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Matt Calkins: Breaking down why Jaylen Nowell opted for a shot in NBA draft over another season with Huskies

UPDATED: Thu., May 30, 2019, 6:47 p.m.

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins, right, talks with Jaylen Nowell in the first half against Utah State during  the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, on March 22. (Tony Dejak / AP)
Washington head coach Mike Hopkins, right, talks with Jaylen Nowell in the first half against Utah State during the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, on March 22. (Tony Dejak / AP)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – On one of Jaylen Nowell’s shoulders, you have to think, was the Husky mascot. He’s been persuasive with Nowell before. Lured him to UW in the first place. Convinced him to stay after Lorenzo Romar’s ousting. They have a history.

On Jaylen’s other shoulder, I’d like to imagine, was the NBA logo. He’s smooth-talked a lot of college hoopsters before. Sometimes for the better. Other times for the worse. You never really know with that guy.

But each had a case regarding Nowell’s basketball future. There were legitimate reasons for the Garfield High School product to come back to Washington for his junior year, just like there were reasons for him to turn pro. It would all come down to the pitch.

The mascot went first.

He told Nowell that what Huskies coach Mike Hopkins was doing on Montlake was unprecedented. He landed the No. 2 recruit in the country in Isaiah Stewart last month. He landed the No. 7 recruit in the country in Jaden McDaniels this month. Never has there been so much star power in the Huskies’ lineup straight out of high school, and we haven’t even mentioned former five-star recruit Quade Green, who’s eligible next season after transferring from Kentucky.

Washington was 9-22 the season before Hopkins arrived two years ago, won 21 games the next season, then won 27 games last season while capturing a Pac-12 title and an NCAA Tournament victory. Imagine what the Huskies could do in 2019-20 with Stewart, McDaniels, Green, Nahziah Carter and Nowell.

If Nowell were a projected first-rounder, the mascot wouldn’t have bothered whispering to him. But if you look at the mock drafts, he’s a late second-rounder at best. NBAdraft.net has him 50th, and Sports Illustrated has him 52nd (there are 60 picks total), but other sites don’t list him, while ESPN ranks him 92nd among potential draftees.

So why not come back and try to push Washington to the Final Four? It’s one of the most anticipated basketball seasons in his hometown university’s history, and Nowell can be a part of it. It’s not like the NBA is going anywhere. And Jaylen isn’t even 20 yet.

Play one more year in front of a packed Hec Ed and have the chance to join Seattle sports royalty. How do you turn that down?

That’s when the NBA logo stepped in. He was a little more polished than the mascot. No rah-rah or foam fingers here. Just business.

He told Nowell that the Dawg on the other shoulder was right about the Huskies’ incoming talent, but that that could be a problem. Last season, Jaylen was the No. 1 option for a Pac-12 title team that helped earn him conference player of the year. Next season, he’d likely be Washington’s third option at best.

Would he really want to risk his already shaky stock? Does he think he’s going to improve on a season in which he averaged 16.2 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 50.2 percent from the field and 44 percent on 3-pointers?

Those are efficient numbers for a guard who doesn’t stand out physically. You’re not going to see track-star speed or windmill dunks from the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Nowell. He isn’t a freak athlete who needs to refine his game. He’s a good athlete who played about as well as he could last year.

Besides, the second round of the draft isn’t the wasteland it was once thought to be. Those picked there might not receive guaranteed money, but that doesn’t mean guys aren’t getting paid.

A recent NBC Sports report showed that 91 of the 132 players selected in the previous six NBA drafts (68.9 percent) signed at least a one-year guaranteed contract. The minimum salary in the NBA is $838,464. That might not be set-for-life money, but it is life-changing money. Moreover, of the seven players drafted in 2017 who did not get guaranteed contracts, five ended up on NBA rosters down the road. An increasing number of second-rounders are signing multiple-year deals, which generally net at least $2 million.

Additionally, Nowell has his health. That’s something basketball players risk with every possession. The difference between snagging that final NBA roster spot or not could come down to the front office’s concerns about one’s body. No reason to risk that.

In the end, the NBA logo won the debate. Nowell announced Tuesday night that he planned to stay in the draft despite the Huskies’ recent talent haul.

Tough choice? Maybe.

Right choice? Hard to argue otherwise.

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