the No. 1 overall selection. The next two picks -- juniors Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon -- won a national title at Connecticut and then left for the league.

Okafor got his degree in three seasons, the same way Duke's Jay Williams did after he declared for the NBA following the 2002 season. Like Okafor and Gordon, Williams and junior teammate Mike Dunleavy went 2-3 in the draft.

"Somehow we mustered up a championship and now we came out a pair," Okafor said. "It's almost like a book, but it's an open-ended book. Still more to write."

Okafor and Gordon were freshmen roommates, prompting Okafor to say, "Wow, two knuckleheads put in a room together." That led to a lot of good times on the court. Gordon almost copied Okafor's statement when he met with the news media.

"This is the greatest feeling in the world right now," Gordon said. "Just the way it's happening, it's almost like a fairy tale or something like that. Two guys who came in the same year, won a championship together and then you go 2 and 3 in the draft."

Harris could have pulled a Jameer Nelson: return to school and try to win a title. He could have won all of the national honors and team awards. But it would have been hard for Harris to go any higher in the draft. Sure, he might have climbed a spot or two, but he wouldn't have been in the top two in 2005.

Nelson had to come back to Saint Joseph's for his senior season because he wasn't going to be in the first round in 2003.

"The more years you stay in school, the more opportunity the NBA people have to pick you apart," said Stanford junior Childress, who went behind Harris at No. 6 to Atlanta as the fourth junior taken in the first round. "At the same time, it pays to go to school to develop and get mature."

Like Harris, Childress had to go. The Cardinal won 26 straight games before losing to Washington in the season finale. The Cardinal wasn't going to be as good next season and coach Mike Montgomery left to join the Golden State Warriors. The timing was right for Childress to bolt.

"The freshman and sophomore year are more of a learning year," Childress said. "That's when you are kind of getting your feet wet and you are getting ready to embark on a whole new journey. Junior year is where you really break out, and I think that over these past few years, guys have really broken out their junior year. What's funny is a lot of times now if a guy is a senior, league officials and GMs look at him like he's an old man."

Nevada junior Kirk Snyder left after leading the Wolf Pack to the Sweet 16. Nevada coach Trent Johnson left to replace Montgomery after Snyder had already made up his mind to leave after the Wolf Pack were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. In hindsight, Snyder made the right call. He might not have gone any higher in 2005 than No. 16 (to Utah).

Junior guard Delonte West was criticized for leaving the Hawks, including by ESPN.com. But West ended up making a sound decision when he was drafted by Boston at No. 24. West didn't have a guarantee that he would go in the first round after he left the Chicago pre-draft camp. He agonized over the decision, but opted to leave the same year as Nelson.

There was no way for West to duplicate this past season when he and Nelson were the best backcourt in the country and came within one shot of the Final Four after they lost to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight.

West had the last laugh when he went to the Celtics.

"Delonte was shook up," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "I'm happy for him. The NBA guys must know more about basketball and potential than I can ever imagine by all the young guys taken."

Western Carolina guard Kevin Martin and Colorado center David Harrison were questionable additions to the official early-entry list when they decided against withdrawing their names from the draft. Harrison signed with an agent early in the process, making his decision moot.

But Martin went No. 26 to Sacramento and Harrison went No. 29 to Indiana with the last pick in the first round. Both juniors got guaranteed money by going in the first round. They might not have been in Round 1 had they stayed for their senior season.

The old four-year parameters for American players before playing in the NBA now goes from high school senior to college junior.

As for the college seniors? Well, only four found their way into the first round. Yes, the demographic for the draft just shrunk by a year.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.