Fans are quick to offer analysis on why CJ Fair should not enter into the NBA draft based on how much he could improve next year, how much he could show off his skills as the team’s go-to scorer, and how he has the potential to win ACC players of the year. While these arguments are true, they are also thinly veiled coaxes to get SU’s best player to return so that Syracuse will be a better team next year.
Ultimately, Fair’s decision should come down to what is best for him, not Syracuse, and that hinges entirely on if and where he would get picked in this summer’s NBA draft. The two best arguments to go to the NBA now are 1. it’s a very weak draft, and 2. he’s coming off great exposure at the Final Four that he may not get next year.
If these are enough to propel Fair into the first round, he has to go. There is no doubt. It’s two years of guaranteed money above $850,000. It would be foolish to turn that down. Even if he gets pushed out of the NBA in two years, he will have had a good payday living in the U.S. and can then still make a good, if not better salary, playing abroad.
Additionally, waiting until next year could pose new problems. Next year’s draft is projected to be very good. Even if Fair improves the weaknesses in his offensive game—his mediocre ball handling, his lack of demonstrated skill at creating his own shot off the dribble, and the slow release on his shot—there is nothing he can do to grow taller and shed the label of “NBA tweener.” These two factors give Fair very little chance, ACC Player of the Year or not, to be anything other than a very late 1st round pick next year.
Since a late first round pick is presumably Fair’s best case scenario this year, his decision does not actually hinge on how much he can improve in another year. It depends completely on whether he can get into the first round with his existing talent. It would be unwise to try stay another season to try to improve his game if he has little hope of moving up in draft because he risks injury or underperforming that would drop him lower or out of the draft next year.
Most NBA scouts are familiar enough with Fair’s ability. Syracuse has played a lot of high-profile games, and plenty of scouts have come to watch Michael Carter-Williams, among others, play. Scouts know Fair’s limitations, but they also know that he could make the same improvements he’d make in college next year in the NBA—probably even more so with increased practice time, better coaching, better conditioning, and the other perks that come from being on an NBA roster.
I don’t think CJ will ever be a great NBA player, but he has some of the tools to be serviceable. He’s a good defender, a solid rebounder for his size, and he’s a crafty scorer. Most importantly, he plays intelligently and rarely makes mistakes. On an NBA second unit, where often score-first guards dominate short bursts of action, the holes in his game could be less of an issue.
The big problem for Fair is that even if he’s “told” he will be a first-round pick, he would likely be such a late first-round pick that there is no guarantee he would be picked there. If a team has told him they want to select him in one of the last three picks of the round, they might change their minds if a player they projected higher unexpectedly drops to them.
So if Fair is fortunate enough to receive an evaluation that pegs him as a late-round pick, he needs to weight how likely it is that he might slip to the second round. If he thinks there is even a 50 percent change that he will fall to the second round, it may be reason enough not to go. The money isn’t guaranteed, and as Kris Joesph and others can attest, that means you’ll likely end up playing for the Maine Red Claws. That opportunity will be there next year just as much as this year, and he’ll have a chance to be SU’s go-to guy and once again try for a late-first-round selection.
What becomes a really tough decision is if the likelihood for a first-round selection is, say, 75 percent. Those are pretty good odds, but there’s a reasonably big risk there, as well. I would not envy him.
While I think it’s unlikely Fair will declare for the draft, I wouldn’t blame him if he did. The question is whether an NBA team decides it’s worth taking a solid, high-intangible player in the first round who will likely only ever be a second-unit player. In this year’s draft, it’s certainly possible. Perhaps not likely, but possible.