Florida Gators freshman point guard made a somewhat surprising announcement on Friday: He will “take advantage of the new NCAA rules” and enter the 2019 NBA Draft process, rather than merely returning to Florida for his sophomore season.
That’s a bit of a surprise by Nembhard, whose stock as of now is that of an undrafted player. Nembhard’s name does not appear in ESPN’s most recent mock draft ($), nor does it appear among ESPN’s ranking of the 100 best prospects available for the 2019 draft. Put simply, it beggars belief to think that he would be likely to be drafted this summer if his name remains in the draft pool beyond the deadline for pulling it out and returning to school.
But, of course, Nembhard will retain the ability to do that into at least late May — and could even retain it beyond the draft itself in June. That’s where some of those “new NCAA rules” come in: The NCAA has allowed players to return to school after declaring for the draft for a few years, but also now allows players who submit their names for consideration for the NBA Draft to have representation through the pre-draft process, and will even allow those players who participate in the NBA Draft Combine and go undrafted to return to school.
(And no, I don’t think the NCAA’s apparent idiotic interpretation of its own rules change — which amounts to “Our rule isn’t in effect because we’re waiting for the NBA to follow suit” — that suggests undrafted players can’t actually return to school if they follow the NCAA’s guidance is going to hold water. My kingdom for a player who is good enough to go to the Combine, make clear he does not want to be drafted this year, and call the NCAA’s bluff on its enforcement of its own stupid rule.)
Not every player who declares for the draft will make it to the Draft Combine — last year, that number was only 69 prospects, leaving just nine more participants than the 60-pick draft has spots — but the combination of the pre-draft process in general and Combine in particular has done well to weed out players who are not in serious consideration for being chosen early or picked at all. Among the underclassmen who were 2018 Combine participants who returned to school were Kentucky’s P.J. Washington, who bloomed into a possible lottery pick in his sophomore season, Auburn’s Austin Wiley, and the Nevada pairing of Caleb and Cody Martin that Nembhard and Florida defeated in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
But there’s an awkward yet central question to consider: Is Nembhard going to be invited to the Draft Combine? That would seem like a stretch at this point, given that dozens of players who have exhausted their collegiate eligibility and dozens more early entrants are going to be ahead of him in the pecking order.
Last year, a stunning 181 players declared for the draft with college eligibility remaining; this year, that number is verging on 100 with another week left to go before the April 21 deadline to declare. The majority of those 181 players who declared early — like Florida’s own Jalen Hudson — did return to school, and, obviously, only a minority of those players even made it to the Combine.
But even making it there was no guarantee of getting drafted, and there were players, like Arizona guard Allonzo Trier, who participated in the Combine and still did not hear their names called. (This year, Trier would theoretically have been able to return to Arizona — not that he would have wanted to — but last year, the NCAA’s new rules weren’t in place, so he continued his pursuit of a professional career, and ended up having a decent rookie season as a reserve guard for the moribund New York Knicks.)
If Nembhard can impress enough decision-makers — or get good enough representation — to wrangle a spot at the Draft Combine, he will have put himself in a decent spot: Either he could get drafted and go pro, or go undrafted and safely return to Florida.
But that if is enormous when it comes to a player on no one’s draft boards at the moment, even if none other than ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi made note of his early entry on Friday. And Nembhard’s basketball skills are those of a player who could ultimately be more than an afterthought in a different draft.
For Nembhard, the case of Lonzo Ball is probably instructive.
Ball was (and is) a better athlete, was a better playmaker, and was a far better collegiate shooter than Nembhard, but both players are tall, heady point guards who could be good to great defenders with time and lack the explosiveness to be natural scorers. Ball went No. 2 in a shallow 2017 draft — behind Markelle Fultz, who is increasingly likely to be an all-time bust — and it would be hard to call him a successful pick for the Los Angeles Lakers at the moment, given that he has been injured and has struggled mightily with his shot even when his brash father has given him a respite from the limelight. (Rajon Rondo, who is 33, had a better PER in the 2018-19 season than Ball did.)
Does any NBA team desperately want a less athletic, less potent version of Ball, even without any resembling the circus that accompanies him? I don’t think so. And convincing a a team otherwise — or somehow remaking himself as a player in the space of a month — is now Nembhard’s great challenge.
It seems likely to me that Nembhard will get some patently obvious feedback during the pre-draft process: If he is going to be an NBA player someday, as is his dream, he will need to get quicker, faster, and stronger, and probably also need to refine a shot that is mechanically wonky and only went in at a decent 35 percent clip from three-point range. Those things can be worked on over weeks of intensive training, but they are better worked on over months or years, especially in the case of the physical traits.
My bet is that he ultimately ends up back at Florida with a better understanding of both why his NBA dream remains beyond reach at the moment and what he needs to be to make that dream come true in the long run. (Nembhard mentioning a talk with Mike White in the first sentence of a statement clearly prepared with the help of Florida’s graphics designers is a strong clue that the Gators are well aware of his motivations and desires.) I’d also wager that Nembhard — who will play with elite talent that will compliment him and his game far better as a sophomore than the Gators’ 2018-19 roster did — will be back in a similar situation in a year’s time.
But the process is the process. And you have to go through it to get hip to it.