Padding the Stats: A Look at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine Participants
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Evaluating the Benefits of Isaiah Roby Returning to Nebraska

April 11, 2019

On Tuesday, we took stock of where Nebraska junior Isaiah Roby stands in the eyes of NBA Draft writers and talent evaluators. 

Based on the feedback of Sam Vecenie, NBA Draft writer for The Athletic, Roby has a pretty decent shot at getting drafted if he remains in the field, although he looks like more of a second-round pick.

But what if he returns to Lincoln for his senior year and spends a season developing further under new Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg?

“I think we should consider the antithesis which is returning,” Vecenie said during an interview with Hail Varsity. “Fred Hoiberg is going to put him in a position to succeed. You can go back through his history: Georges Niang gets all the hype, but you’ve got Royce White, you’ve even got guys like Melvin Ejim who’s had an incredibly successful professional career, just not in the United States.”

Georges Niang, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound power forward was Hoiberg’s first 4-star recruit, and he went on to have a prolific career in Ames, totaling more than 2,200 points, 700 rebounds and 400 assists in his four-year career. While he’s anything but an above-the-rim athlete, Niang is a terrific playmaker, a career 37.5-percent 3-point shooter and a skilled post-scorer. Niang went undrafted but has carved out a role for an NBA playoff team, the Utah Jazz.

“I’ve been watching George Niang’s film since I got to college, really,” Roby said to reporters after Hoiberg’s introductory press conference. “He’s a player that I see myself taking stuff from his game, him being a point-forward, I look to do that in my game as well. He’s definitely somebody that I’ve watched film on. even their offense, watching the highest-scoring offensive teams, Iowa State, obviously when he was there, they were one of those teams, so I’ve watched a lot of their film.”

Royce White is a uniquely talented 6-foot-8, 270-pound point-forward who played one season for Hoiberg at Iowa State before entering the 2012 NBA Draft where he was selected 16th overall. White couldn’t shoot but he still managed to put up 13.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He was skilled enough to get past defenders off the bounce as well as strong enough to power through them. He also had good enough vision to record a triple-double.

Ejim was part of Hoiberg’s first class at Iowa State. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he was a four-year starter who recorded over 1,600 points and 1,000 rebounds in his career. Jim was a little undersized but a good athlete with the ability to step out and knock down shots from the perimeter as well as score inside with a variety of post moves.

None of these players are exactly like Isaiah Roby, but he does have pieces of all of them in his game.

At 6-foot-8, Roby has terrific length and is more vertically explosive than any of those other star forwards Hoiberg has had. He offers the kind of rim protection that Hoiberg rarely had — Jameel McKay was the only player under Hoiberg who averaged over 1.0 block poor game. Roby’s skill set and decision-making need polishing, but he has the baseline talent level as a ball-handler, shooter and passer to be that playmaking stretch-four that Hoiberg has done so well with.

“That’s something that he talked to me about because obviously, with the way they play, fast-paced, and he said he likes to put the ball in his four-man’s hands a lot,” Roby said. “He talked to me a little bit — we didn’t have that in-depth talks about it, but he said I’m somebody who could thrive in his system. That’s one thing he was trying to talk to me about.”

A lot of the actions Hoiberg runs are perfect for what Roby can do. Hoiberg’s offense includes a lot of dribble weave pitch action which brings Roby and his defender out to the perimeter where he can make decisions and use his perimeter skills. He runs a lot of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops and Roby can do both of those. Dribble hand-offs are another way for Roby to use his skills on the perimeter in Hoiberg’s offense. And of course, Hoiberg likes to play fast and Roby is good in transition with his ability to grab and go or rim-run.

“If I was Isaiah and I was comfortable with Fred as a person and as a guy that I wanted to be coached by, I do think that there could be a real benefit to coming back,” Vecenie said. “No judgment either way — I would be happy for him to go, happy for him to stay, whatever he wants to do — but I do think that there is room for growth for him to return.”

This year’s draft class doesn’t project to be particularly strong compared to some of the more recent classes, but Vecenie said he thinks 2020 could be even worse. The new rules regarding the draft and retaining eligibility could impact the potential field of candidates as well.

“We talk about the 2019 draft as if there is a lot of uncertainty, like we don’t really have a great feel for that yet in terms of where guys are going to be picked,” Vecenie said. “The 2020 draft, I’ve got to tell you, that thing is even more uncertain in terms of entering the process. That freshman class is even weaker than the 2019 freshman class, plus with these rules saying that guys can hire agents and then come back to school, I do wonder if guys just kind of get a taste of the process and end up deciding to go two-feet in at the end of the day and we see a few more declarations than what we’ve seen in the past. We’ve kind of seen an uptick in those over the course of the last couple years since guys have been able to go to the combine, test their stock and then return 10 days later.”

Vecenie said he sees much more reward than risk if Roby were to return, almost regardless of how the season goes.

“I do look at all of these and say hey, there is room for Isaiah to improve his stock if he comes back and is successful,” Vecenie said. “And then at the end of the day, do I think that his stock is going to crater, necessarily? I don’t, really. I think he's always going to be a top-100 guy, I think he’s always going to be a guy that has a chance to go to Portsmouth next year and go to the Combine next year potentially and get an Exhibit 10 contract and go to the G-League. There’s too much upside to hitting on a guy like Isaiah to where teams will just decide, ‘No, we’re going to pass. He didn’t succeed under Fred this year, we’re just going to say screw it.’ Obviously he’d be taking on the concern of injury, but from a game perspective, I do think there is genuine room for growth if he would decide to come back.”

Ultimately, it seems that Roby is entering the process with the intent to keep his name in the draft. However, navigating the pre-draft process without an agent shows he is certainly willing to return if he doesn’t get the kind of feedback he wants to hear.

All signs seem to point to Roby having a great chance to get drafted, but there does seem to be something real for him to gain if he were to come back and buy into Fred Hoiberg’s development plan and offensive system.

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