Kyle Smith won a handful of important recruiting battles this offseason, but the Washington State coach ultimately lost the one involving star forward CJ Elleby and the National Basketball Association.
Elleby, who’s spent the past four months contemplating whether he’d return to school for his junior season or begin a career in professional basketball, announced on Twitter Friday he’ll be keeping his name in the NBA draft – a huge hit for a team that had its postseason hopes resting on Elleby spending another year in Pullman.
“My last two years at Washington State University have been a dream come true,” Elleby said in a Twitter video. “I fell in basketball at a young age. My love has only grown stronger while playing in Pullman. Thank you, Coug nation, for a great experience. Through constant hard work and dedication, I have put myself in a really good position – one that potentially allows me to live out another lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.
“I want to thank my family for their continuous support and love. I want to thank coach (Ernie) Kent for bringing me to Pullman. I want to thank coach Smith and his entire staff currently at Washington State and all the supported staff we have. It’s been an amazing journey and with that being said, I am glad to announce that I’ll be keeping my name in the 2020 NBA draft and signing with an agent. Go Cougs.”
The 6-foot-6, 200-pound wing was the main source of offense and rebounding for WSU in Smith’s first season, leading the Cougars in points (18.0) and rebounds (7.8) as a sophomore en route to All-Pac-12 first-team honors.
It’s possible Elleby’s decision was informed by a recent invitation to the NBA’s predraft combine – an event that could help boost his profile among general managers, coaches and scouts, especially in the current environment with Elleby and other prospects unable to work out in person for NBA teams. Typically, between 50-70 players are invited to the combine and Elleby will be the first WSU player to participate in the event since current Golden State Warrior Klay Thompson did so in 2011.
Because a date for the combine hasn’t been announced, but would definitely land after Monday’s deadline when college underclassmen have to withdraw their names from the NBA draft, Elleby and others had to make decisions on their future without the feedback they would’ve received at the annual predraft scouting event in Chicago.
The majority of mock NBA drafts haven’t indicated Elleby is among one of the top 60-70 players available and the Seattle native didn’t make The Athletic’s list of the top 100 prospects.
It’s possible, or perhaps even likely, that Elleby’s stock has risen since the season ended, because he indicated in more than one interview a decision to leave school and pursue the NBA was contingent on him receiving a guaranteed contract from at least one team.
A source told The Spokesman-Review in May that Elleby had scheduled 15 Zoom meetings – held in lieu of on-site workouts due to COVID-19 – with NBA teams, and it’s possible he’s conducted more since. By comparison, only seven teams brought Elleby to their facility for workouts when he entered the draft in 2019 after his freshman season.
After Elleby tested NBA waters last season, league personnel encouraged him to buckle down on defense and focus on “taking no plays off.” Elleby’s sophomore stats suggest he accomplished both of those things after becoming the first player in WSU history to lead his team in the four major categories – points, rebounds, steals and blocks.
The NBA draft, which is likely to follow its peers in the NFL and WNBA and hold a virtual event this year, is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 16.
Elleby’s return could’ve catapulted the Cougars, who finished 11th in the Pac-12 standings before routing Colorado in the first round of the conference tournament, into the top half of the league. That undoubtedly would’ve placed WSU in the conversation for a postseason berth – be that in the NCAA Tournament or NIT.
The Cougars still have an opportunity to be competitive and build on last season’s 16-16 record even without Elleby in the equation, but they’ll need somebody – or more likely, multiple players – to replace the forward’s production.
With Jeff Pollard and Jervae Robinson also gone, WSU returns just one player who started in more than 20 games last season: point guard Isaac Bonton.
The Cougars were usually successful when guard/defensive specialist Noah Williams was plugged into the starting lineup, and forward Tony Miller had asserted himself as a starter by the Pac-12 Tournament after battling injuries earlier in the year.
Bonton was one of the Pac-12’s highest scorers in conference games, averaging more than 17 points, and regularly proved he could carry the offensive load for WSU on Elleby’s off nights, scoring at least 17 points on 12 occasions.
Bonton and Elleby grew close in their only season as WSU teammates. The point guard wished his friend well in a tweet Friday afternoon, writing “Love you brother.. Can’t tell you how happy I am for you.. Seeing where you came from to now.. I got blessed to be able to hoop with you and grind at the HS and college level. I’ll see you soon at the next level 3J.”
The six-man recruiting class Smith just reeled in is another reason for optimism in a post-Elleby era. Three of the six signees – center Dishon Jackson, forward Carlos Rosario and forward Andrej Jakimovski – are four-star prospects who’ve lifted WSU’s class to No. 4 in the Pac-12 and No. 31 in the country, according to 247Sports.com.
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