Rooney: NBA draft fallout another step backward for Pac-12 basketball

Talent drain from undrafted prospects a possible boon to CU Buffs

Dean Rutz / Seattle Times
Washington’s Jaylen Nowell was drafted in the second round on Thursday.
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Bad advice? Delusions of grandeur? Perhaps a general disillusionment with college basketball?

As often is the case, the answer probably is a little of all of the above. It’s a problem for the game in general and the Pac-12 Conference in particular, which suffered through a forgettable NBA draft night Thursday. It wasn’t just that the Pac-12 enjoyed only six selections overall with a mere two in the first round. It was how several superbly talented players, including multiple draft-eligible hopefuls from Oregon and UCLA, saw their stock plummet to the nether-regions of the two-round draft or off the board entirely.

The underclassmen that entered the draft and discarded their college eligibility without hearing their name called on Thursday night could have transformed the complexion of the entire Pac-12 next season. Sure, it’s another boon to an up-and-coming Colorado team, which watched talent drain from some of their top rivals ahead of a 2019-20 season that will begin with conference championship aspirations, but it’s a growing problem for the game nonetheless.

For a league that has experienced two tough seasons since the FBI corruption probe led to the arrest of two of the league’s assistant coaches, Thursday was another step backward. Oregon’s Bol Bol began the season being touted as a likely top-10 pick, but a foot injury that limited him to nine games. The 7-foot-2 Bol eventually was picked in the middle of the second round and his rights shipped to the Denver Nuggets via a trade.

Also from the Ducks, freshman Louis King went undrafted after some late first round-to-mid-second round projections, as did talented defender Kenny Wooten. From UCLA, Moses Brown and Kris Wilkes went undrafted while point guard Jaylen Hands squeaked into the latter stages of the second round.

Of course, this isn’t a trend unique to the Pac-12. But for a league that sent only three teams to the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons — this following a league record seven entrants in the 2016 tournament and a league record 14 selections in the 2017 NBA draft — this year’s draft was a further indictment of how the Pac-12’s basketball competition is viewed from the outside looking in. King and Stanford’s KZ Okpala (picked 32nd overall) toppled from first-round projections. The league’s Player of the Year, Washington sophomore Jaylen Nowell, lasted until the 43rd overall pick.

College isn’t for everyone, and far be it for me to tell young men how to best pursue basketball dreams they have been chasing their entire lives. All of the aforementioned draft snubs will get an opportunity to prove their NBA mettle. And going undrafted often provides a blessing in disguise in the ability to negotiate with all 30 NBA teams as a free agent. But whether it’s a stipend for players, even more player-friendly adjustments to transfer rules, or further reshaping of draft rules that would allow such snubbed players to return to school, the NCAA needs to find a way to make its game more attractive to 18 and 19-year olds who, in greater numbers, believe playing overseas or in the G-League are more enticing options in the pursuit of NBA glory than playing major college basketball.

This is, perhaps, where bad advice comes into play. With the coaching change at UCLA, Brown and Wilkes might have been able to play immediately elsewhere if they believed the situation in Westwood had become personally untenable. Without Bol, and with King coming on strong down the stretch, Oregon saved face for the Pac-12 with a stirring run to the conference tournament championship and the Sweet 16. Had those two returned next season alongside Wooten, the Ducks might have been set up for a special season, and one that likely would have raised the pro stock of the entire trio.

Instead, all three face long odds in sticking to NBA rosters, while Oregon enters the summer with only eight scholarship players on its roster.

For the Buffs, the talent fallout will only heighten expectations certain to keep ballooning heading into the 2019-20 season. Those college basketball issues that have drained the Pac-12 might be of more concern to coach Tad Boyle’s bunch next year — the first post-2019 mock draft for the 2020 draft put out by NBADraft.net has rising junior Tyler Bey slotted at No. 21 overall — but, for at least one season, the Buffs have an opportunity to remind college hoops fans what the game used to be about.