It hasn't been a great week for the Nevada basketball program.
The Wolf Pack has had three things of note work against it this week. The first was the annual APR report, which saw Nevada fall below the 930 minimum cutoff for the second straight year, which will put Steve Alford in a less-than-ideal position moving forward. Then the NCAA Division I Council delayed a vote on the one-time transfer rule until January, meaning Wichita State transfer Grant Sherfield won't be eligible this season, barring his own individual appeal, which is unlikely to pass. And then Jalen Harris, the team's star, decided to stay in the NBA draft.
While Wolf Pack fans should be happy to see Harris chase his professional dream after a historic season in silver and blue – and by most accounts, the fans are very supportive – there's an obvious trickle-down impact on Nevada, which just lost one of the top-20 players in college basketball. Let's evaluate how Harris' decision affects Nevada, the Mountain West and Harris himself.
Impact on Nevada
The Wolf Pack would have had legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations if Harris returned for his senior season. Without Harris, it will be difficult to finish above-.500. That's how important Harris was. Nevada goes from a potential 20-win team to a team that will have to scratch and claw to get to 14 or 15 wins, depending upon how beefed up the schedule is.
Nevada lost all five starters after the 2018-19 season and now loses four of its five starters after the 2019-20 season. It's hard to see next season as anything but a rebuild, a reset of sorts ala the post Luke Babbitt/Armon Johnson year of 2010-11, a season in which Nevada went 13-19 overall and 8-8 in the WAC despite having exciting young talent, including Deonte Burton (Nevada rebounded with 28 wins the following year).
The Wolf Pack will be exceptionally young in 2020-21 with zero scholarship seniors and only two scholarship juniors, those being Desmond Cambridge and Robby Robinson. Nevada does have one open scholarship with Harris turning pro, so it could add an experienced grad transfer to help out, but things are thin on that front right now. This will be one of the nation's most inexperienced teams. There's talent here, no doubt, but Nevada just lost its top-four scorers (and five of its top six) a year after losing seven of its top eight scorers. That's a major talent drain.
The corp of next year's team will include Cambridge and Warren Washington, two transfers who sat out last season, Zane Meeks, K.J. Hymes, Robinson, Kane Milling and five freshmen added in the November signing period. Milling, in particular, will be asked to do a lot more. Cambridge, who averaged 16.5 points per game in two seasons at Brown, is the most likely player to step into Harris' shoes as the team's top scorer. Meeks, the team's top returning scorer at 6.4 ppg, will be counted on to score double-figures every night. The freshmen will need to be ready to play.
Nevada lost 1,911 of the 2,391 points it scored last season (79.9 percent), 369 of its 462 assists (79.9 percent), 701 of its 1,188 rebounds (59 percent) and 124 of its 159 steals (78 percent). That's not easy to replace unless you have proven D-I transfers ready to step into those roles, of which Nevada only has one (Cambridge). Alford is an excellent coach, probably the best in the MW, but he hasn't had this tough of a job in a long time. Alford and associate head coach Craig Neal have their hands full given the inexperience of the 2020-21 roster.
Impact on the MW
Harris' departure also is a blow to the MW, which now has two players leaving early for the NBA (San Diego State's Malachi Flynn also entered the draft). The conference has two more players testing the draft waters: Boise State's Derrick Alston Jr., who could stay in, and SDSU's Matt Mitchell, who should return to school.
Of the 16 All-MW players last season, only five will surely return next season: UNLV's Bryce Hamilton (first team); Utah State's Neemias Queta (second team) and Justin Bean (third team); SJSU's Seneca Knight (third team); and Colorado State's Isaiah Stevens (third team). Alston and Mitchell also could return for another season. A number of MW players have transferred to Power 5 schools, including Utah State's Diego Brito (Ohio State); UNLV's Jonah Antonio (Wake Forest) and Amauri Hardy (Oregon); and Vance Jackson (Arkansas).
The MW lost its top-three scorers (Harris, Flynn, Sam Merrill), potentially four if Alston stays in the draft. At least eight of the MW's top-12 scorers from last season have departed, a number that again could rise to nine of Alston turns pro. It's not all doom and gloom. The MW lost 10 of the 15 players on the 2019 All-MW team, including four who played in the NBA last season, and still improved overall, including having a top-10 team in the nation in SDSU. But it's harder to continually replace this kind of talent in the MW than in a power conference.
If you had to project which MW teams will be better, worse or stable in 2020 compared to 2019, it'd go something like this:
Better: Colorado State, Fresno State, UNLV, Wyoming
Stable: New Mexico, SJSU, Air Force
Worse: SDSU, Utah State, Nevada, Boise State
SDSU and UNLV will enter the season with the MW's most talent, and both could push for NCAA Tournament spots. But it's hard to see the MW getting back to being a three-bid league, which hasn't happened since 2015. The MW had six top-100 KenPom teams this season. If I had to take an over/under on the total in 2020-21, I'd go under.
Impact on Harris
After talking with Harris for a Q&A earlier this month, it was pretty obvious he was going to stay in the NBA draft, and that's his right. He gave Wolf Pack fans their money's worth in his one active season at Nevada and genuinely seemed to care about for the Wolf Pack.
There's risk involved any time you turn pro early, even more so when you are in Harris' position, which is projected as a late second-round pick/undrafted free agent. Complicating things is the COVID-19 outbreak, which could cancel the NBA combine and individual team workouts, both of which would be a crucial proving ground for Harris to try and improve his stock.
Harris could have improved his stock if he returned to school, but it would have been hard to simply replicate his production from last season (21.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.9 apg) let alone improve upon it. Additionally, he would have upped his draft age by a year and been 23 by the time the 2020-21 NBA season rolled around.
"A lot of times, like most people on the outside looking in, you would think the way the game is supposed to work is you can come back, have a better year and go higher up in the draft and improve," Harris said. "The thing in question is the game doesn’t work like that. How many All-Americans were seniors year this? Five, six, seven. And there are zero seniors going in the first round in the mock draft. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, but those are things you have to take into consideration because that’s how the game works.”
NBA executives seemed to believe Harris should have returned to school. The only mock draft I've seen Harris in is at BabcockHoops, which projects him as the first pick of the second round, so it's unlikely he could have hurt his stock by returning to school given his current status, barring injury. However, there's no guarantee there will even be a college basketball season in 2020-21, although it seems likely there will be.
A worst-case scenario in the pros would be not getting drafted and having the G League season canceled due to COVID-19, which could make it hard to find a landing spot if Harris doesn't make an NBA team. Additionally, if European leagues get shut down, you could see an influx of Euros come to America to try and play in the NBA, which could make landing a roster spot for Harris even more difficult.
Ultimately, I think Harris is an NBA player. He's like a combination of Caleb and Cody Martin, and both of those guys showed they're NBA players this season. His work ethic is just as strong as those two. He's just as talented, too. There's a ton of luck involved with making a team when you're a second-round/undrafted free agent like Harris. I still believe Cameron Oliver is an NBA-caliber player, but things didn't work out in his favor. Things did work out for the Martin twins. Harris bet on himself. Now it's up to him to prove he's worthy of an NBA contract.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.