Winners (Big Ten), losers (ACC) from NBA early-entry decisions
Less than three weeks after Duke knocked off Wisconsin for the 2015 national championship, we passed the biggest signpost yet of the off-season: April 26 was the final day for players with remaining eligibility to declare for the NBA draft. Some elite teams, like the Blue Devils and the Kentucky Wildcats, suffered heavy personnel losses. Still, despite losing point guard Tyus Jones, center Jahlil Okafor and wing Justise Winslow, the new champs are reloading with another top recruiting class, and the same goes for the Wildcats, who lost a staggering seven players off their team that started 38-0 and reached the Final Four. Those teams should be just fine. So with that in mind, below are the biggest winners and losers in the early declaration fallout.
1. Providence: The biggest surprise of the declaration season created the biggest winner. Friars guard Kris Dunn was widely viewed as a first-round pick after averaging 15.6 points and 7.5 assists in his sophomore season. And given his injury history (he missed much of his first two college seasons with shoulder ailments, including a redshirt year after playing just four games in 2013-14), no one could have blamed him for eschewing the risk of getting hurt again before his NBA payday. Ultimately, though, he opted for another year of seasoning under the tutelage of coach Ed Cooley. His return makes Providence one of the favorites in the Big East next season.
2. Oklahoma: Out of all the star players who took their decision to stay or go down to the final days, Buddy Hield was the one who truly seemed like he could go either way. Hield was the Big 12 player of the year last season, beating out a loaded field that included Perry Ellis of Kansas, Georges Niang of Iowa State and Juwan Staten of West Virginia. Still, the different ratings services held varying opinions on Hield's draft stock, with his projection falling anywhere from the late first round to one of the very final picks of the draft. After surveying that field, the talented 6'4" Bahamian chose to head back to Norman for his senior year. Thanks to Hield’s return, Oklahoma could very well begin next season ranked in the top 10.
3. The freshmen. One year ago, the first four picks and nine of the top 18 selections in the NBA draft were college freshman. That hyped class included Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Duke's Jabari Parker, Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Kentucky's Julius Randle and James Young, but the group of frosh who arrived on campus in their wake was not considered to be in the same, well, class. Yet it's entirely possible that the top of the 2015 NBA draft could replicate the feat of a year ago. Okafor, Winslow, Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns and Ohio State point guard D'Angelo Russell are all strong candidates to be top-five picks, as is Emmanuel Mudiay, who also graduated high school in 2014 but spent the past year playing professionally in China. Meanwhile, Arizona's Stanley Johnson, Kansas's Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, Kentucky's Devin Booker and Trey Lyles, Texas's Myles Turner and UCLA's Kevon Looney also figure to go in the first round. Clearly, the one-and-done craze shows no sign of slowing down.
4. Indiana: Like Providence, Indiana got its point guard—as well as the heart of its team—back for another season. Yogi Ferrell’s decision to return for his senior year, announced on Sunday, wasn’t as great a surprise as Dunn’s, but it was equally as important. Ferrell was the Hoosiers leading scorer at 16.3 points per game last year, and he also dished out 4.9 assists per game. He likely saw his second-round projection by most draft services and figured he couldn’t hurt himself with another season in Bloomington. With both Ferrell and sophomore sharpshooter James Blackmon returning in the backcourt, Indiana should be a top-five team in the Big Ten in what could be Tom Crean’s make-or-break season with the program.
5. Michigan: When Caris LeVert injured his left foot last January, just a few months after having surgery on that same foot, it didn’t just end his, and effectively Michigan’s, season. It also appeared the injury would put a bow on LeVert’s tenure in Ann Arbor. The NBA beckoned with a likely first round pick, and it was hard to imagine LeVert risking an injury to the same foot a third time before getting to the NBA. That’s exactly what the 6'6" forward did, however, choosing to lead the Wolverines next season, when he will try to improve his averages for points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks for the third straight year. John Belien’s youngsters cobbled together a 16-16 finish, and with LeVert at the helm and a strong recruiting class in tow, the Wolverines should be back to being a Big Ten contender.
6. Big Ten: Speaking of the Big Ten, there may be no man happier at all these decisions that its commissioner, Jim Delany. The Big Ten is fresh off placing two teams in the Final Four and one in the championship game. Yes, Wisconsin lost Frank Kaminsky to graduation and Sam Dekker to early-entry, and the conference may not have any one team as strong next season as the 36-4 Badgers were this year. Having said that, Ferrell, LeVert and Maryland's Melo Trimble all could have gone off to the NBA, but decided to head back to college for one more season. The Terrapins may be the class of the conference next season, with five-star center Diamond Stone joining Trimble and forward Jake Layman in College Park. Michigan State again has a strong recruiting class, bolstered by the recent addition of five-star big man Caleb Swanigan, and Wisconsin will still be a force with forward Ethan Happ joining Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig in the starting lineup. The Big Ten may end up being the strongest conference, top to bottom, next season.
1. Arkansas: The Razorbacks enjoyed the program’s best season since the Nolan Richardson era in 2014-15, going 27-9, finishing in second in the SEC and reaching the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament. In a season in which Kentucky dominated the conference, it was Arkansas that boasted the SEC player of the year in 6'11" sophomore Bobby Portis. After the season ended, the team held out hope that both he and junior guard Michael Qualls would return. Instead, both declared for the NBA draft. While the Razorbacks couldn’t have been too surprised to see Portis go, they had to be taken aback when Qualls announced his intentions. The duo combined for 33.4 points and 14.2 rebounds per game last year. It’s going to be awfully hard to replace their contributions.
2. Chris Walker: When Walker arrived at Florida two years ago as the prize of its 2013 recruiting class, it would hardly have been a shock to see him head to the NBA by this point. But after two disappointing seasons in which he averaged just 3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds combined, he declared for the NBA despite not ranking as one of the top 100 prospects on draftexpress.com. The 6'10", 220-pound Walker is likely going to have to hope that he can showcase his skills in the summer league and then catch on in some team’s training camp next fall. He’ll likely get an opportunity to do that because of his athleticsim and potential, but it’s hard to imagine him suddenly becoming the dominant player he was once projected as being.
3. Arizona: The Wildcats may have expected to wave goodbye to Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, but that doesn’t make it any less cruel that they lost three starters early to the NBA. Those three were Arizona's leading scorers and rebounders this past season, as well as the core of a defense that helped carry the Wildcats to a 34-4 record. Arizona is one of the few programs in the country that can reload rather than rebuild, but it’s hard for any school to lose its three best players and experience the same success the following season.
4. The ACC: Don't cry too hard for the nation's best conference from a year ago. Not only did Duke win the national championship, but North Carolina, which brings back nine of its top 10 players, is an early favorite to be the No. 1 ranked team in the preseason come November. But the league did suffer some major personnel losses. In addition to the aforementioned trio of Blue Devils freshmen who bolted for the NBA, Louisville lost its two scorers in sophomore guard Terry Rozier and junior forward Montrezl Harrell; Syracuse lost freshman forward Chris McCullough even though he played just 16 games and tore his right ACL; Virginia lost junior guard Justin Anderson; and the Tar Heels lost starting forward J.P. Tokoto.
Perhaps the biggest loser, however, is N.C. State. The Wolfpack were already going to have to compensate for the departure of senior Ralston Turner, their second-leading scorer, but the decision by fellow guard Trevor Lacey, their leading scorer at 15.7 points per game, to leave early despite not being a projected first-round pick, could really sting.
5. Small Schools: It isn’t just programs like Kentucky and Duke that lose players to the NBA before they’ve exhausted their eligibility. Early entries come from schools of all shapes and sizes. Just ask Murray State. After suffering a heartbreaking loss in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament that kept them from reaching the NCAAs despite a perfect regular season run in league play, the Racers watched sophomore point guard and likely first round pick Cameron Payne bolt for the NBA.
The pain is also being felt at Eastern Washington. The Eagles won the Big Sky tournament but lost to Georgetown in the NCAAs Round of 64. They’ll have to try to defend their conference title without leading scorer Tyler Harvey, who declared for the draft after a sophomore season in which he led the nation with 23.2 points per game.
Then there is Georgia State, which is losing junior guard R.J. Hunter, who averaged 19.7 points per game and became a national sensation with his deep three to knock Baylor out of the NCAA tournament and knock his dad, Ron, off his stool at the same time. Hunter was no secret to NBA scouts before the tournament, but that shot has helped raise his profile to the point that he’s now seen as a potential first round pick. That was enough for him to declare for the draft with one year of eligibility remaining.