ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With newly hired New Mexico head coach Craig Neal by his side, 21-year-old Tony Snell made it official Monday afternoon.
He will no longer play for the Lobos, opting to turn pro and enter the NBA Draft instead of returning for his senior season.
“In my heart, I feel like it’s a good decision to leave now,” the soft-spoken Snell said Monday, repeatedly thanking the coaching staff, his now former teammates and Lobo fans for helping him grow.
In a Friday night phone call Snell wasn’t comfortable making because of his bond with Neal, the 6-foot-7 shooting guard informed Neal, who was in Atlanta for the Final Four.
“It wasn’t a fun call,” Neal said, who added while he thinks Snell has NBA potential, he wanted the swingman to return for the 2013-14 season. Had Snell returned, UNM would have had all five starters back.
“I was fortunate enough to watch him grow as a player and grow as a person,” Neal added. “I recruited him a lot. I think everything we promised him that was going to happen has come true. He’s gotten better every year.”
Snell said the feedback he received from NBA scouts — both individually and through the UNM coaching staff — leaves him confident he’ll get every opportunity through workouts and in training camp to earn a roster spot on an NBA team next season.
Asked if he would play overseas or in the NBA Developmental League if he doesn’t make an NBA roster, Snell said his only focus is making an NBA roster.
Only first-round picks are guaranteed NBA contracts — and NBA money. While there are few, if any, mock draft predictions that show Snell as a likely first-round selection, Snell said he and his family understand the risk. But he still feels the time to pursue his NBA career is now.
Many have suggested the 2014 NBA Draft class is loaded with talent, possibly making the decision to test his luck now a wise one. But one national basketball analyst says Snell would have still been wise to return to school.
“The 2013 draft is extremely weak at the top,” CBS Sports senior basketball writer Jeff Goodman told the Journal Monday afternoon. “But most NBA guys have told me the depth (overall) is about the same as it’s been.
“I still think Tony Snell should have stayed another year. NBA execs are intrigued, but want to see consistency from him.”
Snell, who averaged 12.5 points a game this past season, had a coming out party at the Mountain West tournament last month. He caught the eyes of NBA scouts and player personnel executives as he was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
One thing likely playing into Snell’s “strike while the iron is hot” mindset has been the performance, or general lack of it from seniors in recent NBA Drafts.
While 58 of the 180 players (32.2 percent) drafted by an NBA team in the 2010, ’11 and ’12 drafts were seniors, only 16 were first-round selections. In those same drafts, 21 freshmen were drafted in the first round, 23 sophomores, 23 juniors and seven international players.
Neal, a six-year NBA assistant coach and scout, said he was very honest with Snell about the good and the bad feedback NBA general managers gave him. It was advice Snell acknowledged he’ll have to work on in the coming weeks.
“We gave him the good and the bad news,” Neal said. “… Tony is family and Tony has decided this is best for him. We will support him in every way to make this happen.”
Snell did say, “it’s always been the plan,” for him to return to UNM to get his degree. But he has disenrolled from classes to focus on training in California with his old travel club and prep school coach Marvin Lea.
Snell also said he confided in close friends, Jamaal Franklin, a junior at San Diego State who could declare for the NBA Draft this week, and Kawhi Leonard, a former SDSU player and current San Antonio Spurs standout.
Snell’s departure, coupled with the dismissal from the team of Demetrius Walker (he expects to graduate in May and transfer to another Division I program and be eligible immediately), and the decision of La Cueva’s Bryce Alford to follow his father to UCLA, leaves UNM with three scholarship openings. And all three come from the guard spot.
In attendance at Monday’s news conference were Lobo starters Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk and Hugh Greenwood.
When asked whether Kirk, a sophomore center who had acknowledged he would consider a transfer to UCLA if Neal wasn’t hired, would be back, Neal said the day was about Snell and nobody else.
Kirk has never asked for a transfer from UNM.