There are many paths to the NBA now, but Eric Dailey Jr. shows why college is still the best

Feb. 28—One-and-done recruits at Oklahoma State are still oddities. Most of the program's highest drafted players since the NBA instituted an age requirement in 2005 — like Marcus Smart and James Anderson — played there for multiple seasons.

Cade Cunningham became Oklahoma State's first one-and-done player when the Pistons drafted him first overall in 2021. Eric Dailey Jr. had a chance to become the second, as the No. 9 power forward recruit was projected to be a second round pick in the fall, but he'll likely return to school.

There are many different paths to the NBA. Many declare for the draft after one year in college, some stay four years and others never live up to their high school profiles.

"That's OK, as long as you max out whatever talents that you have," Dailey said. "That's the most important thing."

Coming out of IMG Academy, a factory for NBA talent, Dailey didn't only choose OSU over other schools such as Kansas and Kentucky. He also chose it over offers to play for Spanish teams Real Madrid, FC Barcelona Bàsquet and CB Estudiantes, and the Australian National Basketball League.

"A lot of people thought I was going overseas my junior year and that kind of slowed down my recruitment," Dailey said. "If you think about somebody trying to pay (me) money to play basketball professionally at a young age ... I probably would be ready just because I had a family that went through that. My dad played for 10 years overseas."

The NBA is entering an era of elite international players. The past five MVPs are all from other countries.

In the 2023 draft, five of the top seven picks were international or from G-League Ignite, the NBA's developmental team created in 2020. And in the NBA's latest mock draft for 2024, the top four picks are all international.

Comparing Dailey's path to that of players like Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson or Alexandre Sarr would be unreasonable, however, given their background and high-end projections. For kids like him, one thing is certain: the college route is still the best for development, exposure and stability.

"He's had a pretty good freshman year. He hasn't had a perfect freshman year, but he's had a year that he needs to appreciate the opportunities he's had in this league," coach Mike Boynton said. "He's gonna be a better player long term because of it."

"Long term" is the key. Playing in the NBA has been Dailey's goal since his first day in Stillwater, but he can't afford to skip steps because he isn't a household name.

"I feel like if I was to (declare for the draft), I would be one of those kids that just goes off of pure talent, pure skill," Dailey said. "I don't think I'm a kid with a lot of hype. My name's not been thrown around a lot, which is OK. That's not what you really strive for."

His talent and skill is good, but it's not pro-level yet. And he knows playing in college will help him get there.

"Everybody wants to go to the NBA, but you gotta be ready when you go. You're going to be playing guys way older than you that are trying to feed their families," Dailey said. "For me, I'll go when I'm ready — whenever that is."