John Calipari sits in the green room, visibly stressing and burying his head in his hands, across from one of his top prospects Skal Labissiere.
As the picks fly by in the first round, they’re still waiting to hear Labissiere’s name called. Skal was the No. 1 recruit in Scout.com’s final rankings before his college season started. He was ranked above No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram, No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown and everyone else in his class.
Everyone saw him as a star, and a top three pick in the draft. But Calipari and Labissiere sat there, waiting, all the way up until pick No. 28, when the Suns drafted him and traded him to the Kings.
While Skal and company sat and waited for his name to be called, Thon Maker, who never went to college while scouts aren't 100% sure of his age, went 10th overall. Maker never played against Brown, Simmons, Ingram, or almost anyone else who went to college in the draft. He has had minimal experience against top-tier talent, and yet the Bucks took him at No. 10.
Labissiere went up against Maker in 2015 in a Nike league and dominated him, but the tide has turned since then. As Labissiere sat there, you can only imagine that he pondered how long he would have been sitting in the green room had he been able to bypass college. He likely would’ve been the first or second player to step foot on that stage, and his disappointing season at Kentucky cost him tons of money.
Before we go any further, I’ll explain how Maker was able to bypass college, as it is an odd situation. He was originally supposed to be in the NCAA recruiting class of 2016, but was on track to graduate early, and switch to the class of 2015 instead. It would have put him on the fast-track to college stardom, but instead, he was able to enroll at the Athlete Institute in Canada and play alongside and against great players like Kentucky’s own Jamal Murray.
Instead of re-classifying, Maker stayed back a year and played with his younger brother at the Institute, and it was then determined that his year at the Athlete Institute qualified him for the for the 2016 NBA Draft, without him ever having to step foot on a college campus.
So if Maker was able to bypass college and go as high as he did, despite controversy surrounding him and his game, does that mean that more players could do the same? No one predicted Maker in the top 10 up until draft week, and no one predicted Labissiere to fall as far as he did.
However, we’ve seen countless prospects leave high school and go into college as a predicted No. 1 pick. It’s not too often that they collapse and fall as far as Skal did, especially when they spend a year at a program like Kentucky, but it happens, and now that we’ve seen Maker find a loophole, we could see more players go for the same thing.
It’s obvious that college basketball helps your game immensely. Despite the fact that his draft stock fell, Labissiere is a better basketball player now than he was before he came to Kentucky. He’s still the same athlete, he’s developed a turnaround shot, he’s been forced to toughen up (even if only a tad), and he’s had experience against top-flight division 1 talent.
But when it comes down to it, is that really what a top-flight high school prospect cares about? If someone went to Labissiere and told him that he could bypass college and hurt the development of his game, but make millions more and have the praise of a top draft pick, he would be out of his mind to reject that and go to college. The risk/reward of spending a year in college is high, and most high school athletes would rather see those additional zeros on their first contract.
So, why not continue to play high school prep competition, be absolutely dominant, and go higher in the draft?
It wasn’t just Labissiere that hurt his draft stock by going to college for a year either; Cheick Diallo, Stephen Zimmerman and Diamond Stone all had underwhelming seasons in college, and their draft stock took a hit because of it.
And what’s even more evidence that players not going to college are making more money is all the international players that were drafted early in the first round. The first round of the draft saw 15 international players have their names called, the most ever in an NBA Draft, and eight of them never played college basketball. These guys bypassed college, and all eight of them were selected before Skal, who was the last foreign-born player taken in the first round.
I’m not saying that every prospect in the world will be clamoring to play one more season in a prep school, or finding an international club to play for in order to avoid college and hurting their draft stock (Karl-Anthony Towns was not supposed to be the top overall pick until he led Kentucky to one of the greatest winning streaks in college history), but this could start a slight trend.
More and more we may see players look to avoid college, especially those who have a lot to lose. If a prospect like Skal, with a slight frame and not much toughness down low, is expected to go No.1 or No. 2 overall, there’s no doubt that he’s trying to go straight to the league if possible. If he’s able to take the Thon Maker route, he’s doing it.
You can’t argue with millions of dollars, additional endorsements, and the fame that being a top pick gives you, as opposed to falling to the back of the first round and having to work that much harder to make others think you are as good as everyone once believed you were.
Labissiere, Stone, Diallo and Zimmerman became victims of a rule that we thought was mandatory to follow. However, with Maker managing to skip a year of college and still make it to the NBA higher than Labissiere and others, we could see a few prospects -- especially international ones -- looking for ways around that one college season every year.
That's not just bad for college basketball, but will hurt the NBA as well. For the sake of this discussion, let's assume Skal, Diallo, Zimmerman and Stone all turn out to be busts, and their draft day falls was NBA teams simply getting it right with their college evaluations.
Now, what if those guys skipped college altogether and played overseas or for a prep team? Do we see them suddenly going high in the first round, possibly even the lottery because teams were unable to evaluate them against high-level talent, just as Maker avoided.
See the issue? Now NBA teams are suddenly being forced to take chances on guys like Thon, Diallo and Skal high in the draft without an accurate evaluation for them, which undoubtedly leads to more busts and wasted premium draft picks.
Thursday was easily Calipari's most enduring draft
You could make a good argument for this year's draft being the worst showing for UK under Cal, at least in terms of where various Wildcats were projected to go vs how far they fell.
Maybe Thon ends up being worth the 10th overall pick, and maybe Skal ends up being the 28th-best player out of this draft, but even if true, reaching said conclusion is much less likely to occur if Skal skips college, which may help him go 10th or 11th instead.
Some might also question what that means for Kentucky, a program that is currently thriving on a one-and-done philosophy, but no one should be too worried. Like I said before, we’re not going to see every single prospect looking to avoid college.
There are great values to college that help a player. His game improves, he matures, and depending on the coach, he also becomes a much better person. Calipari has done an outstanding job "raising" his players at Kentucky, both on and off the floor. He’s still going to get a ton of five-star prospects to come to Kentucky, although he might lose one or two every few seasons to that loophole.
As we go forward, it will be interesting to see how this is handled. Will more players look to skip college? Will the NBA and the NCAA work to close the loophole? Will Maker fail to pan out, causing this idea of avoiding college to die out?
It’s certainly going to make for an interesting storyline as we watch Skal and Maker develop, and see who actually turns out to be the better pro.