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Should so many underclassmen be declaring for the NBA draft every year?

Utah Utes guard Both Gach (11) celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer in the second half against the Colorado Buffaloes at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 7, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Every year dozens of wannabe NBA players declare for the NBA draft before they finish their college careers. Actually a couple of hundred players.

The NBA makes it easy to do so. Just declare and you’re eligible, as long as you’re at least 19 years old and one year out of high school.

Most years we have local basketball players who declare for the draft. It’s been going on for nearly 40 years, back when Nate Williams left Utah State early as the first pick in the 1971 “hardship” draft. Three years later, Utah’s Mike Sojourner declared for the NBA draft after his sophomore season and was taken by the Atlanta Hawks.

Players must declare no less than 60 days before the draft. With this year’s draft scheduled for June 25, players have another 10 days or so to declare. They can always back out, usually three weeks before the draft, which the majority of players end up doing.

Last year, the state’s three main programs had players declare — Yoeli Childs of BYU, Neemias Queta of Utah State and Donnie Tillman and Jayce Johnson of Utah. All four took their names out before the actual draft, although Childs ended up getting suspended for nine games by the NCAA for hiring an agent and receiving expenses before filing the proper paperwork.

That brings us to Both Gach. Last week, news came out that the University of Utah sophomore had put his name in for the draft.

Both Gach? The same Both Gach, who shot 19% from 3-point range in Pac-12 play and at one point missed 21 consecutive 3-pointers?

Make no mistake, Gach is a fine young man who has some special skills on the basketball court. When he gets a head of steam going down the lane, he’s almost unstoppable at the hoop in the college game.

But he’s nowhere near ready to play in the NBA.

For one thing, he needs a lot of work on his body. He’ll probably always be thin, but right now he has just 183 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame.

Then there’s his outside shooting. He shot 47.2% from the field as a freshman but dropped to 39.7% this past year, when he averaged 10.7 points per game. However, from 3-point range, he shot just 31.8% as a freshman and 25.0% this year, 19.7% in conference play. If there’s one skill you need in today’s NBA, it’s the 3-point shot. Even 7-footers are trying to perfect their skills from long range these days.

I’m not here to beat up on Gach. He’s just doing what scores of other college players are doing all over the country. Too many players believe they’re going to play in the NBA when the chances for most are slim and none.

There are approximately 450-500 players on NBA rosters if you count all the guys who move up and down from the G League each year. More than 5,000 players play Division I basketball and many thousand more play at lower collegiate levels. Then there are all the foreign players who account for nearly a quarter of the current NBA.

Back in the late 1960s, Spencer Haywood went to court and was able to force the NBA to change its rules and start letting players join the league after two years of college. For many years just a handful of players declared for the draft early, but it’s exploded in recent years.

It’s gone from 39 in 1999 to 103 in 2009 to a whopping 224 players who put their names out there for the NBA last year. A good majority of those — 140 — pulled their names back, and 84 ended up leaving school for a chance at the NBA.

Still, that’s an alarming number, considering that only 60 players are drafted every year and of those 60, about half end up on NBA rosters their first year.

Some will say these players have nothing to lose by declaring for the draft and then pulling back because they can showcase their skills for NBA teams, looking ahead to the future.

The difference this year is that players won’t have the same opportunities as in the past to show off their skills because of the COVID-19 shutdown. The Utah Jazz used to bring 100 or so players in for individual workouts during May and June. Unless things change in a hurry, there will be no NBA combine in May, no G League Elite Camp and perhaps just a handful or team workouts before the draft, unless it’s pushed back to late summer or the fall.

And even though the majority of players will take their names out of the draft, which Gach may very well do, too many don’t. Last year for the first time, more underclassmen went undrafted (44) than were drafted (40) and thus lost their college eligibility with little hope to ever make the NBA.

But perhaps I’m wrong about Gach. Three years ago another Ute with nearly identical numbers to Gach after his sophomore season (10.8 points on 25% 3-point shooting) was thinking seriously about declaring for the draft, which at the time I thought was absurd. He didn’t do it, but played one more year and declared for the draft after his junior season.

And we all know how it’s turned out for Kyle Kuzma.