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Not all likely to be undrafted NBA early entrants are making a mistake

Trevor Thompson, and maybe Kam Williams, aren’t coming back to Columbus. And maybe that’s okay.

Ohio State v VCU Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Ohio State’s roster is going to look pretty different next season.

We knew that Trevor Thompson wasn’t coming back to Columbus. He already indicated he was looking to pursue a professional basketball career, and having just signed with an agent, the door back to Columbus is closed. And Kam Williams, somewhat surprisingly, also declared for the NBA Draft. Williams hasn’t hired an agent yet — or at least hasn’t announced as much — so he could still return to Ohio State if he desired.

On one level, both decisions are surprising. Neither player appears in any NBA Mock Draft. In fact, neither appears on the DraftExpress Top 100 prospect list, so it’s reasonable to say they’re not especially close.

If one viewed the decision to forgo college eligibility solely in the context of getting picked in the NBA Draft, or even making an NBA roster, these decisions, like countless others made by athletes across the country, may look like pretty bad calls. After all, Thompson and Williams, baring something really unexpected, won’t be on NBA teams next season. It isn’t hard to find takes like this on the internet:

I don’t think that’s fair. Going pro could very well be a great decision for Thompson and Williams, or any other player who isn’t likely to hear their name called come NBA Draft season.

For one, basketball isn’t football. There are plenty of other professional leagues out there outside of the NBA. Those who do not get drafted can pursue opportunities in major leagues like in Spain, Italy, Greece, Russia and China, as well as smaller leagues all over the world, from Germany and France, to South America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. A productive college player can land a spot on a European team and clear six figures in salary, and depending on the team, could have their housing, car, or even the need to pay taxes taken care of.

Is that NBA money or NBA security? No. You’re not staying in luxury hotels, playing in front of massive crowds, and you’re practicing a ton. But even on the far low end of the European basketball means you’re likely making $40-50,000 and living in an interesting city. There are far worse ways to spend your twenties.

And even in the D-League, (or G-League, as it will soon be known), where salaries can be very low, and travel difficult, a player will still be paid more than they will if they remain in college, where they’ll receive exactly zero dollars in cash money. That extra year of college could potentially mean more development, more minutes, and more experience, which would yield more lucrative basketball opportunities. It could also mean an ACL tear, or developmental step backwards, which might limit or end your career entirely.

Would it be better for Ohio State if one, or both, players returned? Sure. The Buckeyes currently only have two true bigs on the roster right now, and one, Kaleb Wesson, is a true freshman. Williams was streaky, but he can provide floor stretching shooting that few others on the roster can produce. Thompson is gone, but Williams can return. That would be a preferable outcome for Ohio State.

But these decisions aren’t what is best for Ohio State, they’re what’s best for the player, and like every personal decision, that’s a very complicated question. Is the player comfortable handling the culture shock that comes from living outside of the US? Does their own financial situation require them to start earning money as soon as possible? Will their basketball fortunes really improve with another year of unpaid college basketball? Do they like school? How old are they?

What’s “best” depends on a variety of factors, certainly too many to make a blanket decision as to what one should, or shouldn’t do, without knowing more about the player. Sure, getting a college degree is better than not getting a college degree. And playing in the NBA is better than not playing in the NBA. But there are a lot of other options, lots of other shades of gray, and other factors to consider.

Maybe Thompson, Williams, and the next Buckeye to decide to leave early will never make the NBA. Maybe they will. But that doesn’t mean they necessarily made a mistake. That’s a question only they can answer.