Sophomores' fall suggests it's best to leave

Thanks to another season at UNC, Harrison Barnes' draft stock slipped a bit from a year ago. Jerry Lai/US Presswire

Perry Jones III fidgeted as he waited for his name to be called. Jared Sullinger wasn’t even invited to Newark, N.J. Terrence Jones couldn’t crack the lottery. Harrison Barnes was picked seventh.

A year can change everything.

The 2012 NBA draft re-emphasized the risks talented freshmen (and talented players in general) take when they return. The four aforementioned players were projected lottery picks last season. Three of them weren’t even top-17 Thursday.

This season’s draft was unique. The NBA lockout definitely influenced both Joneses, Sullinger and Barnes. Without it, they’d probably be enjoying the offseason following their rookie seasons in the NBA.

Returning for another year cost them. The additional year of college basketball only subjected the elite sophomores to more scrutiny that ultimately impacted their draft status and affected the money attached to their first pro contracts. Plus, they were competing against a fleet of freshmen that hogged the lottery.

In my opinion, it’s always best to leave when you’re hot.

For two years, Sullinger was an All-America big man. He was dominant. And in Year 2, he improved. He developed more range. He added a few wrinkles to his post game. He lost weight, which enhanced his conditioning.

But he also suffered a mid-season back injury that plagued him in the draft. Pre-draft tests scared teams. And suddenly the most complete big man in college -- perhaps for the past two years -- didn’t have a game that would translate to the NBA. It wasn’t just the back issue.

He wasn’t athletic enough. He couldn’t shoot over the top of taller guys. The sprinkling of criticism quickly turned into a downpour. And Sullinger ended up being drafted by Boston at No. 21.

Perry Jones III had a chance to leave last year, too. Although he faced a short suspension for NCAA violations, Jones decided to return. And that didn’t help his cause.

A year ago, he was the "potential" guy. Could be Kevin Garnett. Could play three positions in the pros. A 6-11 forward who can handle the ball and roam in the half court? I’ll take him.

During the 2011-12 season, however, Jones was knocked for his inconsistent motor. All that talent. But he didn’t dominate the way we thought he would.

Concerns about his energy level and reports of a knee problem led to his fall all the way to No. 28.

I can’t feel sorry for a guy who ended up with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a squad that could win the title next year. (Although it’s difficult to find a niche on a team that’s developed that level of chemistry.)

But Jones wasn’t supposed to be available that late. He wouldn’t have lasted nearly that long in the 2011 NBA draft.

Terrence Jones won a title with Kentucky. So I’m sure he doesn’t regret his decision to return. But he’s another example of a guy who ended his freshman season as a lottery pick but entered the draft after his second year with a different status.

Jones played with three other first-rounders (Marquis Teague, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). So it was difficult to emerge from the pack (although I thought he should have been top 12 in my opinion, based on his NCAA tourney performance).

Golden State took Harrison Barnes at No. 7. Unthinkable a year ago. He was a top-3 guy last season, but the pre-draft buzz cast doubt on his ability to shine at the next level.

I know we would have witnessed a different draft without last year’s lockout. But the same theory applied this year.

It’s usually best to leave when you’re a projected lottery pick unless you have a shot at the No. 1 slot.

I know college players have other goals. They want to win national titles. They want to enjoy the college lifestyle.

They have to consider a multitude of criteria as they make their decisions.

But based on draft status alone, it’s much easier to fall than it is to climb when they decide to come back for another season.

Thursday night’s draft was another example.