Column: One more year

Pick up your jaws. Yes, Mike Hall and Pops Mensah-Bonsu – the GW men’s basketball team’s two best players – announced their intention to declare for the NBA Draft last week to the dismay of many students. Both have not hired agents and reserved the option to return to GW for their senior seasons. Given their respective abilities at this point, both would be well advised to do so.

As former GW star SirValiant Brown recognized – after leading Division I basketball in scoring as a sophomore in 2000 and going un-drafted in 2001 – the NBA Draft can be cruel. Only first round selections receive lucrative guaranteed contracts. Second round picks receive no assurances and are often cut during training camp or dropped in Europe. Reliable mock draft websites have neither Hall nor Mensah-Bonsu going in the first round – both and have Mensah-Bonsu going in the mid-second round and Hall un-drafted entirely. While both Mensah-Bonsu and Hall are good college players, they still have a lot of work to be done before trying their hand at a higher level of play.

My thoughts on Hall are well articulated – I devoted an entire column to assessing why he deserves fan respect for being GW’s most valuable player. He is a lock-down defender, moves well without the ball, sets good screens and developed a nice spot-up three-point shot. Most importantly, Hall led the Colonials and was fourth in the Atlantic 10 conference in rebounding at eight boards a game. This average would have been significantly higher excluding three games he was limited by a knee injury early in the season. On a team seemingly incapable of boxing out, Hall provides a steady inside presence integral in GW’s success.

While Hall brings a solid game for the college level, and one I genuinely think has a place on an NBA roster, he still has work to do before going pro. Hall is an average ball handler. While he essentially plays power forward at GW, Hall would be a small forward in the pros. The ‘3’ in the NBA is given an increased role in bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense. Hall also hasn’t shown a consistent ability to create his own shot off the dribble, a critical facet of a pro small forward’s game. He also must develop a more consistent three-point stroke coming around screens to maximize his effectiveness.

Mensah-Bonsu is a tantalizing prospect. Having only begun playing basketball in 10th grade, his athleticism and already rapid improvement in three years at GW exemplify the type of player he can become. If Mensah-Bonsu had begun his basketball odyssey earlier like other top players, it is doubtful he would have been within the Colonials’ recruiting grasp out of high school. Coming in as an energy guy his freshman year, he quickly developed a national reputation for monstrous dunks and mind-numbing swats. Each year his game has improved exponentially. He now has a couple of nice moves to the basket, plays better man defense – more often focusing on obtaining defensive positioning rather than simply rising for blocks – and has developed a nice jump hook from about seven feet.

While his improvement has showered him with national accolades, Mensah-Bonsu is much less ready for the NBA than Hall is at this point. The reason he projects as a second-round prospect right now owes itself more to his potential rather than his current skill level. The differential between where Mensah-Bonsu is now and where he can be is substantial. No one can teach the type of athleticism he has, but he still needs to work on small aspects of his game before going to the NBA. He still relies too heavily on his athletic ability on the defensive glass. He needs to work on obtaining better position to rebound effectively and not pick up cheap over the back fouls. He also needs to develop a midrange game that will prevent defenses from cheating toward other players when he is away from the hoop.

By declaring for the draft, and in hopefully receiving invites to the Chicago pre-draft camp, Hall and Mensah-Bonsu hope to parlay strong workout performances into improved draft position. Mensah-Bonsu, however, has much more to lose in doing so than Hall. Essentially unheralded, Hall likely will enter the camp with few expectations, prove that he can play with the big boys and leave camp with a positive buzz heading into next year. Mensah-Bonsu, on the other hand, has the most to lose. With a game not necessarily in synch with the hype he has received, a poor performance at the camp could jeopardize his draft standing next year when it would be most important.

In all likelihood, both Mensah-Bonsu and Hall will return for their senior season at GW. With the program set to be a national powerhouse with legitimate aspirations for a deep run into the NCAA Tournament and a potential Top 10 ranking, it would be a shame for the team’s two best players to leave school before they are sufficiently ready to play in the NBA.

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