PHOENIX – Derrick Williams only briefly considered the NBA’s murky labor situation when deciding to leave Arizona after his sophomore season.
The way the agile power forward looked at it, if he’s going to be a lottery pick, as predicted, he might as well do it.
The decision to bolt is a bit more dicey for some of the other underclassmen who have declared for the NBA draft.
With a potential lockout looming and the chance that the NBA’s summer league might be delayed or wiped out completely, this year could be the riskiest for leaving college early.
“I’m a percentages guy, always have been, and for some of these players, the percentages aren’t there,” said Ryan Blake, the NBA’s assistant director of scouting. “If the percentages do go down, it’s gambling a little if your ultimate goal is playing in the NBA.”
A year ago, 74 underclassmen stayed in the NBA draft after declaring, an all-time high exodus spurred by players wanting to get a jump on a potential lockout this summer.
The class included some pretty good star power, highlighted at the top by players like John Wall and Evan Turner, but with just 60 picks in the draft, more than a dozen were left scrambling to find work.
This year’s crop includes 69 underclassmen with another 21 international players, though that could change by today, the NCAA’s deadline for players to withdraw from the NBA draft and retain their college eligibility.
Many of those who stay face a daunting future.
Players such as Williams, Duke’s Kyrie Irving and Kentucky’s Brandon Knight should be OK, projected to be among the NBA lottery picks.
Go further down the line, it gets a little more sketchy.
With the NBA collective bargaining agreement set to expire on June 30, the reality of a lockout is fast approaching.
The top players might be able to idle during the lockout and not have to worry about their place in the NBA. But those on the fringes will not only not have a job, they won’t be playing anywhere – at least against quality competition – which could hurt their chances of making it in the NBA even more.
“The lockout really kind of screws everything up because … what if the lockout goes the whole year?” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “What kind of mistake did you make?”
The potential lockout isn’t just about the 2011-12 NBA season. It could affect the NBA’s summer league.
On the surface, losing the summer league doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s summer league, the games don’t count.
But it’s also a proving ground, a place for players with marginal NBA talent to show they can compete at a high level. Make a good impression in the summer league and a player can at least get an invite to training camp, if not get a jump on a roster spot.
Wipe out the summer league, wipe out a potential avenue to the NBA for players at the back end of the draft list.
“If you’re a guy who’s not a first-rounder, it’s probably not the year to go prove yourself in the summer league if there’s not going to be one,” Blake said. “The opportunities now dwindle significantly and there’s very few spots.”
For almost all the underclassmen who have declared, the NBA has been their dream since they were kids. To reach a level where playing in the NBA is even a possibility, that’s tough to turn away from, no matter how fuzzy the future may be.
“If I were to stay, we would have a great chance to win a national championship, but at the same time, not too many people get this opportunity, to move on to the next level,” said Williams, who helped lead the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament’s regional final.
“I’ve been working so hard, since I was in high school, just to get to this point, and if you’re supposedly a top-five pick, you can’t really turn that down.”
The problem is for those players who aren’t among the top picks. Given the uncertain future, turning down a shot at the NBA could be the best play.