To Sign Or Not To Sign?
Top college underclassman spend a summer in limbo

Brian Litvack

After three years in college, Lawrence Roberts thinks he's ready for the NBA. In the next few weeks he hopes to find out if the league is ready to employ him.

Roberts is doing his best to make the right career decision
Roberts, the reigning SEC player of the year, has experienced more adversity and success than most college athletes. Last summer, Roberts made the decision to leave behind a Baylor program ravished by tragedy, and transferred to Mississippi State. His moved paid off as he led the Bulldogs to a SEC regular season championship and was named SEC player of the year.

Now Roberts must make another crucial decision. By not signing with an agent, Roberts has the option to stay in next month's NBA draft or to return to Starkville for his senior season to work on his game and display his skills in hopes of improving his draft stock.

Like many accomplished college underclassman, Roberts is "testing the waters". This process can be as treacherous as taking a dip in a shark-tank with an open wound during feeding time. For college athletes to make the best decision, they must fend off pushy agents who are dangling the quick buck, adhere to strict NCAA guidelines regarding their pre-draft expenses and sort through the double-talk of scouts, general managers and media draft experts.

Besides Roberts, St. Joseph's Delonte West, Providence's Ryan Gomes, Washington's Nate Robinson and UNLV's Odartey Blankson highlight a list of between 15-20 underclassman who declared for the draft but preserved the right to return to school.

Almost all of these players will stay in the draft if they are satisfied with their projected draft position. For most, this means a first round selection, which marks the financial watershed that is the difference between a guaranteed three-year contract and fighting it out for the last roster spot in training camp. If a player learns that his draft projection is not favorable, he may decide that it would be wise to go back to school in hopes of improving his draft stock.

An alarming number of college stars have acted on faulty intelligence and prematurely tried to enter the workforce only to be bitterly disappointed. Omar Cook, Marcus Taylor and Rick Rickert are a few of the big names that entered the draft, were passed over in the first round, and have struggled to reach the NBA.

"Like many accomplished college underclassman, Roberts is "testing the waters". This process can be as treacherous as taking a dip in a shark-tank with an open wound during feeding time.

In fact, the reason why Roberts' transferred to Mississippi State was because incumbent power forward Mario Austin decided to enter the draft last summer. Austin believed he would be a first round selection, but wasn't drafted until the middle of the second round. He was cut by the Chicago Bulls in training camp and spent the last year overseas struggling in a Russian league.

For a young athlete who is trying to reach his dream of making the NBA, the draft process can be overwhelming. Ryan Blake, who along with his father Marty heads the NBA scouting service, is familiar with the obstacles college athletes face. Blake notes, "that it is impossible for kids to fully understand the process, they need help, they need to talk to people who can give them the correct advice."

The most accurate and valuable advice comes from NBA director of operations Stu Jackson who is head of the undergraduate advisory committee. The committee consists of NBA general managers and league personnel (including Blake) who evaluate a player's NBA draft stock upon request. A college player can use the service as often as he likes leading up to the draft. Although it is impossible to give exact draft projections, the committee can provide the most accurate information available.

The first true sign of an athlete's draft status is if he is invited to the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago in the beginning of June. Only the top prospects are invited to the camp and here they are able to interact with general managers, scouts and NBA personnel.

A few players have successfully maneuvered through the pre-draft process and made savvy decisions to stay in college. This group includes 2004 Naismith Player of the Year Jameer Nelson, Chris Thomas, and former Arizona star Jason Gardner. All these players relied heavily on the advisory committee as well their own advisors. St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli was instrumental in helping Nelson receive correct information about his draft stock. Nelson performed well in Chicago but was not a first-round lock and chose to return to college. After a stellar senior year, he is now being considered a late lottery pick. Martelli is now helping Delonte West go through the same process this summer.

For many players separating the good advice from the bad can be difficult. Blake cites players' ignorance, mock projections and media hype as sources that might give a player a false idea of his draft stock.

Some underclassmen sign with an agent right when they declare and therefore lose any chance of returning to school. Agents often entice players to sign by claiming that they can help a player gain access to the best training facilities and trainers, set up workouts with scouts and NBA teams and help a player make decisions about attending pre-draft camps.

Agents will front expenses for travel to NBA cities for workouts as well as enroll their client in premiere training programs. If a player does not sign with an agent and decides to return to college he must prove that he paid for all his draft-related expenses to retain his amateur status.

Agents will also get their client a few basic endorsements that can run into the five figures. According to ESPN's Darren Rovell, a player such as Lawrence Roberts that has a chance to be drafted in the first round can sign with sports card companies before the draft and receive up to $10,000. Agent's even waive their fee for their client's initial contract, in hopes of signing the player and making money when he becomes a star.

Both Rovell and Blake agree that an agent can only do so much to help a player get drafted. The bottom line is that a player's talent, competitiveness, and ability is what gets them drafted. Agents often hound player and make promises of getting a player into the Chicago camp, and even a draft guarantee from an NBA. Blake adamantly states that an agent "absolutely can't" help his player get into the Chicago pre-draft camp. Rovell says, "it is highly unlikely that a team will guarantee that they will select a player if they have a late first round pick".

Blake also advises that kids don't get caught up in the hype. He comments that, "Many publications have mock drafts. These are great for fans, but they are terrible for a player who believes that this is an accurate projection of where he will be drafted."

Blake also points out that projecting the draft has become increasingly difficult with the draft pool expanding to include international prospects, high school stars, and even Junior College players.

College players often don't want to listen to what the league has to stay, and are so confident in their abilities that they take their shot at the NBA. Blake often tells a player to "stay in school, improve your game and hopefully improve your stock." Still, some of these players decide to go pro. Often their professional careers begin in the NBDL or overseas.

The bottom line is that testing the waters is a difficult process that players must treat as a serious business decision and proceed with responsibility and understanding. They must choose advisors that are looking out for their best interest, and rely on the advisory committee. Only then can a young college star sift through a plethora of information that has as many red herrings as an Enron balance sheet.