The 2020 NBA Draft will certainly go down as the most unique draft in league history. With every fabric of our lives altered in some way by the pandemic, the NBA Draft needed to make accommodations. Slight rule changes had already been made in recent years, leaving the draft on a fairly regular schedule before the pandemic hit:
- 60 Days Before Draft (late April): deadline for early entrants to declare for the upcoming draft (imposed by the NBA)
- Mid-May: NBA Draft Combine
- 10 Days After Combine (late May): deadline for NCAA early entrants to withdraw from the draft and return to school for the upcoming season (imposed by the NCAA)
- 10 Days Before Draft (mid-June): deadline for non-NCAA early entrants to withdraw from the draft and return to their club for the upcoming season (imposed by the NBA)
- Late June: NBA Draft
A point of clarification: players with additional years of draft eligibility remaining – or simply put, players who aren’t yet automatically eligible – have to declare their eligibility for the upcoming draft in order to be selected. Upon doing so, they become early entrants. For NCAA players, that essentially means any player who is at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft and also isn’t yet in his final year of athletic eligibility has to declare for the draft to be classified as an early entrant. Any non-NCAA player who turns 19, 20, or 21 years old during the calendar year of the draft has to declare for the draft to be classified as an early entrant.
With the NBA completely altering their league calendar due to the pandemic, the draft schedule had to be adjusted as well. After months of rumors and debate, here is what the 2020 NBA Draft schedule looks like:
- August 17: deadline for early entrants to declare for the draft
- TBD (maybe September): (virtual) NBA Draft Combine
- August 3: deadline for NCAA early entrants to withdraw from the draft and return to school for the upcoming season
- October 6: deadline for non-NCAA early entrants to withdraw from the draft and return to their club for the upcoming season
- October 16: NBA Draft
If you are confused by this new configuration, you are certainly not alone. Though the NBA and the NCAA are separate entities, they have a symbiotic relationship. The NCAA has, in essence, become the NBA’s unofficial farm system. A major reason for this is the NBA’s “one-and-done rule,” which precludes US players from draft eligibility until they are at least one year removed from the graduation of their high school class and are at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the draft. As a result, the NCAA adjusted their early entrant withdrawal deadline in 2016 to synchronize with the NBA Draft schedule. Since 2016, NCAA early entrants could attend the NBA Combine and then take ten days upon its conclusion to make their decision on whether to stay in the draft or return to school. With all the uncertainty in the sports world this year, the NCAA basically scrapped that policy and announced their withdrawal deadline without catering to the NBA. The NCAA technically kept the deadline at ten days after the NBA Combine, but August 3 became the latest possible date for players to withdraw from the draft and return to school, regardless of the combine’s end date. With no movement on a date for the 2020 NBA Draft Combine at the time of the NCAA’s announcement, August 3 essentially became the new withdrawal deadline.
Two weeks after the NCAA announced the withdrawal date, the NBA released a date of their own, with August 17 serving as the new deadline for early entrants to declare for the draft. This obviously didn’t align with the NCAA’s timeline, as the date to declare for the draft now fell after the date to withdraw from that same draft. That August 3 date has since come and gone. With the slew of problems NCAA football experienced almost immediately after August 3, the upcoming NCAA basketball season now looks significantly less promising. The NBA’s later declaration deadline has created a potential safety net for draft prospects. Any players who announced their decision to return to school could theoretically redeclare for the draft by August 17. In turn, they would automatically lose their eligibility to return to an NCAA program. With the increasing uncertainty for the 2020-21 NCAA season, some players could decide to change course and redeclare for the NBA Draft. While a number of players could go this route in the coming days, let’s take a look at how the NCAA’s August 3 deadline impacted UVA’s 2020 draft prospects – Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key.
Each year, the NCAA-imposed withdrawal deadline sparks a flurry of monumental decisions for early entrants. For the players who have no chance of hearing their name called on draft night, the choice to return to school is an easy one. Others face more difficult decisions. The key decision factor is the guaranteed contract. Any guaranteed NBA contract brings with it life-changing money. Every draft prospect has a set of variables which influences his decision – whether it be family-based, the opportunity to boost his draft stock with another year of college experience, or the threat of losing playing time to an incoming recruit – but the idea of guaranteed money is a key factor for all of them. A general rule of thumb has developed: if a player believes he will receive a guaranteed NBA contract, he ordinarily should enter the draft; if he doesn’t think a guaranteed contract awaits him on draft night, he should return to school. Now, some players in recent years haven’t even worried about a guaranteed contract. They are comfortable with taking the risk to play overseas or in the G League under a contract of less value compared to an NBA one. Some players just want to play professionally and make money. Period. That’s where this year’s draft process has been different from previous ones.
The 2020-21 basketball season is up in the air at all levels. The NCAA seems determined to press forward, but at minimum the likelihood of fans in attendance at any games seems less likely by the day. Various international leagues successfully returned to play in June in bubble-style setups. The NBA has (so far) also successfully implemented their well-publicized bubble. Despite the high praise of the bubble, various reports in recent days indicate that the NBA has a long way to go before determining how to proceed with the 2020-21 season. Considering the lack of positive financial impact, the G League season could be a cost-saving casualty. With every sports club on the planet operating under these turbulent financial times, in addition to the potential for a cancelled 2020-21 G League season, the fallback options for draft prospects are far less promising than in other years. Many prospects on the fence about returning to school or going pro weighed the options of an uncertain NCAA season, or less-prosperous international options and a potentially cancelled G League season.
With the growing uncertainty at all levels of the basketball industry, the consensus is that more players opted to return to school than in a standard draft cycle. Almost every player certain to be drafted chose to remain in the draft, which isn’t always the case, but more than a handful of players who only had a chance of being drafted opted to return to school. The list of key players returning to school includes: Derrick Alston (Boise State), Joel Ayayi (Gonzaga), Jared Butler (Baylor), Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois), Luka Garza (Iowa), Aaron Henry (Michigan State), Isaiah Joe (Arkansas), Corey Kispert (Gonzaga), AJ Lawson (South Carolina), Makur Maker (Howard commit), John Petty (Alabama), Yves Pons (Tennessee), Chris Smith (UCLA), and Trendon Watford (LSU). UVA’s very own Jay Huff, who is returning for his redshirt senior season, is also a member of this list. None of these players were a guaranteed draft selection in October, but some of them had a real chance of hearing their name called late in the second round.
For Diakite and Key, most would assume that the less players in the draft pool, the better their chances of being drafted, or at the very least of being picked up for training camp. However, in the late second round, the likely landing spot for Diakite should he be selected, many NBA teams draft for positional need as opposed to picking the best available player. The players at the top of any draft can change a franchise’s future. Their position is less important because a team will make adjustments around them to maximize their talent. The vast majority of players drafted later, especially in the late second round, are taken to fill a specific role. Teams select these players to fill the gaps around their franchise cornerstones. This makes targeting for a specific positional need advantageous later in the draft than simply selecting whoever is the best player left on your draft board.
For example, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in need of a long-term backup center behind Steven Adams. When they are on the clock for their own second round pick in October, it’s more likely that they will look at their list of best available centers than their complete list of best available players. If the best remaining players on their board are Tyrell Terry and Malachi Flynn, two smaller point guards, they will likely pass on drafting them since they already have Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder. It makes more sense for them to look at the best available centers to potentially fill that backup role.
All of this is to say, that while looking at the total list of players returning to school is useful in deciphering Diakite’s draft chances, it’s better to assess his situation in terms of which centers opted to return to school, as those players would have been his direct competition in the draft. Luka Garza and Makur Maker were the two centers with the best chances of being drafted but instead opted to play at the collegiate level next season. While a potentially valuable offensive piece in the right system, Garza only would have been picked by a team willing to live with his defensive limitations. Despite his high ceiling, Maker only would have been picked by a team willing to spend several years developing him. Diakite, on the other hand, is far more NBA-ready than Maker, and he will bring far greater value on the defensive end than Garza. All three prospects bring different attributes to the table.
In addition to positional needs, teams often look at which prospects fit their skill-based needs and their system of play most cleanly. For example, the Los Angeles Lakers are far more interested in 3-and-D wings compared to ball-dominant scorers because those players better complement LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Extrapolating this concept to Diakite, any team that drafts him is likely targeting an older center ready to make a defensive impact early in his career. While talented in their own way, neither Garza nor Maker fit that bill.
Defensive-minded center prospects, like Nick Richards and Freddie Gillespie, are more direct competition for Diakite in this year’s draft. Any team looking for an older defensive big will surely take a close look at Richards, Gillespie, Diakite, among several others. Seeing as no centers of this type opted to return to school, Diakite’s draft projection wasn’t altered too much by the August 3 withdrawal decisions. Teams will still compare him to the same array of prospects late in the second round. As for Key, his draft trajectory is that of a non-guaranteed roster spot candidate. There are such a large number of low-usage, defensive-focused forward prospects in that category annually, something in-line with what Key’s NBA role would be, that what occurred on August 3 didn’t really impact him either.
With August 3 now in the rearview mirror, some players saw their chances of being selected in the second round rise. A few late first round prospects have instead seen their stock drop slightly as players who were on the fence, like Xavier Tillman, Tyrell Terry, and Robert Woodard, chose to stay in the draft. Luckily, Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key’s draft outlooks didn’t see any negative impact from the withdrawal decisions, but they also didn’t see significant improvement either. A high-level virtual NBA Draft Combine performance could help Diakite, but in all likelihood both his and Key’s draft stocks should remain steady until October 16.
Austin Nelson is the founder of Head2Head Hoops, an NBA draft website whose primary concern focuses on its readers. As a UVA alum and former student manager for the men’s basketball program, he will be bringing UVA-focused NBA coverage, specifically the NBA Draft, to Locker Room Access.