It’s never too early to talk about the 2016 NBA draft. Next year’s top pick will likely be a freshman, either LSU’s Ben Simmons or Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere, but there is plenty of returning talent in college that will fill in the NBA draft lottery. Here are the 10 best players—listed alphabetically—who have already played college basketball.
Kris Dunn, PG, Providence
In one of the more surprising draft decisions this spring, Dunn elected to return for his redshirt junior season. Had he entered the draft, the Providence standout likely would have been selected in the first round. After overcoming multiple shoulder injuries since starting college as a five-star recruit in the class of 2012, Dunn blossomed into one of the top playmaking point guards in the country in 2014-15. He assisted on half of his team’s baskets during his floor time, averaged 18.0 points per 40 minutes (adjusted for pace) and shouldered the largest possession load in the Big East during conference play, according to kenpom.com.
At 6’3’’ and 205 pounds, Dunn projects well physically as an NBA point guard. While his shooting ability is a concern—he attempted only 77 threes and hit 69% of his free throws last season—Dunn should remain in consideration for a first-round pick thanks to his distribution skills and court vision. He will have a chance to prove worthy of being an even high selection if he excels in a larger shot-creation role with the Friars now that their leading scorer a year ago, LaDontae Henton, has departed.
Nigel Hayes, PF, Wisconsin
Hayes created headlines off the court during the NCAA tournament because of his fascination with press conference stenographers and obscure words. On the court, he earned high marks from NBA talent evaluators by showcasing dynamic skills that teams will covet in the first round next year. Hayes is an adept low-block scorer but also possesses enough range to make defenses pay from outside of the paint. As a sophomore with the Badgers last season, Hayes drilled 40% of his three-point shots during Big Ten play and ranked in the 91st percentile in Division I in jump shot efficiency, according to Synergy Sports. He also recorded more than a point per possession on post-ups. Expect his scoring numbers to surge this season with national player of the year Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker having been selected in the first round of Thursday’s NBA draft. Though he doesn’t possess ideal size for a power forward (6’8’’, 235), Hayes makes up for it with his strength and quickness. His package of skills and physical tools could offer flexibility when NBA teams consider potential frontcourt pairings.
Anyone who attempted to scout Jerian Grant in the lead up to this year’s draft probably got distracted watching another Fighting Irish guard. There were isolated moments of brilliance from Jackson, like the time he dunked on 7’2’’ Purdue center Isaac Haas and the ridiculous dribble-and-dish sequence he pulled off in the opening round of the NCAA tournament against Northeastern. Yet Jackson’s performance over the course of two seasons suggests he might have a higher ceiling in the NBA than his teammate who was selected 19th overall on Thursday night. Jackson is an explosive athlete who excels at blowing by defenders off the dribble and slashing into the lane. He sank 43% of his 126 three-point attempts last season and should be able to improve his point guard skills while taking on a larger portion of Notre Dame’s playmaking in 2015-16. Jackson has already generated considerable NBA buzz, and his stature should rise next year without a Sports Illustrated first-team All-America sharing the same backcourt.
Jackson arrived in Chapel Hill last year as the highest-ranked prospect in a heralded three-man recruiting class and fresh off being named co-MVP, with Duke's Jahlil Okafor, at the McDonald’s All-American game. His length, high basketball IQ and polished mid-range game helped him step right into North Carolina’s starting lineup. Jackson endured some rough patches during the year—including when he scored only two points on 1-for-8 shooting during a February loss at Duke—but he improved toward the end of conference play and into the postseason. Over his final 10 games, Jackson shot 57% from the field and only once posted an offensive rating below 100, according to kenpom.com. His uptick in performance led to speculation over whether Jackson would leave after only one season in college. Instead, he’ll hope the positive trend continues into next season, during which the 6'8" Jackson will provide a strong perimeter scoring complement for a Tar Heels team slotted No. 1 in SI.com’s off-season power rankings.
Jake Layman, SF, Maryland
Maryland point guard Melo Trimble garnered more attention among college basketball fans last season, but Layman could be the better NBA prospect. This possibility may be difficult to reconcile given that Layman has already played three seasons of college basketball, while Trimble was named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman Team this spring. Still, consider the areas in which the 6'9" Layman improved last season: He boosted his shooting accuracy both inside and outside the arc, got to the free throw line more frequently and rebounded more effectively on both ends of the floor.
Layman could enhance his draft position by turning in another strong year in College Park. With Maryland adding both five-star center prospect Diamond Stone and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter, Layman could spend more time at small forward, the position he projects to play in the NBA. Further refinement of his perimeter skills and more repetitions defending opposing ball handlers on the wing should benefit Layman as he seeks to help Maryland make good on lofty preseason hype during his final college campaign.
Caris LeVert, SG, Michigan
LeVert played only 18 games as a junior before undergoing surgery to repair a foot fracture suffered during a January win over Northwestern. While sitting out the final two-plus months of the season and undergoing rehabilitation, LeVert slid down draft boards, but he still considered leaving school before ultimately deciding in April to return to Ann Arbor for another year.
Arguably the biggest reason LeVert will enter 2015-16 as one of the Big Ten’s top NBA prospects is the offensive versatility he’s shown since arriving on campus as a three-star recruit in the class of 2012. Listed at 6'7" and 200 pounds, LeVert possesses a diverse range of skills that help him play smoothly with all different types of offenses. In his most frequent play type logged by Synergy Sports during the 2014-15 season, LeVert served as the ball handler in screen and rolls. He also drilled 40.7% of his three-point attempts and made 78% of his free throws over the last two seasons. Defensively, LeVert can bother opposing guards with his length and quickness. His potential on both ends of the floor should keep him in the conversation for a top-20 pick.
After signing his National Letter of Intent as a 16-year-old last year, Mykhailiuk earned limited playing time at Kansas. During conference play, he averaged only six minutes per game and was marginalized as his teammates consumed the majority of available scoring opportunities. Yet Mykhailiuk’s one season at Kansas doesn’t tell the full story of his ability. At the FIBA U16 European Championships in 2013, he averaged 25.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists while playing 36.8 minutes per game for Ukraine and was named to the all-tournament team. He has also played in the Ukrainian Superleague with the SK Cherkasy Monkeys and impressed during workouts as the youngest participant in the prestigious Nike Hoop Summit last year (he scored only two points in 13 minutes for the World Team during the game).
Kansas coach Bill Self may have been overestimating Mykhailiuk’s ability to adapt to playing against older players in college when he said he thought Mykhailiuk would be an “immediate impact guy,” but the now 18-year-old still has a bright future and should have a larger role for the Jayhawks this season.
Jakob Poeltl, C, Utah
Poeltl wasn’t as highly regarded as the top recruits in the class of 2014, yet few freshmen made a larger impact during their first season of college basketball. The seven-footer paired with guard Delon Wright, who was selected 20th overall on Thursday, to lift Utah to 26 wins, a third place finish in the Pac-12 and the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2009. Though he decided to return for another season, Poeltl, a native of Vienna, Austria, may have been tempting for teams selecting in the lottery this year.
Whether or not a consensus has been reached on the translatability of rebounding at the college level to the NBA, Poeltl has already built a case that he’s one of the premier glass-cleaners in the country. During Pac-12 play last season, he posted the league’s highest offensive rebounding percentage and ranked ninth in defensive rebounding percentage, according to kenpom.com. Poeltl also rated as an elite shot blocker; he turned away 7.0% of Pac-12 opponents’ two-point shot attempts, ranking fifth in the conference. Most of Poeltl’s offense came at the rim last season, but he finished at an impressive 75.9% clip, according to hoop-math.com.
Despite suffering multiple leg injuries that forced him to miss his senior season at Laguna Creek (Calif.) High, Pope was assigned a five-star rating in the class of 2014 by Rivals.com. As a freshman at San Diego State, he battled inconsistency and put up pedestrian numbers in limited minutes but gave NBA scouts plenty of reasons to monitor him more closely this season. Among Pope's best performances were a 22-point outing on 9-of-11 shooting in a January loss at Colorado State, and a 16-point showing on 6-of-10 shooting in a February win at New Mexico.
San Diego State forward Dwayne Polee II assigned the 6'8" Pope the nickname “Malik the Freak,” because “there's some things he does on the court that you don't know how he does it.” Meanwhile, Pope’s wingspan and standing reach measured favorably at 7'2" and 9’ ¾,’’ respectively, earlier this month. After competing at the USA Basketball U-19 training camp this summer, Pope should get off to a better start in his sophomore season than he did in 2014-15, when he was still getting up to speed following the injuries.
Domantas Sabonis, PF, Gonzaga
Sabonis was projected as a possible first-round pick in this year’s draft even though two of Gonzaga’s other forwards, Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski, played more minutes than he did and earned spots on the All-West Coast Conference first-team. That trio helped the Bulldogs win 35 games and advance past the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs for the first time since 1999; their return gives Gonzaga one of the best frontcourts in the country and places Mark Few’s team on the short list of national title contenders heading into 2015-16.
The 6'10" Sabonis, the son of former NBA center Arvydas Sabonis, was the Zags’ best rebounder and low-block scorer last season. He ranked in the nation’s 94th percentile in post scoring efficiency last season, according to Synergy Sports, and finished 76.5% of his field-goal attempts at the rim, per hoop-math.com. No one in the WCC corralled misses at a higher rate than Sabonis during conference play last season, and he also recorded the league’s fourth-best offensive rebounding percentage.