It's been a rough few years, publicity wise, for the NCAA. With money pouring in to college athletics at an unprecedented rate, the original sin of "amateurism" is becoming harder and harder to justify. Schools switch conferences and abandon centuries-old rivalries at the drop of the hat, yet Shabazz Muhammad can't have a nice backpack without it becoming a national scandal. It's no surprise so many NCAA stars depart for the NBA as soon as they can. The NCAA rulebook is akin to a speed trap on an interstate highway: if everyone's breaking a law, you can arrest anyone you want to.
However, the grass isn't always greener on the other side. The odds of a long NBA career are against players taken outside of the lottery. Many playoff-caliber teams have little patience for developing young players, while coaches like Rick Carlisle and Avery Johnson have spent their entire careers bending over backwards to keep older veterans in the league at the expense of new blood. Carlisle has given minutes to Troy Murphy, Derek Fisher and Mike James this season. Avery actually played Jerry Stackhouse! In 2012! Making an NBA roster is one thing, but being given the chance to develop with a steady spot in a rotation is something else entirely.
For the right prospects, staying in school can make all the difference. There's no better example of that than Indiana's Victor Oladipo, whose immeasurably improved his NBA draft stock in his junior season. Oladipo, a super-athletic 6'5, 215-pound shooting guard, emerged as a legitimate prospect as a sophomore, but questions about his jump shot and offensive polish made him strictly a second-rounder. This season, he's come back to school with a much improved perimeter shot while boosting his offensive efficiency to stratospheric levels.
While Cody Zeller is still the Hoosiers' best NBA prospect, Oladipo is clearly their MVP. There are other wings with his athletic ability in college hoops, but they aren't nearly as polished. Oladipo is the rare elite athlete who plays the game under exceptional control: he's a lock-down defender, but he almost never gets himself out of position or picks up silly fouls. He's a slasher who can throw down monster dunks at the rim, but he almost never picks up charges or forces the action offensively. The second he gets on the floor, he makes his presence felt on both sides of the ball.
Take a look at Oladipo's statistics this season. They are entirely unreasonable. He has a 30.4 PER! He's averaging 14 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2.5 steals and 1 block a game on 64/72/51 shooting. He doesn't have the offensive game to be a star at the next level, but he's improved his jumper and decision making to the point where he can walk onto a team and contribute as a rookie. Any NBA coach would be happy to have him, while his energy and athleticism will make him an instant fan favorite.
In contrast, if Oladipo had decided to declare for the draft last season, he would never have been given the chance to expand his game. The best player on a college team has much more leeway to freelance and improvise than an 11th/12th man fighting to prove he should stick in the NBA. My two favorite Oladipo plays this season are ones he didn't even finish. Against Minnesota, he actually tried to throw a two-hand power dunk on Rodney Williams' head. Williams, at 6'7, might be the best leaper in college basketball. Just attempting that required an almost foolhardy amount of bravado. And who could forget the alley-oop he just missed against Michigan?
At the next level, being a great athlete, especially on the perimeter, isn't enough. Travis Leslie, another elite 6'5 athlete with a shaky offensive game, declared for the 2011 draft after his junior season at Georgia. He was taken No. 47 overall by the Clippers, an almost negligible investment on their part. He barely saw the floor as a rookie, playing a grand total of 45 minutes in 10 games. L.A. waived him after one season and now he's in the D-League, fighting for another chance that may never come. For all but the truly elite, the difference between making the NBA and not often comes down to opportunity.
Unless they are taken in the lottery, a rookie contract won't set up a prospect for life. The second contract is the most important one of a basketball player's career and the vast majority of NBA players never get one. There's a reason the average NBA career is only 4.5 years long: if you haven't produced as an entry-level worker, teams won't start paying you like a veteran, they'll just bring in another prospect and start the process over.
That isn't to say that staying in school benefits everyone. Guys like Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes, whose games are more based around skill than athleticism, can see their stocks plummet the longer they stay. For them, more exposure just gave NBA scouts more time to assess the holes in their game. Cody Zeller is another example of a guy whose probably as ready as he'll ever be for the next level. Oladipo, on the other hand, is the prototype for players who would benefit from staying in school: an elite athlete who still needed time to refine his game.
And hey, a la Brett Favre, he sure looks like he's having a good time out there. That counts for something too.
Shot creation: Zeller is one of the most gifted scorers in the country, with a combination of skills you don't see often at any level of basketball. A surprisingly athletic 6'11, 240-pound big man, he's got an excellent low-post game as well as a surprisingly advanced dribble-drive game. He can either punish smaller defenders down low or take them out to the high post and use his quickness to get to the rim. (Averaging 16 points on 60 percent shooting, 7.1 free throw attempts a game)
Defense: The weakest aspect of his game and the reason why he's slipped from a consensus top-3 selection before the season started. While he's best suited to playing as a center on offense, he's not really a defensive anchor at the rim or on the low block. On the next level, he would be best served sharing a frontcourt with a versatile defender like Tyson Chandler or Derrick Favors, who would allow Zeller to guard the weaker of an opponent's big men. And while he might have trouble against a team like Memphis with two elite post scorers, he has enough length and athleticism to be passable against most NBA frontlines. (Averaging 1.2 steals, 1.4 blocks this season)
Perimeter shot: He doesn't take all that many shots outside the paint, which is understandable considering how dominant he is around the rim at the college level. However, at the next level, Zeller will need to consistently knock down a 15-20 foot jumper. His excellent free throw shooting percentage as well as high overall skill level suggests he will be able to, but it's something he'll need to prove to teams in individual workouts. (Shooting 60/0/74 on percentages this season)
Passing: Zeller is capable of having offense run through him in the post. He's an unselfish player who could have a much higher scoring average at the college level if he hunted his own shot more, but he's content to work within the flow of the offense. (Averaging 1.2 assists on 1.8 turnovers this season)
Rebounding: He's a solid, if not spectacular, rebounder for a center. While he won't have nearly as much of an athletic edge at the next level, he is willing to get his nose dirty in the paint. The one concern is how he holds up in wrestling matches against bigger and more physical frontlines, as Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix of Michigan State threw him around a lot a few weeks ago. (Averaging 8.3 rebounds this season)
Best case: A more athletic Brook Lopez
Worst case: Tyler Zeller
Shot creation: One of the areas where his improved jumper really benefits him. Oladipo is still mostly a straight-line driver, but the threat of his shot gives him a lot more driving lanes to the rim. He's become a much more integral part of the Indiana offense as a junior and his ability to finish at the rim is second to none. (Averaging 14 points on 64 percent shooting, 3.7 free throw attempts a game)
Defense: The best perimeter defender in the country, despite what ESPN may say about Aaron Craft. He's got the prototypical build of an All-Defensive team SG, with quick feet and long arms at 6'5 and 215 pounds. Oladipo is one of the rare prospects who should be an impact defender early in his NBA career. He'll be able to match up with all three perimeter positions, while also giving you steals and blocks. (Averaging 2.5 steals, 1 block a game)
Perimeter shot: Oladipo has gone from a non-entity without the ball in his hands to a legitimate threat in his three seasons at Bloomington, which speaks to his work ethic. Just as impressive, he has an excellent sense of what is and isn't a good shot, rarely falling into the trap of contested threes when a better shot is available. He won't be an elite shooter in the NBA, at least not initially, but he won't kill a team's floor spacing either. (Shooting 64/51/72 on percentages this season, 1.9 three-point attempts a game)
Passing: Probably the weakest part of his game. Oladipo is capable of reading the defense and making the correct pass, particularly on the pick-and-roll and in transition, but he's not a natural playmaker by any stretch. (Averaging 2.3 assists and 2.3 turnovers a game)
Rebounding: One of the areas where his athleticism and motor really translates. Oladipo crashes the glass hard on both ends; he can start, run and finish the break himself. (Averaging 5.3 rebounds a game)
Best case: Avery Bradley
Worst case: Gerald Henderson
Shot creation: Watford is a bit of a puzzle. He has the tools to be an absolute mismatch nightmare at the college level, but he doesn't always use them. At 6'9 and 230 pounds, he's a great shooter with a good amount of athleticism, which allows him to punish smaller players on the block and take bigger defenders out to the perimeter, but he spends most of his time floating along the three-point line. To be fair, some of that may be his role for the Hoosiers, where he spaces the floor for a lot of players who need the ball in their hands too. (Averaging 13 points on 45 percent shooting, 4.7 free throw attempts a game)
Defense: While Watford has a good combination of size and athleticism, he still projects as a bit of a defensive tweener at the next level. He's a 3.5 who may be too slow to defend threes and too small to defend fours in the NBA. However, on a second unit, he should be able to hold his own and not be too much of liability. (Averaging 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks a game)
Perimeter shot: How he'll make his living in the NBA. Tom Crean may want him to play closer to the rim at Bloomington, but Watford is a pure shooter who should have a long career as a specialist at the next level. He's already the author of one of the most famous shots in recent NCAA history. (Shooting 45/48/82 on percentages this season, 3.3 three-pointers a game)
Passing: Watford is comfortable with the ball in his hands, but he's not asked to be much of a distributor at Indiana and that's not likely to change in the NBA. (Averaging 0.9 assists, 1.5 turnovers a game)
Rebounding: While Watford's overall rebounding numbers aren't that impressive for a power forward, that's mostly the result of him playing so much on the perimeter on offense. He has an impressive defensive rebounding percentage (20.3), but his low offensive percentage (7.1) brings his numbers down. (Averaging 7 rebounds this season)
Best case: Jeff Green
Worst case: James Jones
Yogi Ferrell: A former McDonald's All-American, Ferrell has been able to step in as a freshman PG and run the offense of a title contender, no easy feat. At 6'0 and 180, he doesn't have great size, but he has the quickness, shooting and passing ability to make up for it. He's the only freshman in a starting line-up with three upperclassmen, so it will be interesting to see how he develops as he's given a larger role in the Hoosiers offense in the next few years. (Averaging 8 points, 4.5 assists and 3 rebounds on 40/34/81 shooting)
Jeremy Hollowell: A 6'8, 220-pound freshman small forward with an intriguing combination of size, athleticism and skill. Hollowell doesn't have a very big role this season, but he's shown flashes of real ability in his time on the floor. With Watford, Oladipo and Zeller likely gone to the NBA next season, he should have a much bigger role as a sophomore. (Averaging 4 points, 2 rebounds on 41/14/69 shooting)
Remy Abell: An athletic 6'4, 200-pound sophomore combo guard, Abell is a bit of a mini-Oladipo, although he's much farther away from translating that skill-set into on-court performance. There aren't too many minutes for him this season on the perimeter; like many of Indiana's bench players, he'll have to wait for his chance in Bloomington. (Averaging 5 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist on 47/50/76 shooting)
Will Sheehey: A 6'7, 200-pound junior small forward, Sheehey has been the Hoosiers' sixth man in each of the last two seasons. He projects as somewhat of a "2.5" at the next level, not quite athletic enough to be a shooting guard or big enough to be a small forward. As a result, he'll have a lot to prove as a senior: he'll need to maximize his skill-set, both in terms of his shooting percentages and his all-around game, to make an NBA team willing to gamble on a prospect with his relatively limited physical tools. (Averaging 10 points, 4 rebounds and 1 assist on 50/39/71 shooting)
Hanner Mosquera-Perea: A very athletic 6'8, 225-pound freshman forward, Mosquera-Perea's first year in college has been hamstrung by a nine-game suspension to start the season because of a bizarre and fairly capricious NCAA eligibility ruling. He's carved out a small role in the Indiana rotation, but he's still a fairly blank slate in terms of projection. Given his size, Mosquera-Perea will need to show that he's capable of playing away from the basket, but it's still too early to say one way or the other whether he can.
Peter Jurkin: He was sidelined by the same eligibility concerns as Mosquera-Perea and will probably not see the floor as a freshman. However, at 7'0 and 230, his size alone makes him a prospect.