Why have UCLA players been so eager to get out of Westwood and to the NBA? (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Modern basketball is littered with guys leaving for the NBA before they are out of college eligibility. Hell, before 2006 it was littered with guys who hadn't even used any of their college eligibility. The simple fact is that any good team with good players is going to have to deal with some of their guys leaving early for the NBA.
When Tyler Honeycutt announced that he was going to forfeit his last two years of eligibility at UCLA and enter the NBA Draft, it wasn't so much of a surprise. There have been rumblings all season long that he was gone after the season. Malcolm Lee then announced that he too would enter the NBA Draft, but he is not hiring an agent so he has the option of coming back.
Honeycutt and possibly Lee follow what is becoming a shockingly long list of Bruins turning pro before they use up all their eligibility despite not being projected as a top pick. This isn't a matter of guys like Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook leaving to be picked in the top five, but guys who are leaving early to be drafted in the 20's or even the second round. That is not common around the country, at least not like it is common at UCLA.
After the 2005-2006 season Jordan Farmar forfeited his last two years of eligibility to be picked 26th overall. The next year Arron Afflalo decided that his junior season would be his last and was picked 27th overall. The following season was Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's junior year and last year as he turned pro to be drafted in the second round. A year later Jrue Holiday left after his freshman year so he could be drafted 17th overall.
The above players aren't cases of guys who were projected to be top five or top 10 picks and unexpectedly fell just before the draft. They were drafted right around where they were expected to be drafted, but it didn't stop them from leaving.
At the same time, only one UCLA player who could have been a first round pick stayed for one more year. That was Darren Collison, who was an unusual circumstance because of the final game of his junior season. Collison was torn apart by Derrick Rose (hardly something to be ashamed about), but it made his draft stock fall to the point that he was no longer an obvious first round pick.
Taking a look at other top programs, they lose guys, but they don't have so many guys leaving early to be picked in the bottom of the first round and they get a few high picks to stay from time to time.
In 2008, North Carolina got Ty Lawson to pass on the draft despite being slotted in around number 20 in most mock drafts and Wayne Ellington and Danny Green also passed on the pros. Those three were all key parts in the Tar Heel's national title the next year. This year both John Henson and Tyler Zeller have announced that they will return to Chapel Hill and Harrison Barnes is still undecided so they have commitments from two potential picks to return with a projected top five pick on the fence.
Brandon Rush was expected to be picked in the top 15 in 2007, but he returned to Kansas for his junior year, although an injury played a role in that. Darrell Arthur had no such injury, but he still returned for his sophomore year and helped lead Kansas to the national title.
Kalin Lucas was a borderline first round pick in last year's draft even after his Achilles injury, but he returned for his senior year at Michigan St. Durrell Summers finished his 2010 season strong and was being touted as a bottom of the first round pick, but he returned to Michigan St as well.
JaJuan Johnson returned to Purdue this year despite being projected as a bottom of the first round pick. Damion James was a borderline first round pick in 2009, but returned to Texas anyways. Arizona kept Chase Budinger despite being projected in the 20-25 range in 2007
This is all just a sampling of players who could have been first round picks, but went back to school. The list can be much longer and if we add players who had a chance at the first round, but were never seriously discussed because they made it clear that they would return to school it gets even longer. Where are the UCLA players on this list though?
Why is is that players who could have returned to UCLA and improved their draft stock are looking to get out of Westwood anytime the NBA is somewhat of an option? This isn't even limited to guys leaving after making the Final Four in hopes of using the team's success to bolster their own resume, as Holiday, Honeycutt and maybe Lee are proving.
Now, let's be clear that this isn't an attack on the players for going pro. They have every right to do so and on an individual basis you can justify why each and every one of them went pro. This is not a matter of turning the spotlight and the players and their decisions, but the program and what is leading to the decision.
The problem is not that Player A decided to go pro or Player B decided to enter the draft. The problem is that everyone is going pro and no one is sticking around. That makes it a trend and it is not trending well for the Bruins. Where is their guy sticking around for even just their junior season?
The simple fact is that the Bruins haven't had that guy, let alone guys. Guys are looking to get out whenever they first can and that's a problem for the program. As important as it is to sell recruits on your program to get them to attend your school, it is equally important to sell your current players on sticking around.
Is Ben Howland communicating as well with the players as he needs to? Is he making the program a place that kids want to stick around in and enjoy? Odds are that he's not doing well enough in either.
Personal relationships make people want to stick around and Howland doesn't have the rosiest of relationships with his players. They respect him and appreciate what he teaches them, but do they like him? Are his assistants as close with the players as they could be to build those relationships? Is Howland making sure that he's letting the players not only how the players can help the team, but what he can do specifically for the player that will help grow the player's game so while he may pass on the NBA one year, it will benefit him when he goes the next year?
All of these things are things that a head coach needs to do nowadays and Howland isn't doing it as well as he can. As a result, guys are bolting as soon as they can. If Lee too decides that he would rather be a bottom of the first round pick at best then stick with program it will be very telling, but even if Lee returns, there is a clear trend here that doesn't match up the same with the rest of the country.