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Opinion: Prepare Yourself—Eric Mika Isn’t Returning to BYU Basketball

After a monstrous sophomore season and with a wealth of potential, have we already seen Eric Mika’s last game in a BYU jersey?

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NCAA Basketball: Brigham Young at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

On March 22, a wave of surprise and panic spread across Cougar Nation as BYU Basketball star Eric Mika announced that he is declaring for the NBA draft. By not hiring an agent, Mika can keep his amateur status under the NCAA rules if he removes his name from the draft within 10 days after the NBA Combine. This year’s combine concludes on May 14, which means Mika would need to withdraw his name by May 24 to keep his college eligibility. Up until that time, he can participate in the combine and can complete one tryout per NBA team.

After the initial commotion following Mika’s announcement, so-called voices of reason began to emerge, giving BYU fans plenty of reasons why this “is nothing to worry about.” I’ll admit to being one of those voices. (If I’m being honest, it was actually me going through the first of the five stages of grief: Denial.)

Currently, Mika is projected to be drafted mid-second round. Many believe that unless that changes and he’s guaranteed to go in the first round, the only thing for Mika to do is return to BYU for his junior season. Some compare Mika to Trent Plaisted, who left BYU after his junior season, was drafted 46th overall, but ended up playing overseas and never making it in the NBA.

Other former players have declared early for the draft but ultimately returned to BYU, including Jimmer Fredette and Lee Cummard. It would be silly of Mika not to take advantage of the opportunity to be evaluated by NBA scouts and figure out what aspects of his game he needs to work on during his junior season. He’s most likely just talking the talk to get the honest feedback he’ll need to prepare for next year’s draft, many say.

But after listening (more than once) to Mika’s press conference and his interview on BYU Sports Nation, I’m convinced we’ve already seen the last of Eric Mika in a BYU jersey. Let’s break down some of his comments:

On what he hopes to get out of this process:

“I wouldn’t call it a process of exploring… that’s my intention, to be drafted by a team.”

Mika has stayed far away from even implying that his goal is to simply find out where he falls and get feedback ahead of next year’s draft. He’s clearly said that it is his intention to be drafted—and he hasn’t come out and said that it has to be in the first round, either.

On how he expects to do in the workouts:

“I expect to do well. I wouldn’t be entering my name, I wouldn’t be making a big deal about it, if I wasn’t expecting to do well and get drafted.”

I think by “expect to do well” Mika means that he expects to do well enough to get himself into the first round where the money is guaranteed. He may be a bit under the radar right now, but if he can impress in team workouts, it’s not out of the question.

On why he expects to do well:

“One of my strengths is I don’t back down from anyone. I think I play best when people expect me to lose…or when they see me as the underdog. So I think going into these workouts it can only help me playing guys that are supposedly better or who are going to get drafted supposedly higher, and I can just run them out of the gym is the hope.”

“I think what sets me apart is what I’ve been doing all year, but now they’ll get a closer look at it, which I think will be an advantage for me.”

Eric Mika is one of those players who thrives on intense competition. Look no further than BYU’s win over #1 Gonzaga in Spokane, in which Mika played arguably his best game of the season. In 39 minutes, he scored 29 points on 10-14 shooting, 9-13 from the line, pulled down 11 rebounds, and had two blocks. The prospect of being an underdog excites and motivates Mika. Don’t be surprised if he plays his way into the first round of the draft. He really is that good.

And might I add that Eric is extremely likeable. He’s smart, competitive, mature, great work ethic, one of those “high-character” kids that GMs look for, and on top of all of that he just has this lovable, easy-going personality that I think teams will appreciate.

On how he made the decision:

“I just kind of looked at things how they were going this year compared to ultimately what I want to do, what me and my family want to do, and everything just pointed towards leaving and seeing what I can do, and where I can end up, when I can end up playing professionally the soonest.”

Notice that he didn’t qualify that last phrase with “when I can end up playing professionally in the NBA the soonest.” I think he’s set on playing professionally next year, wherever that may be.

On how long he’s had the dream of playing in the NBA:

“Not that long. It’s kind of a new thought. I remember maybe senior year of high school someone asked me in an interview, like ‘have you ever thought about the NBA?’ and up to that point, honestly, I don’t think I had . . . so I think it was maybe towards the end of my senior year of high school that I figured out hey, you know, I really like this and apparently people think I’m good at it, and I would love to play it and commit to it.”

I don’t think we can assume that playing in the NBA is the be-all and end-all goal of Eric Mika. I’m sure it is his current goal to make it in the NBA, and it should be—he’s good enough to play in the league someday. But I am not sure he has the same attitude about playing overseas that some fans might. We know he and his wife served missions in Italy, and Mika has mentioned before that he’d love to play there someday. I doubt he would see playing overseas as any kind of failure, and he (shockingly) may actually prefer it to playing one more year at BYU.

On what he’d need to hear to make a decision to return to BYU:

“I don’t know what those [options] are, but obviously they’re out there. That’s why we left the door open…life is about opportunity and especially about options, so with the rules the way they are, there’s no point in not taking advantage of all the options.”

“You gotta see how the workouts go, you gotta talk to these teams and see how committed they are and make a decision from there. That being said, I’m confident I’ll do well and I’m confident that a team will want me.”

By not hiring an agent, Mika has until May 24 to get all the feedback he can from NBA teams. Until he starts to get into workouts and gather feedback, it would be dumb to slam the door on coming back to BYU. But just because he hasn’t hired an agent yet doesn’t mean he won’t, even before May 24. If teams are showing him the type of interest he’s confident they will, he’ll have to hire an agent sooner or later.

BYU Basketball’s lackluster season might have overshadowed Eric Mika’s incredible individual accomplishments, at least in the eyes of BYU fans. Having only returned home from his two-year mission to Italy in May 2016, Mika started all 34 games of the 2016-17 season for BYU, averaging 28.6 minutes per game, 20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks while shooting 52.8% from the field.

To put it in perspective, let’s compare the numbers from Mika’s WCC All-Freshman team season. In 2013-14, Mika played in all 33 games and shot 52.7%, averaged 11.8 points per game, 6.4 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, and sank 61.7% from the stripe. Fast forward three years later to this season when Mika basically maintained his shooting percentage while taking 177 more shots. He also made significant improvement in points, rebounds, blocks and free throw percentage—the type of improvement you might expect to see from one season to the next, but which is incredible when you consider that Mika stepped away from the game for two years in between.

So much of the NBA draft is focused on potential, and Eric Mika has that in abundance. He’s made impressive progress in his two years of collegiate basketball, and he has yet to hit his ceiling. I think he’ll show very well in team workouts, and I think he’s right—some team will want him. One team is all it takes.

And if it’s a question of development, why not take advantage of the opportunity to get paid to develop while he has the chance? It’s unlikely that he would develop into an NBA-ready player by sticking around BYU for another year, particularly when he plays the 5 spot in college but may be best suited at the 4 in the NBA.

On breaking up the Lone Peak Three:

“It’s hard to think that what we thought of, and what we had envisioned from so long ago, wasn’t going to be.”

I think most fans would agree that, while having a BYU Basketball player stick in the NBA is great for the program, what would be even better for the program right now is getting back to the NCAA Tournament, and hopefully making a deep run. And BYU has the best chance to do that next season if Mika is on the team.

But this decision can’t be about what is best for the team or the program. This is about what is best for Eric Mika.

It’s hard to be selfish, especially when it feels like the hopes of your teammates and coaches and thousands of fans rest on your shoulders. But Eric doesn’t owe us anything. He’s the one who has put in the time and the work to be in this position. He’s earned his right to be selfish.

Me and the boys got that W tonight! Excited for the semis on Monday! #GoBrigham

A post shared by Eric Mika (@bigeonetwo) on

And if after all of this Mika does end up coming back to BYU, I promise you I could not be happier to be wrong! Not only because of what it could mean for next year’s team, but because I’ll get one more special season to watch one of my all-time favorite basketball players dominate in a BYU jersey.

But from everything I’ve heard from his own mouth, combined with the numbers he put up this season, I don’t see Eric Mika coming back to BYU for his junior year. He was too good. There’s no sense in him waiting around another year if he knows teams will pay him for his skill (and his potential) now.

As sad as I am to think that Mika’s career at BYU may be over already, I’m happy for him. BYU Basketball fans haven’t really had to deal with players leaving early because it’s rare that players of Mika’s caliber choose BYU. This is actually a good problem to have.

And it’s not like the cupboards are bare. Plenty of talent remains and good days are still ahead for BYU Basketball.

So if this is really it, I think the only thing to say is, Thanks, Eric. Cougar Nation is behind you. Go kill it at the next level!

What do you think? Will Eric Mika return to BYU, or will he be playing professional basketball somewhere next season? Leave your take in the comments.