Did Justin Lewis Make the Wrong Choice?

The correct (and easy) answer is yes. By leaving Marquette with 3 years of eligibility for the NBA and going undrafted, Justin Lewis has started his professional career by digging a hole where none needed to exist. It’s as simple as that.

But the best way to assess a decision isn’t by looking at the outcome (though that is surely what matters most) but rather by analyzing the decision making and taking potential alternatives into consideration. So let’s do that.

Would Justin Have Improved His Stock With Another Year At Marquette?

I went pretty in depth on this exact question last month but it’s worth coming back to once more with additional data.

Of the 7 players that attended the NBA combine in 2021 and decided to return to school, 2 ended up being drafted. Ochai Agbaji is the premier example of how returning to school can benefit a player. He was able to become the alpha dog and win a national title at Kansas all while shooting up from out of the top-60 into the lottery. Isaiah Mobley also was able to catapult himself into a 2nd round pick with an additional year of seasoning.

However, that still leaves 5 players who very much didn’t improve their stock. One prime example is Johnny Juzang, who, like Lewis, was projected as a mid-2nd round pick in the 2021 draft before he decided to go back to UCLA. He had a sub-par season, saw a few more warts sprout and ended up going undrafted. Julian Champagnie likewise went undrafted while Shannon, Mayer and Abmas returned to school for another season.

All of this is to say, while we now know the results of this particular decision, we know better than to assume a different choice would have ensured a more desirable outcome.

What Went Wrong?

I think it’s important to note here that the overwhelming consensus across national media was that Justin Lewis would be drafted in the 2nd round. A raw average of 20 high quality mocks and big boards had Lewis as the 41st best prospect in the draft.

ESPN predicted he’d go 43rd
Hollinger predicted he’d go 27th
The Athletic had him at 44th
Yahoo was at 42
Bleacher Report was 42nd
Sports Illustrated was at 33rd

Obviously these all were wrong, but if we’re simply assessing the decision making, Lewis was a pretty secure bet to get drafted. I can’t fault him or his team if they assumed worst case being a late 2nd round pick.

But there’s one aspect that I think is fair game. With his future still in question and after a mixed bag of testing, Justin Lewis opted out of the scrimmage and interview portion of the NBA Combine, which usually only happens when a player receives some sort of “guarantee” from a team where players believe having teams watch them play will only hurt their odds.

That it came as a surprise to me isn’t consequential, but when outlets like Draft Express and The Athletic are caught off guard and, worse, publicly critique the decision, it raises some eyebrows. Instead of either boosting his stock or getting real-time feedback that he didn’t look as promising in a live setting from the NBA scouts themselves, Lewis cemented his status, which turned out to be not good enough. 

Again, scrimmaging may have not changed a thing. He could have been just ok or fine and we’re still in this situation. But this was a huge opportunity for clarity that was given up for reasons unknown. It didn’t make sense then, and looks awful now.

Is It Better to Go Undrafted?

As the night grew late and Lewis’ name remained on the board, the Tweets about it being better for Justin to go undrafted and follow in Wes Matthews’ footsteps started rolling in. I get the idea behind being able to control your own destiny, but it simply is nonsensical. There are hundreds of undrafted free agents after every draft, and only a handful will ever get a shot in the NBA.

But it wasn’t enough to just make an overarching assumption, I needed hard numbers.  

Using the past 2 seasons as our baselines (which coincides with the period Justin may have used to improve at Marquette), there have been 290 early entrants into the NBA draft, meaning they still had NBA eligibility. This isn’t even counting the 500+ seniors each year who are eligible, but will barely get a sniff.

Of those 290, only 8 with eligibility left have played at least 1 minute in an NBA game. That’s 2.8%. Those 8 players have amassed 2081 NBA minutes over 165 games. 5 of those players are out of the NBA. 2 of them are on a 2-Way contract. 1 has been converted into a full guaranteed contracted (Duane Washington Jr.).

In the same timeframe, 12 of the 20 picks between slots 51 through 60 went to players with college eligibility left.  They have combined to play 6370 minutes over 418 games. 4 are out of the NBA. 3 are on 2-Way contracts. 5 have been converted into full time guaranteed contracts.

It’s pretty clear that when an NBA team drafts a younger player, even in the late 2nd round, there is much more of a commitment made to that player in terms of opportunity early and contract potential later.

If you don’t want to include any qualifiers we still get some pretty clear cut data that it is in fact not better to go undrafted. There are only 20 UDFA’s from the last 2 seasons to get at least 1 minute of NBA action. There were 20 picks total from the late 2nd round the past 2 seasons. Perfect even comparison.

Late 2nd rounders have gotten more minutes in more games and most importantly, 10 have been able to sign 10 guaranteed deals compared to only 6 UFDAs.

And once more, this is the difference between a 20 player pool and a 800+ player pool. Rob Lowe of Cracked Sidewalks put it succinctly when he compared UFDAs to college dropouts. Sure, some will become Mark Zuckerburg, but almost all won’t. It would be foolish to cite Zuck and say it’s better to drop out of college than to get your degree.

So Where Does This Leave Us?   

This isn’t to say that Justin’s career is over. He landed in a decent situation with the Chicago Bulls where he will have an opportunity to win a role rather than just go along for the ride. I’m sure Justin has been told all his life that being in the NBA is something only a handful of people ever get to do, so even getting to where he is should be seen as an accomplishment.

And a Twitter conversation with #mubb legend Jim McIlvaine early into the morning helped refocus my thoughts.

1. I want Marquette to succeed.
2. I want Marquette players to succeed.

For fans, the first statement takes precedence, but in some cases, the first doesn’t align with the 2nd.

I have said publicly and privately I didn’t think Justin coming back would help him reach a higher echelon. Plenty can and do disagree with my view (including prominent Draftniks like Vecenie). I thought he’d be a mid 2nd rounder this year or next. Obviously the results from draft night change the equation, but we have the benefit of hindsight. I would have loved to see Justin come back and kill it while becoming a 1st rounder, helping take Marquette to new heights in the process.

But, at the end of the day, what matters most isn’t what I believe or what I want. It’s Justin who will be putting his body on the line. He has health and potential on his side. The guaranteed life-changing money isn’t there yet, but well within his power to grasp if he works for it.

As a biased MU fan I root for JTA and Markus and Wes like I root for Jimmy and Jae. Heck, I root for the non-NBA guys like Jamil and Fisch and Rowsey just as much when it comes to TBT and Euro-league.

Whether the decision was wise is something we’ll continue to debate for years, but this won’t lessen the affection I personally hold for all the great memories he helped create.   

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Categories: Analysis, Offseason

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