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Staying in the NBA draft without a first-round guarantee is not the risk it once was

The league’s economics make going in the second round a potentially lucrative situation for the Missouri freshman.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Technically, Missouri combo forward Jontay Porter started his audition for an NBA job on Wednesday in Chicago.

The first day of the league’s draft combine is administrative. We get anatomical measurements and health testing to ferret out any landmines, and front offices get six hours to conduct their first round of interviews with prospects.

Pegging Porter’s stock, though, actually takes places on Thursday afternoon with athletic testing, shooting drills, and 5-on-5 scrimmages. For Michael Porter Jr. and other elite prospects, the poking and prodding end after one day; most of his ilk hit the road and head back to continue solo training or individual workouts with franchises.

Porter the Younger, however, could stick around the Windy City, going through another day of live action to expand the sample size of data GMs have at their disposal. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz hint that Porter’s stock might be linked to how well he fares in scrimmages.

Porter will have teams watching his physicality and whether he can hold up on the defensive end. He’s ultra-skilled as a stretch 5, but he struggles to guard in space and needs to tone up his frame.

That take tracks with the work done by the scribes over at The Stepien assessing Porter’s game and in a recent piece ($) by The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie. As the combine got underway, Porter told The Kansas City Star he had interviews arranged with 10 teams, and scouts said they were also keen to see what kind of motor to soft-spoken freshman displays against elite talent.

“I think he’s got to show us a little bit more. I think the motor will be an important part of that. Can he get up and down the floor? Can he show energy consistently? If he struggles, how will he react?”

Those questions have led to volatility in projections about where Porter might come off the board next month. On Tuesday night, the NBA draft lottery set the pecking order and kicked off another flurry of mock drafts, which give us a rough gauge of where Jontay might wind up.

Oh where will Jontay go?

Outlet Projected Pick Team
Outlet Projected Pick Team
ESPN 33 Atlanta Hawks
The Ringer 35 Dallas Mavericks 25 Los Angeles Lakers
Sports Illustrated 18 San Antonio Spurs
SB Nation 18 San Antonio Spurs
Bleacher Report 18 San Antonio Spurs
Basketball Insiders 31 Phoenix Suns

Sifting through mock drafts, scouting reports, and analytic profiles doesn’t convey the sense that the big man is confronting a tough decision about whether to return to Columbia. Though he has not yet made his final decision known, it has been assumed for a while that barring a dramatic shift, he is not returning.

Along with Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M, Mizzou is undergoing one of the biggest roster overhauls in the Southeastern Conference, especially on the perimeter. Keeping Porter in the fold would have not only helped coach Cuonzo Martin in terms of scoring, rebounding, and rim protection but also provided him an elite passer to bolster the point guard position, which didn’t get the infusion many observers hoped would take place.

Why would Porter opt to stay in a draft when there’s decent chance he may go in the second round? Why not use feedback to shape his offseason development and put up a stellar sophomore campaign?

In the past, those points had salience. Not now.

The NBA has evolved in terms of how it values, pays and uses second-round picks as part of the roster-building process, and Porter could become one of the first beneficiaries of these mutations.

Once we accept that reality, we can unpack why Porter, who is set to reap the benefits of sweat equity and betting on himself, is likely content to leave college behind after a lone season.

So, let’s unpack them.

1. Is Jontay risking a bigger payday going pro now?

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics
Second-round picks like Semi Ojeleye, who was taken at No. 38 by Boston in 2017, are reaping the benefits of a new CBA and heft TV contract.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

In late 2016, the NBA owners and players struck a new collective bargaining agreement shortly after the league hammered out a mammoth TV deal reached four years ago that pumps $2.6 billion a year into its coffers. Two provisions stand out as particularly relevant:

  • Rookie scale salaries increased by 45 percent
  • Two-way contracts arose, paying players — two per roster — based on whether they are with a G-League affiliate or the parent NBA franchise

At first, fans were transfixed by the insanity of free agency two summers ago — who can forget the great Emoji War? — that unfolded as GMs went on a spending spree spurred by a $24.1 million spike in the league’s salary cap.

Rookies, though, waited a year before their wage hike took effect after the 2017 NBA draft. Now, a rookie earning the league minimum over their first two years banks $2,128,226—or $120,000 more than George Hill took home as the No. 26 overall pick a decade ago.

As Vecenie pointed out ($), the rising revenue tide made second-round picks a commodity where front offices could bump their investment and hedge a significant amount of risk. With the NBA’s salary cap projected for an upward adjustment to $101 million in 2018-19, a franchise can offer a second-round pick a salary that was once reserved for first-rounders and still spend the same in real terms. Take a look.

Bang for their Buck

League Year Salary Cap Second-Year Minimum % of Cap Space
League Year Salary Cap Second-Year Minimum % of Cap Space
2008-2009 $58,680,000 $711,517 1.2
2009-2010 $57,700,000 $736,420 1.3
2010-2011 $58,044,000 $762,195 1.3
2011-2012 $58,044,000 $762,195 1.3
2012-2013 $58,044,000 $762,195 1.3
2013-2014 $58,679,000 $788,872 1.3
2014-2015 $63,065,000 $816,482 1.3
2015-2016 $70,000,000 $845,059 1.2
2016-2017 $94,130,000 $874,636 0.9
2017-2018 $99,093,000 $1,312,611 1.3
2018-2019 $101,000,000 $1,378,242 1.4
2018-2019 salary cap is projected, and

In effect, thanks to two-way contracts, GMs get two more roster spots they can use to stash developmental prospects in the G League. Last July, SB Nation gave a nice quick-and-dirty synopsis of the mechanics, but what matters is that a player on a two-way deal maxes out his salary at $279,000.

Tally it all up, and an enterprising GM could acquire three assets — one kept on at the mothership and two at an affiliate — for a grand total of $1,373,615, roughly the same cost as the rookie minimum for a second-year player. It’s the basketball equivalent of buying three lotto tickets for the price of one. Scratch off enough of them, you just might hit the jackpot.

Stepping back, the current state of the labor market is advantageous for rookies (more money sooner in their careers) and for their bosses (more roster flexibility at the same sunk cost). That flexibility also influences the structure and mechanics of the deal a GM would put in front of Porter if so happens to slip into the early second round.

2. Is Porter going to get a guaranteed deal?

Sacramento Kings v Brooklyn Nets
Frank Mason went No. 34 overall to Sacramento, but the Kings structured his guaranteed deal in a way that mirrors those received by first-round selections.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

In the past, a second-round grade sent a prospect scurrying back to campus, ready to spend a year sculpting their game. And it wasn’t without merit. Often, players taken in the second round wound up on the scrap heap shortly after Summer League.

Porter and his peers, though, are among the early beneficiaries of a league that now treats the first 10 slots of the second round the same way it does those at the end of the first. Instead of clawing to keep hold of a roster spot, many of these players now lock in a guarantee for a portion of their deal.

From NBC’s Rob Dauster:

Of the 72 college players selected between 31st and 45th during the last six drafts, 65 of them — or a whopping 90.3 percent — received a guaranteed contract from an NBA team. Just two of the college players that were taken in the top 40 since 2012 did not receive a guaranteed contract during their first season as a pro.

Scouting departments, general managers, and coaching staffs can now factor a player’s long-term development into their roster management, and a rookie can adapt to a team’s system and culture with the kind of security that could help them evolve into a player worthy of a lucrative second contract.

Looking over deals signed by second-round picks in 2016 and 2017, who came into the league in the early days of its revenue deluge, we can see the increased investment made in their futures.

Guranteed Money — Second-Round NBA Draft Picks

Name Year Selection School Position Contract Length Guaranteed Money Total Value
Name Year Selection School Position Contract Length Guaranteed Money Total Value
Deyonta Davis 2016 No. 31 Michigan State C 3 $3,999,842 $3,999,842
Cheick Diallo 2016 No. 33 Kansas C 3 $1,948,720 $2,498,982
Tyler Ulis 2016 No. 34 Kentucky PG 4 $1,823,618 $4,000,000
Malcolm Brodgon 2016 No. 36 Virginia CG 3 $1,880,249 $2,930,511
Chinanu Onauaku 2016 No. 37 Louisville C 3 $2,498,982 $2,498,982
Patrick McCaw 2016 No. 38 UNLV Wing 2 $1,448,720 $1,448,720
Diamond Stone 2016 No. 40 Maryland PF 2 $1,856,082 $1,856,082
Stephen Zimmerman 2016 No. 41 UNLV C 1 $950,000 $950,000
Isaiah Whitehead 2016 No. 42 Seton Hall Wing 4 $2,196,393 $4,585,897
Demetrius Jackson 2016 No. 45 Notre Dame CG 2 $2,100,000 $2,100,000
Frank Jackson 2017 No. 31 Duke PG 3 $2,699,857 $3,812,377
Davon Reed 2017 No. 32 Miami (Fla.) Wing 5 $1,504,736 $5,565,327
Wes Iwundu 2017 No. 33 Kansas State Wing 4 $2,428,242 $4,046,762
Frank Mason 2017 No. 34 Kansas PG 3 $2,562,627 $4,181,147
Ivan Rabb 2017 No. 35 Cal C 2 $2,328,242 $2,328,242
Semi Ojeleye 2017 No. 37 SMU CF 4 $2,193,857 $6,041,604
Jordan Bell 2017 No. 38 Oregon CF 2 $2,193,857 $2,193,857
Jawun Evans 2017 No. 39 Oklahoma State CF 2 $2,193,857 $2,193,857
Dwayne Bacon 2017 No. 40 Florida State Wing 3 $2,193,857 $3,812,377
Tyler Dorsey 2017 No. 41 Oregon Wing 2 $2,193,857 $2,193,857
Thomas Bryant 2017 No. 42 Indiana PF 2 $815,615 $2,193,857
Damyean Dotson 2017 No. 44 Houston Wing 3 $2,478,242 $4,096,762
Dillon Brooks 2017 No. 45 Oregon Wing 3 $2,193,857 $3,812,377
Average 2.826086957 $2,116,666 $3,188,757

The biggest hint of change: rookie deals for early second-rounders guarantee the first two years of compensation and tack on lucrative incentives or a larger third-year option at the end.

For example, Boston’s Semi Ojeleye, Sacramento’s Frank Mason, and Houston’s Damyean Dotson each signed a contract with guaranteed dollars above the rookie minimum. At the same time, the total dollar value of those agreements is comparable to the wage scale — shown below — customarily doled out to players selected in the mid-20s of the first round.

2018-2019 NBA Rookie Scale

Pick First-Year Salary Second-Year Salary Guaranteed Salary Third-Year Option Total Salary
Pick First-Year Salary Second-Year Salary Guaranteed Salary Third-Year Option Total Salary
1 $6,746,400 $7,901,100 $14,647,500 $8,277,300 $22,924,800
2 $6,036,200 $7,069,300 $13,105,500 $7,405,900 $20,511,400
3 $5,420,500 $6,348,200 $11,768,700 $6,650,600 $18,419,300
4 $4,887,200 $5,723,600 $10,610,800 $5,996,200 $16,607,000
5 $4,425,600 $5,183,000 $9,608,600 $5,429,800 $15,038,400
6 $4,019,600 $4,707,600 $8,727,200 $4,931,700 $13,658,900
7 $3,669,400 $4,297,500 $7,966,900 $4,502,000 $12,468,900
8 $3,361,500 $3,937,000 $7,298,500 $4,124,400 $11,422,900
9 $3,090,100 $3,618,900 $6,709,000 $3,791,300 $10,500,300
10 $2,935,400 $3,438,000 $6,373,400 $3,601,500 $9,974,900
11 $2,788,800 $3,266,000 $6,054,800 $3,421,700 $9,476,500
12 $2,649,400 $3,102,900 $5,752,300 $3,250,600 $9,002,900
13 $2,516,900 $2,947,700 $5,464,600 $3,088,100 $8,552,700
14 $2,391,100 $2,800,400 $5,191,500 $2,933,800 $8,125,300
15 $2,271,400 $2,660,000 $4,931,400 $2,786,800 $7,718,200
16 $2,157,900 $2,527,200 $4,685,100 $2,647,700 $7,332,800
17 $2,050,000 $2,400,900 $4,450,900 $2,515,200 $6,966,100
18 $1,947,500 $2,280,900 $4,228,400 $2,389,500 $6,617,900
19 $1,859,800 $2,178,200 $4,038,000 $2,281,900 $6,319,900
20 $1,785,300 $2,090,900 $3,876,200 $2,190,400 $6,066,600
21 $1,713,900 $2,007,200 $3,721,100 $2,102,900 $5,824,000
22 $1,645,400 $1,927,100 $3,572,500 $2,018,800 $5,591,300
23 $1,579,600 $1,850,100 $3,429,700 $1,938,100 $5,367,800
24 $1,516,500 $1,776,000 $3,292,500 $1,860,600 $5,153,100
25 $1,455,700 $1,704,900 $3,160,600 $1,786,300 $4,946,900
26 $1,407,500 $1,648,500 $3,056,000 $1,727,000 $4,783,000
27 $1,367,000 $1,600,800 $2,967,800 $1,677,100 $4,644,900
28 $1,358,500 $1,591,100 $2,949,600 $1,666,800 $4,616,400
29 $1,348,600 $1,579,500 $2,928,100 $1,654,600 $4,582,700
30 $1,338,900 $1,568,000 $2,906,900 $1,642,900 $4,549,800

No can predict the terms of rookie deal for Porter, but it’s reasonable to assume he’d sign a deal that guarantees at least two years at the rookie minimum.

Orlando’s Wesley Iwundu, whose selection at No. 33 overall mirrors ESPN’s current Jontay projection. signed a three-year, $4.1 million contract that calls for the Kansas State product to earn $2.2 million—or the same amount paid out by the Phoenix Suns five years ago when they selected Kentucky wing Archie Goodwin at No. 29 overall.

Porter can likely be at ease knowing the team that takes him will give him the same time granted to first-round picks to make an impression.

3. Would another season at MU boost his stock?

NBA: Summer League-Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies
Even in the wake of a stellar sophomore season at Purdue, Caleb Swanigan didn’t see a dramatic rise in his draft stock.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier, I brought up the tidy narrative of a player foregoing a payday, returning to their alma mater, sharpening their game and using a dominant sophomore campaign as a springboard to a better draft position.

For fans, this notion is comforting because it assumes a degree of mutual benefit. The player gains more financial security while partisans are enthralled by successful season. More often than not, however, this rosy scenario rarely pans out.

The truth is stark: a freshman who goes pro is often making a sound decision.

Between 2012 and 2016, roughly 70 freshmen from all levels — Division I to JUCO — formally declared for the draft and went through the evaluation process. Ultimately, 78 percent of Division I freshmen who declared went inside the top 40.

During that same five-year span, eight Division I freshmen pulled their name out of the hopper and returned to school. Only three of them declared as sophomores, and two of them — LSU’s Antonio Blakeney and Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe — went undrafted.

Sophmore Stagnation

Name School Draft Position
Name School Draft Position
Antonio Blakeney LSU Undrafted
Isaiah Briscoe Kentucky Undrafted
Dedric Lawson Memphis Did Not Declare
Jahmal McMurray South Florida Did Not Declare
Malik Newman Mississippi State Did Not Declare
Cameron Oliver Nevada Undrafted
Corey Sanders Rutgers Did Not Declare
Caleb Swanigan Purdue Late First Round

Over the course of the regular season, I frequently mentioned Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan as an example of how Jontay Porter could use the draft process to his advantage. Declare, attend workouts, go through drills and scrimmages at the combine, and meet with teams. Take all that data and use it to become a better player.

Swanigan did all that was asked of him. He slimmed down a physique that once carried more than 300 pounds. He honed his face-up game. And he set the table for a sophomore season that saw him named Big Ten Conference Player of the Year and lead the Boilermakers to a regular-season conference title.

All the accolades and improvement didn’t radically alter how GMs appraised Swanigan’s game. Projected as a late first-round selection after his freshman season, Biggie wound up in the same place, going No. 26 overall in 2017.

There’s a potential lesson to be imparted to Jontay Porter, who might have more length and a slimmer build but faces the same questions that confronted Swanigan. Selfish as it sounds, what good is coming back to Columbia — and a roster in the midst of an overhaul — only to wind up in the same place?

We can see evidence, too, in the current draft class.

Texas A&M’s Robert Williams and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges were both projected as late lottery picks after their respective freshman seasons. A year later, they’re still expected to come off the board between the No. 10 and No 14 picks.

Bridges stayed, in part, because Sparty was built to make a Final Four run. And players like Arizona’s Rawle Alkins, Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo, and Miami’s Bruce Brown Jr. could at least take consolation in the idea their rosters were built to compete. However, the members of that trio now find themselves relegated to the second round of mock drafts.

So what would be Porter’s end goal in coming back to Columbia? Would a meteoric ascent result from grinding through workouts with strength coach Nicodemus Christoper? What if he added the ability to attack as a dribble in pick-and-rolls?

Every pitch for a return is based on the optimal outcome. But what if conditions aren’t ripe for a quantum leap?

For now, questions about his strength and athleticism can be shrugged off as being due to youth. Porter’s suite of offensive skills and basketball IQ are tantalizing enough that GMs figure their strength and nutrition staff can help him tap into his full potential. But what if his issues remain during his sophomore season, one in which MU might regress, too?

Oh, and Porter’s development doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Peruse 2019 mock drafts by Sports Illustrated and ESPN — yes, such things exist at the moment — and you’ll see a potentially crowded field for first-round slots.

2019 NBA Draft Prospects — Frontcourt

Player Age Team SI Projection ESPN Projection
Player Age Team SI Projection ESPN Projection
Zion Williamson 17 Duke 4 7
Sekou Doumboya 17 Poitiers Basket (France) 5 4
Daniel Gafford 19 Arkansas 8 8
Rui Hachimura 20 Gonzaga 9 13
De'Andre Hunter 20 Virginia 10 11
Lukas Samanic 18 FC Barcelona (Spain) 11 14
Bol Bol 18 Oregon 15 10
P.J. Washington 19 Kentucky 19 18
Simi Shittu 18 Vanderbilt 22 NR
Darius Bazley 18 G League 23 23
Omari Spellman 20 Villanova 24 25
Naz Reid 18 LSU 27 NR
Killian Tillie 20 Gonzaga 28 NR
Jalen Smith 18 Maryland 29 NR
Marko Simonvich 19 Siena (Italy) NR 26
Aric Holman 20 Mississippi State NR 29
ESPN and Sports Illustrated

Doubting Porter, whose acclimation to the college game came faster than expected, seems foolhardy at the moment. But barring a last-second shift, it seems apparent that the player and his camp have decided that the conditions are ripe for a move this year.

It’s hard to find fault with their logic.