- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
Last weekend, Kentucky freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist launched the first salvo in the annual "in or out of the NBA draft" speculation fest.
Gilchrist told reporters after Saturday's win versus Vanderbilt that "I'm graduating here. I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying at Kentucky."
After a few skeptical reporters laughed, he retorted, "I'm dead serious. I don't know why y'all laughing."
There's a long history of top players claiming toward the end of the season that they are returning to college, only to do a 180 a few weeks later once they get confirmation that they will be a lottery pick. More often than not, when a top prospect says he's staying in school, you can go ahead and pull out the Sharpie and write him into the draft.
However, that's not always the case. Last year Harrison Barnes, Perry Jones III and Jared Sullinger all consistently said they'd stay in school and did so despite being projected as top-10 picks on our Big Board. Other elite freshmen, including Blake Griffin, have done the same in years past.
But they are the exceptions to the rule.
Luckily for Kentucky fans, Kidd-Gilchrist isn't your typical freshman. I think he is "dead serious" about staying in school -- at least for his sophomore season. I've been hearing for months that Kidd-Gilchrist loves it at Kentucky, doesn't feel like he's ready for the NBA and wants at least one more year under Coach Cal to work on his jumper.
We have Kidd-Gilchrist ranked No. 4 on our Big Board and he goes as high as No. 2 in some scenarios in our Lottery Mock Draft. So, the temptation will be there to change his mind. In addition, John Calipari is one of the few college head coaches who actually encourages his players to head to the NBA when they'll be high draft picks.
"If Michael is the one pick in the draft, yes, I would wrestle him to the floor and say, 'What are you thinking?'" Calipari told the Courier-Journal. "He's got to come up with some reasons he's coming back and convince me. Here's why: What if he got hurt and I'm out there convincing him to come back? What if that happened? Or something happened to him that all of the sudden really hurt him and his draftability and his future?
"It's hard to live with yourself, unless you're just trying to win five more games or 'How many games can I win before I retire?' This is about these young people."
Stay or leave, I think Kidd-Gilchrist is going to have a fantastic NBA career.
Kidd-Gilchrist isn't the only top player that I'm hearing might return to school. Indiana's Cody Zeller (Top 100: 9) is also leaning toward returning for his sophomore year, according to sources close to the players.
Zeller is having a terrific freshman season and has skyrocketed up our Big Board. Virtually every GM I've spoken with has him ranked as a top-10 pick if he comes out. But Zeller has some incentive to wait. Indiana has the ninth-best recruiting class in the nation according to ESPN.com. With local Indy recruits Yogi Ferrell, Jeremy Hollowell, Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Ron Patterson all coming next year, the Hoosiers have a shot to be even better than they've been this season. And sources say Zeller wants to be part of that.
Baylor's Jones is in a different boat entirely. His decision to stay in school last year was welcomed by NBA scouts who felt he needed to add some toughness and strength to his game. But Jones has struggled mightily of late to live up to his lofty expectations.
In Baylor's last four losses, Jones averaged 5.3 points and shot 27 percent from the field. Concerns about Jones' toughness are growing louder by the day.
ESPN.com's Jason King went a long way in dispelling the idea that Jones is a softy this week. The kid has overcome a lot in his personal life.
But just because Jones is a survivor off the court doesn't mean he always plays with grit on it. Jones frequently shies away from contact inside. He floats on both ends of the floor and can disappear for long stretches. Despite his length and athleticism, he went a whopping eight games without blocking a shot before he blocked one against Oklahoma last Saturday.
Jones' stock is dropping fast. He told King that it's 50-50 whether he'll enter the draft this season. Some of his advisors are pushing him to declare. They feel like he isn't developing and needs a change of scenery. Ironically, it's many of those same advisors that tell everyone to take it easy on Jones because he's young and his body hasn't matured. Others are telling him to stay. If Jones can't figure it out on the college basketball court, I'm not sure it follows that he'll figure it out in the NBA.
Baylor's Quincy Miller also will have a tough decision to make. Miller has the talent to be a top-5 player, but he's still recovering a bit from ACL surgery last year and has been struggling of late. Sources say he's leaning toward returning to Baylor -- especially if Jones decides to move on.
The rest of the our top 14 (the lottery) look like they're strongly leaning toward entering the draft. Sources say that Anthony Davis, Barnes, Andre Drummond, Thomas Robinson, Bradley Beal, Sullinger, Jeremy Lamb, Meyers Leonard and Damian Lillard are likely to enter.
This is the time of year when NBA draft prospects say they will stay in school, but do they mean it? Chad Ford examines the circumstances of likely lottery picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and others. Will they stay or will they go?