Andrew Luck, heroic quarterback of the Stanford Cardinal, decided against being the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft to return to Palo Alto for a senior season. It's unclear how much the NFL's potential lockout affected Luck's decision; suffice it to say that it didn't hurt Stanford's chances.
Could the same happen in the NBA, also facing a labor crisis at season's end? Like NFL prospects, basketball underclassmen will be forced to make draft declarations well before the fate of the 2011-12 season is decided. Will the uncertainty lead top-flight prospects back to school?
To be sure, the 2011 NBA draft currently lacks an unquestioned No. 1 prospect like Luck had been for the NFL. This is not a John Wall year, or a Blake Griffin year. As of now, there's no consensus No. 1 pick. DraftExpress has injured Duke point guard Kyrie Irving there. ESPN's Chad Ford currently lists Baylor's Perry Jones on top. Carolina wing Harrison Barnes had been seen as the most likely No. 1 pick before he got off to a rough start this season, but he could be back. Other prospects like Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, Josh Selby and Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas could make runs at the top spot, too.
That's why I think Luck's decision won't be replicated in the NBA: As of now, all of these players have opportunities to be drafted really high. A good work-out season and the right fit after the lottery decides draft order could lead to any one of these prospects shooting to the top. But the fact that none of them are already top-pick shoe-ins indicates that they are all quite flawed. They can't afford to turn down an opportunity for the top spot with a new class filled with excellent prospects coming in next year.
Basketball is simply different than football in terms of what players can do during a stoppage. Would-be NBA rookies won't be under contract if the league locks out players on July 1. As such, the rookies can play ball in Europe or in lower professional leagues in the United States, much as veteran NBA free agents will be able to do. It's hard to see a player like Luck finding a QB job for a few months to stay fresh.
There's also the matter of how serious changes to rookie contracts will be in each sport after these labor issues are resolved. The NFL figures to institute some sort of rookie scale, dramatically shrinking salary for incoming players. The NBA has had such a scale for more than a decade, and given that rookies already make relatively little, it's unlikely to be changed too much in a new collective bargaining agreement.
Finally, the key for good NBA prospects is getting to that second contract -- that's when the money really rolls in. If the NBA has a lock-out that kills a chunk of the regular season, those rookies are still in the system in 2011-12, and the run toward Contract No. 2 is underway. Things are different right now in the NFL, and maximizing rookie dollars and getting put in a good situation is more important. In the NBA, it's all about the second contract. Delaying its arrival by a year is a huge consequence for any top-flight prospects considering another year of school due to labor uncertainty.