Testing the NBA draft waters? More complicated than it sounds

Trying out at the NBA draft combine and then returning to school can attach a certain stigma to some prospects. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

The majority of college basketball teams saw their seasons end over the past two weeks, with only 21 non-international players in our latest mock draft still alive in the NCAA tournament or NIT. As prospects' seasons come to a close, underclassmen are being advised by the NBA league office to proceed with caution when testing the draft waters -- a process that's more complex than it appears.

The NCAA made sweeping changes to its early-entry rules in 2016, once again allowing players to evaluate their draft stock by attending the NBA combine and private team workouts between when the early-entry list is released in late April and 10 days after the conclusion of the combine in late May.

This is not to be confused with the NBA's early-entry rules, which require players (in this case, mostly internationals) to withdraw no later than 10 days before the draft in order to retain eligibility for future drafts. That deadline this year is 5 p.m. ET June 11.

Early entrants can withdraw from the NBA draft only twice -- and if they do, they're not allowed to withdraw again should they declare a third time before exhausting their college eligibility. For example, Rutgers junior Corey Sanders can enter the draft after withdrawing as a freshman and sophomore, but he can't test the waters. Should he go undrafted, he technically could return to school as long as he files a letter to his college athletic director declaring his intentions before the NCAA deadline. An obscure NCAA rule conflicts with NBA rules, an NBA official confirmed to ESPN.com, creating this quasi-loophole in which a prospect could play his final college seasons as an undrafted free agent.

Leading up to this year's early-entry deadline at midnight on April 22, around 150 or more players from around the world will send NBA commissioner Adam Silver a letter officially making themselves draft-eligible. That will include some of the biggest names in college basketball, such as Trae Young, who already announced his intentions on ESPN, as well as some seemingly random players from anonymous schools and conferences looking for their 15 minutes of fame.

In late February, NBA executive VP of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe sent college coaches an application for players to request an evaluation from the Undergraduate Advisory Committee (UAC), formed in 1997 to assist players in the decision-making process.

The memo reads in part:

"The purpose of the (UAC) is to provide underclassmen who are thinking of turning professional with an objective evaluation of their prospects in the 2018 NBA Draft.

The Committee's evaluation is, of course, only an educated assessment and is not binding in any way or a commitment or guarantee that a player will or will not be drafted in a certain slot or at all. Please also understand that the Committee's evaluation should in no way be viewed as an effort to encourage the player to leave school; the Committee is simply responding to a request for information. Neither the player, you, nor any representative of either of you, may make public any of the information communicated by the Committee."

The UAC sends NBA executives a series of emails with a list of names, requesting their team's assessment of players' draft stock. The player is then informed of the consensus reached by weighing the NBA executives' responses and offering feedback on whether the player is likely to be a lottery pick, first-rounder, second-rounder or undrafted.

NBA teams are split on the early-entry rules instituted in 2016. A segment appreciates the ability to cast a wide net during the pre-draft process, conduct dozens of private workouts in May and potentially uncover sleepers to follow in future drafts. Some franchises (such as the Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz, though it varies year-to-year depending on draft picks) are incredibly aggressive about flying in as many prospects as possible for private workouts, as this allows them to gather quite a bit of information in the form of measurements, athletic testing data, interviews, psychological assessments and medical examinations. This also allows for an evaluation of players' individual skill sets on the court using the teams' own coaches and uniquely tailored drills.

There's an arms race to collect as much information as possible for internal scouting databases, some of which will be used for decisions that are made years down the line, when players become free agents or trade targets. NBA executives aren't just interested in this info for their 15-man rosters. They have a full slate of future players they will need to make decisions on for two-way contracts, summer league rosters, training camp invites and G League squads.

Still, some executives take a more conservative attitude, partially out of necessity, as their teams are in the middle of competing in the playoffs. The pool of first-round prospects will largely be known in the next few weeks, and those players have been scouted thoroughly during the season. These execs will wait to see which college players withdraw their names from the draft to get a better idea of what the pool of late first- and second-rounders will look like in late May, not wanting to waste precious time and resources on players who are seeking exposure or input on areas of improvement.

Underclassmen considering making themselves eligible will need to keep in mind that there's a certain stigma that gets attached to players who enter and then withdraw from the draft, often having to fight the notion that they were deemed not good enough to stay in. Players who had very poor combine experiences -- such as Marcus Lee, Malik Newman, Moritz Wagner, Nigel Hayes and Dedric Lawson -- might have damaged their stock (or self-confidence) with showings that could be hard for NBA teams to erase from their memories.

The draft process is a vastly different experience for players testing the waters and those fully committed to declaring in terms of the type of training they receive, the communication they are allowed to have with agents and teams, and the seriousness with which their candidacy is taken by NBA executives. Playing at the combine can be a humbling experience, undressing a player's weaknesses for all to see. Since the new early-entry rules were instituted, only one player (Pascal Siakam, No. 27 pick in 2016) who participated in the combine while testing the waters went on to be picked in the first round that year.

What's interesting is that the new early-entry rules might be having the opposite effect of what the NCAA intended. In each of the past two years, the numbers of players who have elected to keep their names on the early-entry list at the deadline has broken the previous all-time record. Last year, 64 collegiate players kept their names in the draft, and of those, only 37 were eventually picked. Sixty college players kept their names in the 2016 draft, with 30 hearing their names called in June.

An added wrinkle that underclassmen will need to consider this year is the projected weakness of the 2019 draft, stemming from what appears to be a lackluster 2018 high school senior class. To some, especially those living in fear of what might emerge from the looming FBI/DOJ investigation into college basketball, the lure of a two-way contract and NBA roster spot might sound good enough to stay in the 2018 draft, even if it means becoming a late second-round pick.

Will those prospects be selling themselves short? There's no way for them to know.