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Opinion: Playing overseas instead of college has benefits for NBA prospects

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Denver Nuggets first-round pick Emmanuel Mudiay poses for a pre-draft photo. Credit: Courtesy of NBA.com

Denver Nuggets first-round pick Emmanuel Mudiay poses for a pre-draft photo.
Credit: Courtesy of NBA.com

For a while now, there has been debate about the draft eligibility rule in the NBA. Currently, the rule states that a player has to be one year removed from high school in order to be eligible for the draft.

In the past, high school students were able to enter the draft immediately after high school, which superstars such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant decided upon.

On Thursday night at the 2015 NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets picked Emmanuel Mudiay seventh overall. Mudiay attended high school in Dallas and committed to play for coach Larry Brown at Southern Methodist University. Later on, Mudiay changed his decision to play one year at SMU and instead pursued a deal to play in China for one season and then enter the draft. He ended up signing a one-year contract with the Guangdong Southern Tigers worth $1.2 million.

Brandon Jennings was the first to forgo his one college season and play internationally. Despite that move, almost all of the top recruits since have played at least one season in college.

Mudiay got off to a strong start in his professional career in China, but a sprained ankle cost him extended playing time. With this injury, the Tigers decided to sign NBA veteran Will Bynum to replace him.

Bynum and the team thrived, so they kept Mudiay inactive even though he was healed. Chinese professional basketball has a rule that each team can only have two American players on their roster, so they decided to keep Bynum along with an American player already signed, Jeff Adrien.

It took a few months later from his injury in early December for the team to finally reactivate Mudiay to the roster. It took the Tigers being down 2-0 in a best of five playoff series to try to change things up. Mudiay helped the Tigers win Game 3, but they fell in Game 4, ending their season.

Now let us back up to high school, where Mudiay was the fifth-ranked recruit in the country. Players in the top 10 to 15 are usually deemed as possible one-and-done athletes. This means they play college basketball for one year, usually at a top-notch program, and then enter the draft following the season. They do not get their college degree or get paid outside of a scholarship, but the player’s main goal is to help prepare for the NBA level.

Cliff Alexander was from the same high school class as Mudiay and was ranked third in the country, only behind Jahlil Okafor, who went third in the draft, and Myles Turner, who went 11th.

Alexander seemed as if he was a lock to go one-and-done at Kansas as he entered the university as a freshman. He struggled at times throughout the season and had a minor injury issue. Alexander missed his last few games, also, due to an NCAA eligibility issue, which has no impact on his professional basketball stock. He finished the season averaging 7.1 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game.

Still, Alexander decided to enter the NBA draft and seemed as a lock to go in the late first or early second round based mostly on his high school credentials. His play throughout the season ultimately hurt his draft stock, as before the season he seemed to be a surefire lottery pick (top 14).

Surprisingly, on Thursday night no team selected him, though he has recently agreed to play for the Brooklyn Nets summer league team in hopes of making an NBA roster.

The point I am trying to make here is: What would have happened if Cliff Alexander took the same route as Mudiay? Playing overseas for the lone college season comes with benefits for top recruits. Not only can a top recruit make north of $1 million in one season, but also if he joins one of the top leagues, the competition level can be greater than major college basketball. It helps the athletes prepare even more for the NBA than college.

A major negative to playing overseas is being away from the player’s family and friends. Instead of being with family and college peers, he is with grown men in a completely different culture, speaking a different language.

Playing overseas can act as protection for a top recruit’s draft stock. Brandon Jennings struggled in Italy but was still selected 10th overall in 2009.  If Alexander decided to play somewhere overseas instead of at Kansas, he probably would have been at least a lottery selection.

Now Alexander will have to earn a spot in the league based off his summer league play and most likely a non-guaranteed contract. The seventh spot in the draft, where Mudiay went, makes over $2.5 million per year guaranteed on its rookie contract.

Some of the elite recruits do benefit from going to college for one season by improving their draft stock like the top two picks did. It also allows the players to be more recognized in the United States. This helps with fan notoriety, which leads to shoe or marketing deals with companies.

Mudiay was not as well known in the United States as D’Angelo Russell, Frank Kaminsky and Okafor, but Mudiay still signed a large deal with Under Armour. Mudiay’s example shows that a large company is not afraid to reach a deal with some lesser-known NBA prospects that were not seen on SportsCenter or in the NCAA tournament.

The question looms whether it is worth the risk to possibly go down Cliff Alexander’s route. Going overseas can create income north of $1 million for the one season and protect draft stock. I compare it similarly to how we see athletes choose not to participate in the NBA or NFL draft combines.

We will see if more top recruits decide to follow Emmanuel Mudiay’s path and avoid a possible disaster like Alexander’s in their lone college seasons. Commissioner Adam Silver and NBA owners should continue to discuss the draft eligibility rule, especially if more players now decide to go overseas.

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