"A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool?"
The most famous line from the 2010 movie The Social Network perfectly illustrates what can be a difficult choice: do you take guaranteed instant cash now or hold out in hopes for a larger payday in the future?
It's not quite the scale of a million dollars vs a billion dollars, but many top college athletes face a similar choice in deciding when to leave college for the professional ranks. Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls are the two players who hold the immediate fate of Razorback basketball in their hands while radio shows, message boards and social media buzz with speculation about what they'll decide on a daily basis.
In general, I don't like to make an argument about what a player should or shouldn't do. Deciding when to leave college for the pros is an extremely personal decision with many different factors. Obviously, there are all the financial and familial considerations, and as many people who went through college know, college years are unique and valuable years in your life that you don't get back. Going from college to the pros is a drastic lifestyle change, not only because of the money. Without knowing all the most minute details factoring into those decisions, it's often irresponsible for anybody to claim they know what's best for these people.
That being said, many athletes these days like to frame these decisions as "business decisions" and under this perspective, there's plenty we can talk about. It's easy to do because we know how much players make in the NBA because of the rookie scale by which all incoming players must abide. There is no negotiating for a $50 million contract. You can see the scale in the salary column on the right side of the page here.
Yes, both Portis and Qualls could leave Arkansas this summer and make a ton of money playing basketball professionally. Portis is currently projected, depending on your draft projection of choice, anywhere between the bottom of the lottery (13th-14th pick) to the mid/lower first round. We have not seen Qualls listed on a mock draft for this year (although he is listed on this 2016 mock draft) but even if he didn't get drafted, Qualls could make a great living playing basketball overseas.
There's a lot of money on the table right now, but if we agree that the best "business decision" is to maximize income for the long term, the question both Portis and Qualls must answer over the coming days and weeks is whether they could get a much better draft position if they came back to school next year.
The biggest piece of evidence suggesting both could do that is the fact that both players have consistently improved since they arrived in Fayetteville. Portis went from being a highly-touted freshman with a ton of potential and blossomed into an unquestionable star as a sophomore, turning in one of the best seasons in recent Arkansas history. Qualls went from being a raw athlete as a freshman to a team leader as a junior. His point total by year has grown from 144 to 383 to 573. If he came back he'd be likely to finish his career in the top 10-15 of Arkansas' all-time scoring list.
It's hard to imagine either player suddenly trending downward in Fayetteville next year although it's not impossible. Some may point to B.J. Young, who found himself on draft boards after a strong freshman season but whose jump shot completely disappeared as a sophomore and ended up undrafted and now playing in Europe after a stint in the D-League. It's a fair point and part of the reason why coming back to school would be a gamble on some level.
However, both Portis and Qualls have proven they can take an off season and come back stronger and better, something Young was not able to do. Young was a lights-out 41.3% 3-point shooter as a freshman but a dreadful 22.7% as a sophomore. Qualls started his career making fewer than a quarter of his threes, but now makes more than a third. He came in as a 60.9% free throw shooter, but made 68% as a sophomore and 77.5% this year. Portis was more aggressive this season, taking and making more shots and grabbing more rebounds.
Could they continue to improve their draft stock if they came back to school and performed even better in 2016? It's impossible to say for sure but both their histories suggest that they absolutely could. But how much they could is the key.
I spoke with SB Nation's resident NBA Draft guru Kevin O'Connor, who recently wrote this NBA scouting report of Portis following the SEC Tournament, and asked him if he thought Portis' stock could rise if he came back to school and continued to improve. His response:
I think he'd be a lottery pick in the 2016. That year's  draft class is a whole lot weaker (unless a lot of the freshman stay another year, like Marcus Smart did). [Portis] certainly made the right choice staying for his sophomore year.
Portis needs to get stronger. He still needs to improve on the post. I'd like to see him stay engaged on the boards more often. Already a solid rebounder, but he can get better. It's not that Portis has many true weaknesses, because he doesn't...he can just round off his game a lot more and come to the NBA as a more complete product.
Portis, who now is projected to be around the #15 pick, would earn enough if he's able to become a top 10 pick next year to recoup any money lost by playing in college next year. He could also end up making more. The #15 pick this year will earn $1.6 million per year. The #10 pick will make $2.07 million (and those numbers will be slightly higher in 2016). Rookie contracts are for four years with team options for the last two years. Quick math will show how much more that is over the span of the contract. Obviously, if Qualls could become a 1st round pick in 2016, he'd be set up with plenty of guaranteed money.
Granted, there are a lot of "ifs" in the preceding paragraphs, and before making their choices, the two Razorbacks will undoubtedly be in touch with their coaches and several other professionals regarding how high they could climb with another year in Fayetteville.
Absolutely no one could blame either Portis or Qualls for taking what's already on the table. We don't know all the minutia of their personal situations so it's impossible to claim which would be the better option for them. But from a business standpoint, at the very least, it's hardly a no-brainer.