Should Malik Pope Stay or Go?

Aztecs Sophomore Weighs NBA Draft Options

NBC 7’s Ben Rosehart discusses when – not if – the San Diego State wing player should turn pro

LSU freshman Ben Simmons and Providence guard Kris Dunn already announced their intentions to turn pro and enter the NBA draft.

But what about San Diego State’s Malik Pope? Will he pursue his dream of playing in the league now and follow in the shoes of Kawhi Leonard? Or will he return for at least one more year with the Aztecs?

Much like the Aztecs this past season, Pope showed flashes of greatness at times but then seemed to disappear altogether on some nights.

The sophomore came into his own during SDSU’s 12-game conference winning streak. Pope even hit that miraculous (sorry couldn’t resist) 3-pointer against the Lobos that forced overtime and ultimately propelled the Aztecs to an unexpected home victory after trailing by 5 with 22 seconds left in regulation.

Pope also had some ridiculous dunks – including a rim-rattler in the NIT victory over Washington that had one ESPN announcer exclaiming “Oh My Goodness!!!” over the airwaves.
I saw former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks checking out Pope courtside at Viejas Arena a few weeks ago as the Aztecs were winding down their conference schedule. To my knowledge Brooks is not officially employed by an NBA franchise but it made me wonder how many people in basketball circles have Pope on their draft radar.

The Sacramento native was considered by many to be a 1st-round prospect right around the time he set foot on campus as a freshman.

The first time I watched Pope play as a freshman I thought he was the best player on the floor but wondered why he didn’t play more minutes. Turns out he wasn’t ready.

This season, Pope reached double figures in the scoring column only 3 times in the first 25 games.

But down the stretch, he raised his level of play and was more confident in his shot – tallying at least 10 points in 9 of his last 13 contests.

Aside from the disappointing loss to George Washington to close out the year, he emerged as a consistent scoring threat the last two months.

But he only averaged 7.3 points per game – which was good for 5th on the Aztecs. That doesn’t sound like a first-round prospect to me.

It is Pope’s dream to play in the NBA. I think he will accomplish that goal.

To me, it’s not a matter of if, but when he should declare for the draft.

He could do it in the next few days or wait another year or two before focusing 100% on being a pro athlete.

So after watching about 70 percent of the Aztecs games this season and a handful of the games Pope played as a freshman, here’s my assessment and prediction of where Pope goes from here:

Ceiling: The best case scenario is that Pope becomes a more consistent player in the pros and utilizes his wingspan and skill set to be a starting forward in the league.

He has the tools to be a steady two-way player because of his size and his athleticism.

He can attack the rim, he can shoot and make the long-ball, and he is willing to be unselfish as well as rise to the occasion when his team desperately needs a big basket (like the previously mentioned shot against New Mexico).

Best-case Basketball Comparison: Paul George

Floor: His talent keeps him in the league for multiple seasons, but his inconsistency makes NBA franchises hesitant to commit to him long-term.

As a result, Pope gets traded around as a throw-in for a handful of trades and becomes an NBA nomad.

Secondary Basketball Comparison: James Johnson

My Prediction: The longer Pope stays at San Diego State the more likely he will have a long NBA career.

I believe he will test the waters without hiring an agent and ultimately return for at least his junior season.

He will develop more confidence if he stays at Montezuma Mesa for at least one more year.

Pope and Trey Kell project as the first two scoring options for SDSU with sophomore-to-be (and a hopefully healthy) Jeremy Hemsley running the show.

Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen will chip in as the glue players in their senior campaigns, and the new faces – like incoming 6’9” freshman Jalen McDaniels (who just helped his high school win two state titles in Washington) will blend into the rotation.

Pope can help lead the Aztecs back to the NCAA tournament and on a bigger stage he could then showcase how far he has come for NBA scouts.

A new rule change that goes into effect for the upcoming 2016 NBA draft gives college players more time to get information on their draft projections and level of interest shown by NBA teams.

It also allows them to go back to school without losing their eligibility.

Pope is a perfect example of a college player with remaining eligibility and NBA talent who can go through the interview process and then decide from there.

The withdrawal date to return to school is May 25th this year – specifically 10 days after the annual NBA draft combine.

As long as Pope does not hire an agent, he can wait until late May to get a good reading from teams and then make his final decision. If he doesn't think he will go in the first round (where you get a guaranteed contract), I'd recommend he stay at SDSU and develop his game for the 2017 draft.

Let me be clear - I believe Malik Pope will be playing in the NBA in the near future. But I think he has a better chance at making an impact in the league if he plays at least 3 seasons in college.

Wouldn’t it be cool to see him matched up against Kawhi Leonard some day? Count me in.

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