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Pass Or Fail? Grading 24 Underclassmen NBA Draft Decisions

Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker (David Banks/USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA Draft is quickly approaching, and the underclassmen deadline came and went. Before you know it, the likes of Jay Bilas will take over your television preaching his WINGSPAN gospel. The word “potential” will be said more in the next two months than the other ten combined. At the forefront of the “potential” revolution is the young underclassmen.

Each year, numerous underclassmen declare and eventually sign with an agent (officially eliminating their ability to return to school) for the NBA Draft. There wasn’t a Marcus Smart-level player this year who decided to stay. (The Kentucky Harrison twins probably rank at the top, right?) There’s no point in getting fancy about this; we all know how it works. The cream of the crop college player typically stays one, maybe two years in college before leaving for the much greener pastures of the NBA. But not every underclassman that declares gets drafted, and many of those fortunate enough to get drafted find themselves picked much lower than they expected.

The common rule of thumb is to leave if you’re projected in the lottery, but from there the water gets murkier. Bad pre-draft workouts, interviews or even luck can be the difference between a projected 15-20-range player ending up sliding to the late first round or even second round. For some fringe players who leave early, getting drafted anywhere is hard enough. Staying an extra year or two doesn’t always end up being the best decision either. Those who are more potential than player risk scouts falling out of love with them if they don’t perform exceptionally. Case and point is former Tar Heel James Michael McAdoo, a once-projected top-ten draft pick, who after returning to school two more years is now projected to go in the late first round-second round area.

[RELATED: The 10 best players returning to school next season]

This year is no different from any of the last few years. There are countless underclassmen officially in, and drastically less upperclassman. But the question remains: did those underclassmen make the right decisions? Let’s take a look.

Tidbit on my thinking process: if he’s projected to go high, coming back is never a good option. (Financially at least… stay in school, kids!) I also follow the Urban Dictionary definition of an underclassman, meaning juniors are not on this list.

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PASS

1. Joel Embiid
Freshman, Center, Kansas
Surprised? Regardless of the outcome of the countless physicals tests teams will put Embiid through, the writing was on the wall for Joel to declare. What does he gain by staying? More injuries? Sure, there will be some scouts and whatnot who are scared to draft a possibly fragile big man given the history (they should make an Embiid version of the Lillard commercial where he says “I don’t want to be an injury-prone big man drafted before a star!” with Oden nearby looking heartbroken. Then Embiid says “No, no, not you Greg. I mean a big man drafted before a legend!” with Sam Bowie nearby. Make it happen, adidas!), but Embiid’s as talented a big man in recent memory. He’s been compared to Hakeem Olajuwon!

Embiid stands 7-0, 240-pounds, with quick feet, athleticism, and a rapidly improving game. You have to love how coordinated he is for his size, and offensively the sky is the limit for his ceiling. He’s shown ability on the midrange jumper, and even extended his range to the occasional three. Defensively, he’s a force blocking shots. Like many 20-year-old big men, Embiid needs to add strength to his slight frame. Right now he’s projected to go anywhere between 1-4. The point is, Embiid had little gain by staying another season at Kansas

2. Andrew Wiggins
Freshman, Guard/Forward, Kansas
You all know about Wiggins. Their was an actual debate as to whether Wiggins would be better off spending his freshman year training for the draft instead of actually playing college ball. Scouts began to knock his motivation and his supposed lack of a killer instinct, comparing him to T-Mac instead of the Jumpman himself. Listen, I’m no NBA GM, but if Wiggins finishes as a seven-time All-Star and a two-time NBA scoring champ (like T-Mac) then I’m saying “Job well done, me” when it’s all said and done.

The 6-8, 197-pound small forward/shooting guard is actually oozing with potential. Is he ready to come in and have a LeBron or Durant type of rookie year? I don’t know. But there are very few players with the combination of physical gifts that Wiggins possesses. We haven’t even mentioned him defensively. Wiggins has the potential to be an All-NBA defender if he chooses to be.

I can’t wait for the draft. Who wants to bet Bilas and friends scream the words WINGSPAN and POTENTIAL at each other at least ten times when discussing Wiggins? Do you realize how gifted Wiggins is? They say he can get from the three-point line to the rim in one dribble! Go to the YMCA and try and take one dribble from the top of the three-point line and please tweet me where you end up. (I’m confident I get to the foul line.) Wiggins started the year numero uno, and after coming back down to Earth during part of the season, returned to the top of most draft boards by the end of the season.

3. Jabari Parker
Freshman, Small Forward, Duke
To be honest, I was pushing for him to return to Duke for his sophomore year. Not because he needs it; there is no prospect as ready right now for the NBA as Parker. But because the Blue Devils would have been a super team. Parker stands 6-8 and weighs 241 pounds and can score from any spot on the floor. He’s a tough player inside, unafraid of going up and grabbing rebounds. Touted for having high basketball I.Q., Parker knows how and when to take over and when to set up his teammates. He’s an outstanding passer and a pretty strong dribbler for his size.

The knock on Parker is he lacks that second level of freak athleticism so many forwards possess, and some worry he’s tapped out a considerable amount of his potential. I like Parker, and I think he would be a hand and glove fit in Utah. (Mormons Unite! Plus, you know, they could kind of use a talented small forward.) I believe Parker would have faced a similar predicament to what Marcus Smart faced this year had he returned for another year. Scouts seem to have a pretty good grasp of who Parker is as a player, which means they’ll spend more time wondering what you won’t be, rather than the other way around.

Parker is projected to go in the top five in most mock drafts, meaning there was really no way of bettering his stock by coming back for another season.

4. Julius Randle
Freshman, Power Forward, Kentucky
Randle was a double-double threat every night his freshman season (finishing the season with an average of 15.0 PPG and 10.4 RPG). The 6-9 Randle is a beast in the paint, and knows how to get to the free throw line (Randle scored more than 1/3 of his points at the foul line in college). He’s not a threat defensively and for all the hoopla surrounding his jump shot, we didn’t see much of it at Kentucky.

Now there are conflicting reports on just how big he is physically: ESPN lists Randle at 225 pounds, but most scouting sites say he’s closer to 250. Randle is ready to come in and bang at the NBA level. Is he going to make more than a 10-point, 10-rebound impact, though? Randle lacks that elite level of athleticism, and that has to be somewhat of a concern going forward. I’m not saying he’s a bust, but Thomas Robinson was an undersized, double-double threat in college… Randle struggled to score against the length of the UConn bigs, and they aren’t going to get any smaller in the NBA. Regardless, top Kentucky players never stay more than one year, so Randle’s departure comes as no surprise. Right now he is projected to go somewhere in the top 4-8 range. I’m putting a buyer beware on Randle, though.

5. Aaron Gordon
Freshman, Forward, Arizona
What position does he play at the next level? That’s a concern, but when you have the type of athleticism and physical skills that Aaron Gordon possesses it’s a much smaller blemish on the resume. The 6-8, 210-pound tweener will have to step out on the perimeter to succeed at the next level, and his shot is anything but perfect–but it isn’t broken. His motor and finishing ability are off the charts, and he has all the physical skills to be a special defender. This is my biggest point on Gordon: fans, but not GMs and coaches, underestimate the value of a player who can guard multiple positions on the floor successfully. We’re driven to look straight to the stat sheet, and Gordon may not become an All-Star offensive talent.

It’s worrisome to hope a player will develop offensively at the next level, but Gordon is not devoid of offensive ability. He’s a better ballhandler than most power forward prospects, and his shot needs fine tuning, but doesn’t have the Michael Kidd-Gilchrist type of hitch. Plus, we’re seeing a resurgence from MKG in the playoffs right now, so maybe there is hope for such players? Either way, when you’re projected in the top 5-8 like Gordon is, you don’t have much room to improve stock-wise. It was time to leave ‘Zona for the big league.

Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ennis (Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports)

6. Tyler Ennis
Freshman, Point Guard, Syracuse
I wrote about Ennis’s departure at length earlier, so this will be short. Ennis is not ready to start at the next level. I love his maturity, composure and I.Q., but he’s a B-level athlete in an A-level world. His jump shot is sketchy, and he isn’t a stellar finisher yet.

There’s a lot to like about Ennis, and a lot to worry. Nowadays the term “pure point guard” sounds almost like a backhanded compliment for “not super athletic but a great floor general”.

This is how I think of it with Ennis: he’s projected to go somewhere in the top 15-18 picks with most drafts (lottery to mid-first-round pick), but I haven’t seen anyone say he’s a top five or six prospect. If he would have returned to school, it would have went one of two ways. He would have either showed off improved scoring, accuracy, and even more leadership as the alpha dog of the Orange, or his physical limitations would have become even more obvious. It’s not like he had to go pro; by all accounts Jim Boeheim praised him. So, he’s striking while the iron’s hot, if idioms are more your thing.

I love Ennis, but there is a small side of me who thinks he may have a Kendall Marshall-type of first year in the NBA. I hope I’m wrong, but leaving now was a smart financial decision for Ennis, albeit a bad one in terms of basketball.

7. Kyle Anderson
Sophomore, Forward, UCLA
WINGSPAN alert. Anderson is not ready to contribute heavy minutes to an NBA team, but on the other hand, his potential is sky-high. Right now his projected spot is Grand Canyon wide: some have him in the lottery, some have him as low as the second round. The 6-9 point forward has a much-improved jump shot and is a stellar passer. He has a high basketball I.Q. (Though I’ve always wondered, what exactly is I.Q.? Is there a written test all players take to determine their I.Q.?) He’s an above-average rebounder, and has a 7-3 wingspan.

The bad? He lacks that elite level of athleticism most NBA players posses, and scouts wonder what position he will guard at the next level. He’s also as ball-dominant as they come, which doesn’t fit every team. (Case in point Evan Turner, cough, cough.) Wait, so why is he a “pass”? Well, after averaging 14.6 PPG, 6.5 APG and 8.8 RPG, there is simply very little Anderson can really improve on at the college level, outside of an improving three-point shot.

Another year in college, and a sour year could mean a second-round pick. Anderson has the benefit of being a young, potential-filled player, one that GMs feel they can mold a certain way. The longer he stays, the more they will pick his game apart.

8. Gary Harris
Sophomore, Guard, Michigan State
Michigan State may have underperformed in the NCAA tournament, but Harris did his best to keep Sparty around. (Harris averaged 14 PPG and had 22 in the loss to UConn.) For the year, Harris averaged 16.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 2.7 APG in his second year at Michigan State. He’s a talented player on both sides of the ball, and a physical guard who knows how to get to the rim. He’s a touch smaller than the prototypical shooting guard (standing 6-4), and needs to continue developing his range, but Harris is one of the most NBA-ready guards in the draft. He may not become a star, but Harris looks like the kind of prospect that affects multiple areas of the game (scoring, rebounding, defense and passing).

Right now, Harris is projected to get drafted somewhere in the 10-15 range. Harris plays hard, is another player with that famed basketball I.Q., and has shown his stuff off for two years at the college level. With Keith Appling and Adreian Payne both departing, Harris made the right decision to enter the draft.

9. Noah Vonleh
Freshman, Power Forward, Indiana
Vonleh may be one of the biggest risers as the draft nears due to his combination of size and shooting ability. Standing 6-10, 242 pounds, Vonleh has the body of an NBA-caliber big man. Vonleh averaged 11.3 PPG, 9.0 RPG and 1.4 BPG while wearing the Hoosier uniform. He’s blessed athletically, is diverse offensively, and even influences the game defensively. I’m telling you, look for his name to appear more and more as we get closer to the draft, and don’t be surprised if he leapfrogs one or both of Gordon and Randle. He’s much more effective than either of them offensively, and presents more of a matchup problem. With Indiana suffering a down year, you can’t blame Vonleh for getting out while he has the magic of “potential” on his side.

10. James Young
Freshman, Guard, Kentucky
I have to believe Calipari told Young to get out of here (okay, maybe not those words) after the season. Remember, Young was most known for being the first three-point shooter Cal has recruited, and left as that guy who had the ginormous dunk in the NCAA tournament. Young can score from the perimeter or attacking the basket, and is a solid athlete as well. He even pulled out the Wiz Khalifa-highlighted locks, so we know he’s up on current trends as well. Projected mid-to-late lottery, Young chose the NBA over being a part of the Kentucky superteam. Instead of fighting for minutes at the college level, Young is about to cash in on a strong freshman season. Can’t say I blame him.

Mitch McGary (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

11. Mitch McGary
Sophomore, Power Forward, Michigan
Is he healthy? Is he ever going to be more than a double-double J.J. Hickson-type of player? What’s his munchy of choice? None of those questions matter. After receiving a very, very harsh 1-year ban from basketball for a failed drug test, McGary had no choice but to go pro. After sitting out most of the last year due to injuries, McGary couldn’t spend another year on the bench or risk his stock dropping even more.

Last year, McGary was the Golden Child of the Wolverines’ tournament run, and was a possible top-ten pick had he declared. He has solid intangibles, was a freak athlete, and scouts will test him out to see if his success was a fluke or not. His stock is extremely low right now (projected anywhere from the late first round to second round on most mocks) but he had no choice but to leave. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t end up anywhere near Larry Sanders next year.

12. Marcus Smart
Sophomore, Point Guard, Oklahoma State
Would he have stayed another year had he known what he knows now? Nobody could have predicted Smart would go through the type of season he did. After being a possible candidate for the No. 2 pick in the 2013 Draft, Smart’s game was picked apart by scouts, got into an altercation with a fan, and suffered through a much tougher season than many expected at OK State. He’s a bulldog point guard, capable of scoring from inside and out, but now scouts are worried he’s maxed out his potential. He has great size for a point guard, is a great leader, and strong defender. But questions still remain about his jump shot and his ballhandling.

In essence, the same questions remain, and nothing positive was added to his stock. Smart made the right call to leave this year before anything else could happen to him. Still projected somewhere in the 10-15 range, some team may get the steal of the draft if he reaches the potential they saw in him last year.

13. Nik Stauskas
Sophomore, Guard, Michigan
Stuaskas is one of my favorite players to watch; he had the J.J. Redick/Steph Curry type of game this year where I felt like anytime he shot the ball… it was going through the net. But he showed he can be more than a three-point threat (take that, Mike Dunleavy comparisons!!!), showing off an improved handle, midrange game and passing ability. Still, he suffers from white man’s disease (AKA he lacks quickness, and will always be stereotyped by some as J.J. Redick/Mike Dunleavy). Stauskas’ stock is sky-high right now, and staying another year could end up with him being a second-round pick if scouts decide he can’t do anything but shoot. He’s capable of shooting the lights out and is projected to go anywhere in the lottery to late first round. I look forward to watching Stauskas run around screens and shoot from nearly midcourt next season.

FAIL

14. Jahii Carson
Sophomore, Point Guard, Arizona State
Carson, the diminutive scoring point guard for the Sun Devils, has a lot going against him entering early. He’s undersized (5-10), is streaky from the perimeter, and is old for his class (nearly 22 years old; I know, he’s practically an old man!). On the bright side, he’s an athletic freak, and a player capable of scoring in bunches quickly. He has a knack for getting to the rim, and we’ve seen plenty of small scoring guards in the NBA over the last couple of seasons (Thomas out in Sac-town, for instance).

Sound familiar? Carson can be that Nate Robinson scorer off the bench for an NBA team. After averaging 18.6 PPG, 4.6 APG and 4.0 RPG in his second year, his stock may never be higher than it is right now. Staying another year doesn’t seem to add much to his value, as his size (or lack thereof) prevents him from being drafted any higher.

On the other hand, scouts already know what type of player they project him to be, so he may fall simply because he has less room to improve. Right now his projected range is 25 to second round, according to ESPN. Carson should have enjoyed being BMOC (Big Man on Campus) at ASU for another one or two seasons.

15. Isaiah Austin
Sophomore, Power Forward, Baylor
Last year Austin, at one point, was thought to be a top-ten pick. Now, he’s looked at as just a tall, athletic player without a position. Standing 7-0, 215 pounds, Austin never put on enough weight or developed a strong enough post game to convince scouts he was a four. Nor did he become a lethal three-point shooter capable of stretching defenses. Right now he scores most of his points on put-backs, fast-break opportunities and long range two-pointers.

To be frank with you, he is essentially Anthony Randolph 2.0. He’s tall, thin, and nobody knows exactly what he can become. Scouts are weary of this mold of player, and Austin is no different. He’s projected in the late second round right now, and will have to perform in workouts to warrant a higher selection.

Semaj Christon (photo. Xavier University Athletics)

16. Semaj Christon
Sophomore, Guard, Xavier—Fail as a Shooting Guard/Pass as a Point
Christon is a 6-3 combo guard coming off of a 17.0 PPG, 4.2 APG season for Xavier. His skill-set (long and super athletic; great ballhandler) makes him the ideal prototypical point in a world where athletes like Russell Westbrook are roaming on the perimeter. But the jury is still out on if he actually is a point guard. He is turnover prone (only a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio), and if he fails to impress as a point guard, he faces an even larger uphill battle as a shooting guard. Christon is not a great outside shooter, nor is he particularly tall for a two-guard. His draft position will depend on whether he can convince scouts he’s a capable point guard. His stock goes anywhere from middle of the first round to late second round. Workouts will be key to his draft spot.

17. Glenn Robinson III
Sophomore, Forward, Michigan
Robinson was a scout’s dream last year: long, super-athletic, great motor, and basketball genes. But after staying another year in Ann Arbor, and failing to live up to the lofty expectations most had for him, Robinson’s stock has cooled significantly. He’s more of a power forward than a small forward, but his body is the opposite. He’s an outstanding rebounder, but never quite developed into the three-point shooter most hoped he’d become (30.6 percent last season).

Robinson will never see his stock as high as it was his freshman year, so I think he’d be better off developing for four seasons in college and coming into the NBA ready to compete. Instead, he will get drafted somewhere in the late first round to second round range, and will probably spend most of his rookie season in the D-League. Robinson would be better off improving his game at the college level.

18. Jerami Grant
Sophomore, Forward, Syracuse
Like Ennis, I wrote a lot about Grant’s decision. But unlike Ennis, Grant’s choice is a fail in my book. The 6-8 Grant is a physical freak, but the shine on potential seems to matter less if you don’t add much to your game.

Grant is a player without a position offensively, and his ceiling looks to be a Luc Richard Mbah a Moute type of defensive player (though he’s yet to become a stopper defensively). Grant flat-out is not ready to perform at the next level, and while college forwards have made the transition to perimeter NBA players, Grant lacks the polish offensively to succeed right now. (Kawhi Leonard coming out of San Diego State made it quickly in San Antonio, although he was more of a small forward who played more power forward out of necessity.)

Last year, Grant was thought to be a mid first-round pick, but this year he could go anywhere in the late first round to sliding all the way to the second round. Right now ESPN has him pegged as the No. 20 selection in the first round, but Grant’s stock is as volatile as they come. Great private workouts could solidify his first round stock, but if he doesn’t look the part of a small forward, he could do more sliding than I did at grade school dances (The Cha-Cha slide heyday). Grant should have returned to Syracuse, became the BMOC, and showed he could be a weapon offensively.

19. Sim Bhullar
Sophomore, Center, New Mexico State
To be honest, I had no idea who Bhullar was. Do you? Probably not. But man is he big, standing 7-5, 355 pounds, which I believe would make him the biggest NBA player. He averaged 10.4 PPG and 7.8 RPG for NMSU, so he’s capable of some success, but his scouting report most likely reads “huge, alters the game due to his size, and non-athlete with condition issues.” His sheer size warrants a second-round project selection, but he probably should have stayed in school another year or two to get his name out there.

20. Rodney Hood
Sophomore, Guard, Duke
Hood has that ideal McGrady body type, standing 6-8, 180 pounds, but he could have benefited from another year under the tutelage of Coach K. He’s a skilled shooter and scorer, but has yet to show much else. He’s very thin, and doesn’t rebound well either. Did he think him and Jabari were a package deal? Did anyone make the rules clear? Hood has potential, but is not quite ready to perform at the next level.

Who was that college scorer who got drafted in the lottery and is now the subject of “Where did he go and why did we trade James Harden for him?” talk? He currently plays for the Thunder. And Jeremy Lamb was a better player than Hood is. Still, teams will always need a scorer, so expect to see Hood go somewhere in the middle-to-late first round. He could be a steal if he goes to a team who just asks him to shoot the ball, like San Antonio, though he lacks the foreign flavor they so prefer to draft.

Zach LaVine (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

21. Zach LaVine
Freshman, Guard/Forward, UCLA
What is LaVine? I’m a sucker for tall point guards, and LaVine is no exception. Standing 6-5, 180 pounds, LaVine is a long, lanky guard who can shoot the ball. But is he a point guard? Can he defend point guards? These will be the questions going through scouts’ heads during workouts, and if LaVine catches someone’s eye, he could be a big-time riser. He is the perfect example of the “potential” argument I posed earlier. People will become enamored with what he can become. The question is, will he ever reach it?

The track record of success for players who get drafted highly without starting in college isn’t very good (hit or miss, recently) and could scare someone off. He will need time to develop, but if he lands in the right situation, where he can sit behind a star, he could be a big-time steal. Either way, LaVine would have benefited from another year starting for UCLA, and showing his ability to run the point.

22. Jakarr Sampson
Sophomore, Forward, St. John’s
Sampson isn’t ready to be an NBA player, and may not get drafted. Like former St. John’s player Maurice Harkless, Sampson is a tremendous athlete. Sampson is a non-shooter who stands 6-9, 214 pounds. He has all the physical gifts, but has yet to show anywhere near the complete package. Things like ballhandling, I.Q., jump shot and position are all major question marks. Sampson would have been better suited showing he can play the wing in college, and eating all the food he wants for free, but will now more than likely end up in the D-League.

23. T.J. Warren
Sophomore, Forward, N.C. State
Warren scored nearly 25 points a game for the Wolfpack last year, so you know what he can do. Warren can score from inside and out, but there are legitimate questions about his position and his transition at the next level. He has a way of simply getting buckets, and that’s great. But he isn’t consistent from beyond the arc, nor is he a stellar athlete. Defensively he may have trouble guarding threes or fours.

I think Warren would have been better suited staying another year and leading the team once again. He doesn’t project to be a star, although his numbers suggest otherwise, so why not stay and better your game so you can fill a role at the next level? Warren is projected late first round right now, but I think he should have stayed another year.

24. Jordan Adams
Sophomore, Guard, UCLA
Adams made the decision to return to school, only to change his mind at the last minute and declare for the draft, after which a teary-eyed Coach Steve Alford mourned losing three of his talented young players and telling reporters, “It’s not fair, we were supposed to be together another year!” Okay, so maybe that never happened, but with all the turnover in such short notice, you could see it happening, right?

Adams is projected to land somewhere in the late first round/early second round. He has good requisite size for the position (6-5, 220 pounds), and can flat-out score the ball. Adams can hit from inside or out and uses his size to finish at the basket. But, he had issues with consistency and conditioning at UCLA, neither which are issues you want to have to fix if you’re an NBA GM.

Adams is a talented scorer with an outstanding singular ability-his scoring ability. Another year at UCLA, with even more of the offensive burden falling on him, would have showed scouts his improved consistency, and with more teams looking for players who can come in and contribute immediately at the end of the first round, Adams probably could’ve gone five spots higher had he stayed.

Which players made the right choice? Which ones made the wrong choice?

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