Rooney: Fallout from draft deadline shows even more riding on 2019-20 CU Buffs hoops season

Tyler Bey, McKinley Wright candidates to leave early next spring

Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Tyler Bey averaged 13.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per game last season.

Colorado basketball fans can take a look around at some of the hoops rivals in the Pac-12 Conference and brace for the uncertainty that could rearrange coach Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes program a year from now.

This past week, the deadline passed for underclassmen to remain in the NBA draft pool instead of returning to their respective schools. While this summer finds the Buffs enjoying the sort of roster stability that’s becoming more unusual every year in college basketball, next spring might be a different story with Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright perhaps making the move to take their games to the next level.

First, don’t go hitting the panic button just yet, Buffs fans. Sit back and enjoy the 2019-20 season first. Neither player has said word one about their intentions a year from now. Bey made it clear he has “unfinished business” for his junior season at CU, and right now Wright is focused on getting his left shoulder healthy after undergoing postseason surgery.

Still, the fallout from the passing of the draft deadline on Wednesday showed that the 2019-20 season might be the last fully intact run for a solid 2017 CU recruiting class that includes Bey, Wright, D’Shawn Schwartz, and Evan Battey.

A whopping 86 underclassmen remained in the pool for the NBA draft later this month. That’s 86 underclassmen for a 60-player draft that obviously also will include college seniors and international players. The majority of those underclassmen not named Zion Williamson will wind up overseas or, in best case scenarios, in the G-League.

That’s not to knock the decisions of the dozens who will go undrafted. College isn’t for everyone, and if those players believe they’re ready to make a career out of their skills, more power to them. But if 86 underclassmen believe they are ready for the NBA, you can bet Bey and Wright will feel the same a year from now assuming they enjoy healthy and productive junior seasons at CU.

In Bey’s case, it could very well be a no-brainer. The athletic 6-foot-7 small forward emerged as one of the top players in the Pac-12 Conference down the stretch this past season, winning the league’s Most Improved Player award. Bey checks a number of boxes for the modern NBA player — from his rebounding prowess to wingspan to his ability to guard multiple positions. Bey already is projected as a possible first-round pick in 2020, and if he stays healthy and comes anywhere near duplicating his team-leading 13.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per game he posted last season (he averaged 14.5 points and 10.3 rebounds after the start of league play) chances are his junior season at CU will be his last.

Wright isn’t the slam-dunk NBA prospect Bey is, yet the lure of the next level could be equally enticing for CU’s point guard a year from now. An easy comparison for Wright can be found in now-former UCLA guard Jaylen Hands, who remained in the draft pool and is considered to be a possible mid-to-late second round pick. Other than Hands’ slightly better assist-to-turnover rate in their two shared collegiate seasons (1.74 for Hands, 1.69 for Wright), the only thing Hands does better than Wright is be three inches taller. If Wright’s shoulder is sound and he drives the team to the NCAA Tournament, his stock will only improve.

The potential defections would leave Boyle with a new challenge. Players have left CU with eligibility remaining before during his tenure — Alec Burks, Andre Roberson, and Spencer Dinwiddie all did so within Boyle’s first four seasons — yet none have occurred since the NCAA instituted new rules allowing players to hire agents and sort their options until late May before making their final decisions. If Bey and Wright leave early, on top of the loss of next year’s two seniors (Lucas Siewert, Shane Gatling) and the possibility of Boyle taking his current open scholarship into next spring, the Buffs could very well go from one of the most stable teams in the nation to one that will require a massive roster overhaul.

It’s yet another reason why so much will be riding on the 2019-20 season. If the Buffs don’t return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, chances are it will be exponentially more difficult to do so in 2021.