College basketball lost star power in draft, but it is not left barren

2:16 | NBA
The Crossover's favorite first-round picks in the 2017 NBA Draft
Friday June 23rd, 2017

After months of speculation and rumors, the NBA draft has finally come and gone. But for every expert handing out team-by-team grades or every analyst declaring their “winners and losers” from Thursday night, there’s always something that gets lost in the shuffle: the state of college basketball without its top players.

So, what can we glean about college hoops and its future from Thursday night’s results?

No stopping the youth movement

The one-and-done rule, which forces obligatory one-year stops in school for the nation’s best young basketball talent, has been criticized ever since its inception more than a decade ago. Much of that criticism is rooted in the fact that college basketball has become more of a farm system for professional teams than a true league of its own. And while the rules may be changing in the near future (NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed his displeasure with it before the NBA Finals began), that didn’t stop one-and-done players from dominating the draft board on Thursday.

A record 16 freshmen went in the first round, including the first 10 college players selected. That number doesn’t even include Frank Jackson, a guard from Duke who left high school early only to then… also leave college early?

The point is that Thursday night truly proved what college basketball has become: a series of one-off campaigns, each season complete with its own heroes, villains and unique storylines. The continuous, multi-year rivalries that once dominated college hoops are becoming more and more rare (looking at you guys, Grayson Allen and Joel Berry II).

But the thing about the constant turnover of talent is that it hasn’t made the college game any less enjoyable, or at least not yet. Kentucky, what with its high-octane offense and trio of talented freshmen, was one of college basketball’s most exciting teams to watch. Ditto for the Lonzo Ball experiment at UCLA and Duke’s dynamic first-year duo of Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles when they were both healthy and playing.

There’s no stopping the run of one-year layovers in college by basketball’s elite talents (unless the NBA changes its minimum age requirement), so instead of fighting that tide, let’s get swept up in it—give me Michael Porter Jr. and this year’s model of the Wildcats, and we’ll have this same talk this time next year.

Sophomore (and senior?) slump

Yikes. For as successful as the young guns were on Thursday, the same couldn’t be said for college basketball’s elder statesmen. The first senior off the board was Colorado’s Derrick White to the San Antonio Spurs at No. 29, the longest it has taken in NBA draft history for the first senior to be selected.

Couple that with the fact that only two seniors (Villanova’s Josh Hart went No. 30 to the Los Angeles Lakers) squeaked into the first round, a record low in draft history, and it’s obvious that college basketball isn’t what it used to be.

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One side effect of widespread success among freshmen is what it then means, conversely, if a player doesn’t have immediate success out of high school—or rather, what it implies about that player. Take California’s Ivan Rabb, for example. Last season, he was one of the top freshmen in college basketball, and had he left school after one year like his Cal counterpart Jaylen Brown (who went No. 3 overall to the Boston Celtics last year), he, too, likely would’ve been a lottery selection.

Instead Rabb returned to school and averaged a double double, albeit for a talent-deficient Cal squad. His reward? Dropping out of the first round entirely, eventually falling to No. 35 (via trades, he will go to the Memphis Grizzlies).

Rabb may not be a senior, but he’s firsthand proof of what happens on the flip side of the one-and-done phenomenon. Had he stayed another year or two, his draft stock likely would’ve continued to drop, as that shiny veneer—scouts call it potential—starts to fade and a player’s true promise reveals itself. No wonder then that fewer and fewer seniors are being selected high in the NBA draft. If they were really deserving of those spots, they would’ve left school much earlier.

ACC cements its case as strongest conference

The ACC’s preeminence as college basketball’s standard bearer has been established for some time now. Four of the last five NCAA championship games have featured at least one ACC program, with three of those schools (Louisville’s now-in-jeopardy 2013 banner notwithstanding) winning it all. That’s in addition to setting the record last season for most NCAA tournament bids by one conference with nine.

Then factor in that 10 ACC players went in the first round, the most of any league in draft history, and it’s clear which conference still rules college basketball.

Still, other conferences are doing their best to maintain relevancy in the college game, none more so than the Pac-12. Fourteen selections Thursday night, the same as the ACC, tied a conference record for drafted players. The question will be whether or not those Pac-12 schools can replenish themselves and still compete on a season-to-season basis (hey, Oregon), or whether all those drafted players are leaving behind an empty cupboard.

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Blue bloods gonna blue blood

How are these things related? With Justin Jackson and Tony Bradley both being selected in the first round Thursday (No. 15 and No. 28), North Carolina now has 48 first-round picks all-time, the most of any school. Every player to leave Kentucky under coach John Calipari has gone in the first round, including three Thursday night, and Duke had a player selected in the Top 3 for the fourth year running. All that is to say… what exactly?

That college basketball’s blue bloods are blue-bloodier than ever. Don’t let the fact that Washington produced the first pick in the draft confuse you from the certainty that the rich are staying rich across the college basketball landscape. Now that isn’t to say that other schools outside the typical top tier can’t also enjoy success (evidenced by Gonzaga’s berth in this year’s NCAA title game), but there’s no slowing down the perennial powerhouses.

So what’s on tap for next year? Only North Carolina defending its national championship, Duke and Kentucky sporting nearly all-new top-10 lineups and Kansas already preparing to lock up its almost unfathomable 14th straight conference title. Some things really never change.

What could have been…

It’s easy to let star freshmen dominate the conversation surrounding the NBA draft, and rightfully so, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any talented returners this college season. Below are a few players who had the potential to leave school early but ultimately elected to return for the 2017–18 college season:

Grayson Allen, Duke: Allen was being touted as a first-round pick and the best player in college basketball at this time last year. But a suspension and a dip in scoring hurt his draft stock. Now a senior, he’ll be the early favorite (again) to win the Wooden Award, and he has a chance to stand out amongst another talented freshman group in Durham.

Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry entered the draft for a day before electing to return to Chapel Hill and the defending national champions. Berry, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player last season, will play this year knowing his jersey will eventually go up in the Dean Dome rafters, but on a rebuilding Tar Heel team, he’ll hope to improve his pro chances.

Miles Bridges, Michigan State: Bridges arrived in East Lansing as one of the nation’s most heralded freshmen, alongside Fultz and Ball, but a string of injuries and a mediocre Spartans team held him back. By electing to return to school, he’ll enter this year not just as one of college basketball’s elite talents, but as the man charged with bringing Tom Izzo his second national title.

Allonzo Trier, Arizona: Trier led the Wildcats in scoring last year, and in the process, flashed shooting potential that may have earned him a first-round selection had he declared. Instead, he chose to go back to the desert and lead what could be the No. 1 preseason team in the nation. This should be Trier’s last season in college, if we’re to believe his Twitter account, that is…

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