Pandemic changes NBA draft rules for seniors

In a shift from years past, the NBA league office will require college seniors to petition the league for inclusion on the NBA early-entry list in order to become draft-eligible in 2021.

Last October, due to disruptions caused by the pandemic, the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility to winter athletes, meaning every senior in college basketball is eligible to return for an additional season in 2021-22.

While the NBA is requiring players to “opt in” to the draft, the NFL took the opposite stance last month, requiring graduating college seniors (who played four years) to opt out by March 1 if they intend to return to college for their additional year of eligibility.

This NBA’s move is expected to result in a record-breaking number of players on the draft’s early-entry list, which last year had 163 college underclassmen.

Garth Glissman, vice president of basketball operations for the NBA, told ESPN that this was the right approach for NBA teams and for college basketball players.

“If you think about all that college students across the world and college basketball players have been through — they are in this situation through none of their doing,” he said. “They didn’t want the pandemic to abruptly end last season. They certainly didn’t want to play through a pandemic this season. This entire situation has occurred by virtue of circumstances beyond their control. So we didn’t think it was appropriate to add on to their plate an additional layer of responsibility that they have to affirmatively opt out. We’re essentially taking on the administrative burdens at a time that these players have enough on their plates and are in this situation for reasons that are completely beyond their control.”

According to the NBA collective bargaining agreement, graduating college seniors — meaning those who have exhausted their four years of NCAA eligibility — are automatically eligible for the NBA draft and do not need to declare themselves eligible via the early-entry list.

The wording is: “The player has graduated from a four-year college or university in the United States, and has no remaining intercollegiate basketball eligibility.”

With the NCAA granting all players an extra year, the second part of that rule is no longer applicable, as every player in college basketball has “remaining intercollegiate basketball eligibility.”

The language required the NBA to consult with the NBA players’ association and the NCAA to determine whether to automatically include all seniors in the draft “unless they elect not to avail themself of the fifth year of college eligibility,” like the NFL stated, or instead require players to opt in to the NBA draft this spring.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, 19.7% of players drafted over the past five years have been NCAA seniors.

In terms of the timetable for when players must declare themselves eligible for the NBA draft and begin the process of “testing the waters” to determine their likelihood of being selected, quite a bit of uncertainty still exists.

In normal years, the NBA requires underclassmen (and non-automatically eligible international players) to declare their eligibility by the middle to latter part of April, consistent with CBA language stating that the NBA early-entry deadline is 60 days prior to the NBA draft (normally held the third week of June). While it’s still unknown when the 2021 NBA draft will be held, it is typically conducted in the week following the NBA Finals, which would be late July this year based on the current NBA calendar.

The deadline for when college basketball players must decide whether to keep their names on the early-entry list — a separate date from the NBA’s withdrawal deadline — is also still up in the air. NCAA guidelines identify the early-entry withdrawal deadline as being 10 days after the conclusion of the NBA combine. The date for the 2021 combine, as well as the format, remains undecided. In 2020, the NCAA pushed the deadline to Aug. 3 due to the NBA calendar shift.

Given the current state of NBA safety protocols around the coronavirus pandemic, and the stress that has put on its 30 teams logistically, it appears unlikely that draft prospects will be able to start their pre-draft process or have contact with NBA teams in terms of conducting workouts or interviews until late May or possibly June. Any modifications to the 60-day period between the release of the NBA early-entry list and the draft would have to be collectively bargained with the NBA players’ association. The NBA regular season is currently scheduled to conclude on May 16, about a month later than normal.

The situation would also lead to a significant amount of uncertainty for college basketball teams regarding the construction of their rosters until deep into the summer. A one-time transfer waiver provision is expected to be passed by the NCAA, which would allow all college basketball players the ability to switch schools one time without sitting out a season.

Players testing the NBA draft waters will likely want to first get an accurate gauge of their professional prospects before deciding on whether to return to school, and then for which school to play for. The possibility of receiving payments under name, image and likeness legislation, which may be resolved this spring or summer, could further complicate their decision-making process.

The NFL’s decision to force college seniors to opt out of the NFL draft to take advantage of the extra year of NCAA eligibility created a hard deadline that currently does not exist for college basketball.

With the season ending for most college basketball players in the next three weeks, a long dead period lasting until at least the end of May before players are permitted to communicate with NBA teams will likely cause significant uncertainty.

To account for that void, the NBA says it will ramp up its education of players through its Undergraduate Advisory Committee.

The UAC was formed in 1997 to assist players in the NBA draft decision-making process, and in recent years it has played a larger role — especially last year due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Prior to the early-entry deadline, the UAC sends NBA executives a series of emails with a list of names of players who are seeking feedback, requesting their team’s assessment of players’ draft stock. Players are then informed of the consensus reached by weighing the NBA executives’ responses and offering feedback on whether the player is likely to be a lottery pick, first-rounder, second-rounder or undrafted.

“We are going to work diligently to enhance our communications to the college basketball community,” Glissman said. “We, both the NCAA and the NBA, recognize the need for education on an ongoing basis throughout this year’s draft process. There’s more uncertainty this year than in a normal year. So we have mutually committed to trying to do our best to provide that ongoing education to college players, coaches and family members, with the full intention of helping young men make an informed decision at an important time in their life. We have a track record that we built up a relationship with the NCAA in recent years to really hit on this educational theme, and we intend to really ramp it up this year.

“This is a continuation of something that we’ve been working hard at in the last few years. For the third year now, we are providing student athletes written feedback, first prior to the early entry deadline, so they get that initial feedback prior to deciding whether they want to enter the draft. And then if they do enter, and they’re contemplating whether to stay in or return to school, they get a second round of written feedback.”

The NCAA will now need to decide when to require players to withdraw from the NBA draft, as well as any deadlines they may put in place for when players must opt in or out of their extra year of eligibility. Some of that will likely depend on the dates the NBA decides on for its draft and combine.

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