Isaiah Joe is now in the final days of NCAA’s decision deadline


By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — Extraordinary times. Such is the case for college basketball underclassmen who technically still have one foot in the college game with the other foot in the 2020 NBA Draft pool.

For the underclassmen who have not withdrawn from the draft but have not hired an agent, they’re exactly one week away from the NCAA’s mandated Aug. 3 deadline (next Monday) to either withdraw and return to school or remain in the draft in pursuit of a pro career. Arkansas’ Isaiah Joe is one who’s in that tough-enough-already spot — it’s an annual challenge for many players just trying to make the best decision on the timing to turn pro — only this go-round the added complexities due to the coronavirus pandemic have made wading through the process and weighing options tenfold-difficult.

We’ve already examined a lot of it (our recent stories are appended below), and with news breaking Sunday night that Joe received an invite to the NBA Draft Combine (whether or not it actually gets rescheduled remains to be seen) it makes the lure and call from the next level louder and stronger. As we wait-and-watch in the twilight of this stay-or-go decision let’s drill down a bit more on some important factors …

Timing as it relates to the resumption of Razorbacks basketball activities. It’s been reported and widely discussed that Joe was absent from last week’s on-court start-up to Eric Musselman’s Arkansas training camp (much of that is detailed in our July 21 and July 23 reports below). But it can’t be underscored enough that in any other year the same kind of stay-or-go process would have played out entirely — workouts, interviews, draft combine, withdraw date, and the draft itself — before the end of June, meaning no overlap or conflict with Hog team activities at this stage.

* If Joe were serious about returning to Arkansas, wouldn’t he already know and be all the way back with the Hogs by now? Again, in any other normal-calendar process this would have been resolved roughly two months ago. That Joe came back to Fayetteville with teammates in early June to resume voluntary strength-and-conditioning and shooting work is a testament to the fact he’s still considering a return for his junior season. By the way, Joe actually dropped by for one of the Hogs’ practices last week, and he has continued to take part in the strength-and-conditioning portion of camp with teammates. But with the window closing fast on a decision as NBA teams remain serious about drafting him it’s understandable that Joe’s focus would be laser-pointed on making the most of what’s left in that part of the process. That means putting interviews with NBA teams, analyzing his underclassmen advisory committee feedback, and continuing basketball training preparation specific to the NBA — putting all of it on the front-burners for now to assist in making the best decision he can make for himself.

Timing and uncertainty as they relate to the resumption of college and professional basketball as well as draft preparation. There’s a lot to unpack here. Again, some of it we touched on in previous reports, but as time marches on it brings more clarity or lack thereof. All of college sports continues to be on hold while the NBA has moved a bit beyond its bubble-to-basketball proof of concept by beginning scrimmage competition last week between it’s league teams (which has been preseason-esque). It’s been a cautious start to a ramp-up for completing a brief slate of regular-season games that will flow into the playoffs. That’s 22 NBA teams whose players are, in theory, bubble-wrapped at one location where they are reasonably protected from contracting or spreading covid-19. Conversely, 300-plus D1 college schools whose student-athletes are located all over the country with vast limitations relative to the NBA in terms of testing, quarantining, contact-tracing, etc. are much less able to nail down a return to competition as the coronavirus numbers continue to escalate.

With the ultimate goal for most college basketball players being to take the next step of playing professionally with the pinnacle being the NBA, the notion of the college game potentially not being on the menu of options in 2020-21 might steer some to stay in the draft. Because the main reason to return to school now would be that it forges their best paths to the NBA, but if there is no season what’s the benefit (from a basketball-career standpoint) in returning?

That uncertainty runs both ways. Remember, due to the pandemic there has been no NBA Draft Combine (again it still has not been rescheduled, and though Joe and former Arkansas guard and 2019-20 Co-SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones both received invites to the combine if it can be rescheduled for a later dateit remains to be seen if it ever gets rescheduled); no travel to work out for and interview with NBA teams (may not happen in this draft cycle); and no NBA Summer League (which comes after the draft, but it’s when some first-contracts are forged which plays into the uniqueness of this year’s decision deadline as players must factor in the potential absence of such an important part of the overall process).

The unknown of it all has become nuanced non-science in this year’s process.

* The biggest uncertainty of all: What to believe and who to trust during a mass-information gathering process. So many layers of information, starting with surface stuff like mock drafts, big boards, and opinions that are out there for public consumption, and to be certain some of it offers varying levels of valuable insight. The draft itself will reveal which takeaways were accurate. In the case of Joe, there is a range of projections that go from being on the fringes of the middle of the first round to not being drafted.

Then there’s the inside stuff between draft-eligible prospects, their college coaches, agents, and teams (scouts and GMs) that include interviews, feedback such as the underclassmen advisory committee analysis, NBA Draft Combine invites, and ultimately even unofficial negotiations. Again, the combine and individual team workouts, in-person interviews, and team medical exams are off the table for now, but would be part of the normal process and may end up being in play for those who stick in the draft which is still roughly two-and-a-half months out.

For Joe, who has not hired an agent to maintain his eligibility to return to school, the process has likely been more organic for him. That is to say, many agents will be hands-on in generating interest and interviews for their clients, which may not always be the best gauge of teams’ true interest in a player. Conversely, the fact Joe has gotten interviews with most of the league’s teams with some circling back for second looks without a paid advocate pushing buttons on his behalf may provide some added insight to teams’ true interest in him. On the other hand, agents can provide resources and opportunities through relationships/connections, offering  value while enhancing their clients’ draft potential.

With all the information and feedback flowing in and out, at the end of the day it’s the general managers of NBA teams that will be front-and-center in draft decisions. And for most players in the draft, arriving at a place of knowing where they’ll be selected is a rare journey. Even players projected as lottery picks (first 14 selections of the draft) or first-round locks routinely get draft-night surprises. Most of the two-round, 60-player draft is packed with plenty of uncertainty going into draft night.

For Joe — based on source feedback on the outside looking in — it appears as though he’s most likely to be selected in the early-to-mid-second round with some late-first round potential. The worst-case in that speculative scenario is mid-second round which these days typically means guaranteed money for two years as part of a likely four-year overall deal. Late second-round picks typically get about half the guarantees that early-to-mid-second round picks get if they are signed. Additionally, some second-round picks could end up battling undrafted free agents for less-coveted but important two-way contracts (NBA / G-League splits with most of the season spent in the G-League). Obviously, the global worst-case scenario is not being drafted at all.

So, there are numerous risks for predominately second-round-projected players.

Not knowing what teams are telling Joe and his family in terms of enticement to stay in the draft, we can at least look at recent history (last year’s draft, specifically mid-second round) as well as other factors for some idea of what options might await him if he were to stay in.

— Former Arkansas big man Daniel Gafford was selected No. 38 overall (8th pick of the second round) by the Chicago Bulls and ended up signing a four-year, $6,129,593 deal with the first two years and $2,416,291 of the money guaranteed. Gafford inked his deal in the middle of the NBA Summer League last July, serving as an example of the importance of the summer league in post-draft negotiations (we touched on this notion in our story of April 20 linked below).

— A couple of players selected after Gafford — Isaiah Roby at No. 45 and Terance Mann at No. 48 — signed deals with more overall and guaranteed money than Gafford. Point is, there are relatively attractive contract opportunities beyond the first few picks of the second round.

— Bol Bol was projected as a first-round pick in 2019 and was invited to the draft’s “green room” as part of the televised event, only to slip to the No. 44 overall pick (middle of the second round). He ended up signing the smallest guaranteed contract, both in terms of length (one year) and money ($79,568) among the first 48 picks who signed deals. He obviously left more money and guarantees on the table to prove in a year’s time he’s worth that first-round grade that got him to the green room in the first place.

— Many drafted players will spend some time in the NBA G-League, even some lottery picks, in the early years of their careers. But there is no certainty there will be a G-League next season, which can also be said of some of the overseas opportunities that players have used in the past as leverage when negotiating contracts with NBA teams. So much uncertainty on the backend of the draft when viewing proving-ground opportunities that it may factor into some underclassmen’s decision-making calculus.

Just scratching the surface of what plays into the decision-making process reveals an unenviable task for Joe and his family, and we’ll all learn soon enough if he’ll be back with the Hogs in ’20-21 or moving onward to professional basketball opportunities.

Linked below are recent stories detailing to Isaiah Joe’s NBA Draft process …

* From July 23 … Joe out during first week of training camp …

* From July 21 and July 5 … Joe’s draft process updates …

* From April 20, 2020 … Joe declares for NBA draft …

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