Michigan State's Gary Harris leaves for NBA draft; Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein stays
One week after the 2014 national championship was decided, several NBA Draft decisions that could shape the next title chase rolled in Monday. While there was plenty of going, there was more staying than perhaps was expected.
On that, Willie Cauley-Stein offered the most vivid example -- even without the help of the phosphorescent shirt he wore while sitting out the national title game with a foot injury. The 7-foot sophomore elected to return to the Wildcats for his junior season, eschewing what was almost certainly a first-round slot for another run at a ring. It's far too soon to determine how Cauley-Stein's choice impacts those odds, simply because Kentucky's entire backcourt could be wiped out by forthcoming decisions from James Young and Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
No one will discount the Wildcats either way, especially due to a frontline sizable enough to obstruct satellite signals. Even if 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson departs, John Calipari welcomes consensus top 15 recruits Trey Lyles (6-foot-10) and Karl Towns (6-foot-11) to go with forward Marcus Lee (6-foot-9), who should see an enhanced role as a sophomore. Pending a resolution to the backcourt uncertainty, it's unclear if anyone will be able to get these giants the ball. But with a game-changing rim protector in Cauley-Stein (166 career blocks), it's a good place to start.
"I want to come back and have a chance to win a national championship, while also getting closer to earning my degree,” Cauley-Stein said in a statement released by the school. “Being at the Final Four this year was special, but not being able to help my teammates on the floor was tough. I look forward to helping us get back there next year, while playing in front of the best fans in the nation.”
This, along with the return of Louisville's Montrezl Harrell for one more season, constituted the surprises of the day.
Gary Harris, meanwhile, was not one of those surprises.
The Michigan State sophomore chose to take advantage of a likely slotting in the lottery and depart East Lansing after two seasons. For a 6-foot-4 guard who averaged 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while also establishing himself as a premier defender, this was a fairly simple call. So simple, in fact, that Spartans coach Tom Izzo recommended it. "The last two years have been the best of my life, but it's time to follow my dream and declare for the NBA Draft," Harris said in a statement. "This was not an easy decision; just like last season, I had to make a tough decision. There hasn't been a single day where I regretted my decision to return for my sophomore season. It was the right decision for me and I'm better prepared for a successful NBA career because of it."
How prepared Michigan State is for life without Harris, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne is another question. That trio combined for 505 of the team's 997 field goals during 2013-14 and represented the top three raw point-scorers on the roster. Just how much more Branden Dawson and Travis Trice can offer after three years of results is a question. Denzel Valentine presumably can make a leap from his sophomore year production, but the Spartans appear to lack an identifiable star. The only possible impact recruit is top 100 point guard Lourawls Nairn, but he can't be expected to shoulder a scoring burden immediately. Izzo already is on record welcoming the doubts about what he can do with the talent on hand. But if he thought 2013-14 was his biggest coaching challenge, he might not have seen anything yet.
As for the other Big Ten school within state borders, reports circulated Monday that Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III would head to the NBA draft. This after ESPN reported last week that Nik Stauskas had elected to head to the draft. The school called a 3:30 p.m. ET press conference for Tuesday without identifying who would be in attendance, and at minimum, it's expected that Stauskas will make his choice known at that time. If both leave, it's another year of transition for the Wolverines, much like the one they just endured. But Mitch McGary's decision looms largest. Should the 6-foot-8 forward elect to stay after a season cut short by back surgery, he and junior-to-be Caris Levert offer a solid enough nucleus to contend in the Big Ten. Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin and incoming top 30 recruit Kameron Chatman can fill in around that and keep Michigan humming. Without McGary? Michigan is a team with as many questions as the one just down the road.