Today is May 25, which means that everyone still swimming around in those murky metaphorical NBA draft waters is officially stuck there forever. Sounds great, right? As usual, a great number of college underclassmen are bound for the pros, but there’s also a solid group of players returning to school looking to further their respective acumens, improve their stock, chase NCAA titles and what have you.
There’s a definite gray area with the whole “winners and losers” binary we’re about to stick on some high major teams who had a lot riding on some major players, but just remember that it’s May, and nobody’s literally winning or losing yet. This is no serious indictment on anyone, really. That said, here’s a look at how the college landscape has shifted through the pre-draft process (not accounting heavily for seniors, given the lack of surprise).
Oh, and we’ll pre-empt this with a push on Kentucky because the whole one-and-done decision cycle pretty much always wins for them, at least on a philosophical level. And lastly, these are in no particular order.
Returning: Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins
Turning pro: Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons
No team stands to benefit more directly from their returning players than the Wildcats, who are positioned as a Final Four contender with the return of leading scorer Trier and the dynamic Alkins, who’s a candidate for a breakout campaign as a sophomore in a bigger role.
It seemed foregone that Arizona would lose Markkanen to the pros pretty quickly, and Simmons’s perhaps premature departure had been rumored for months in basketball circles.
With potential top pick DeAndre Ayton headlining a deep recruiting class (which now includes reclassified combo guard Emmanuel Akot), this was quite the sequence of helpful events for Sean Miller and the Wildcats. There’s still a lot to happen in terms of defining roles and distributing touches, but in terms of raw talent, this could be one of Arizona’s best teams in a long time.
Turning pro: Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell, Tyler Dorsey
With Brooks, Bell and Dorsey all leaving early and Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis having graduated, Dana Altman’s top five scorers are off to new pastures, and the Ducks look set for a rebuilding year. Grad transfer Elijah Brown (New Mexico) will pair with Payton Pritchard in the backcourt, but there’s not a ton else to get excited about until Oregon can replenish the cupboard. The Ducks took a big hit with the trio of early departures, all of whom were justified in their choices, but leave gaping holes just the same. A Final Four repeat is far fetched for now.
Winner: Michigan State
Returning: Miles Bridges
Turning pro: Nobody
Bridges was the only guy in East Lansing with a remotely viable case to leave early, and his return makes the Spartans an early favorite in the Big Ten. He was productive last season but continues to scratch at the surface when it comes to putting the ball on the ground and diversifying his scoring ability. He’s a serious athlete and intriguing talent that should benefit from a year of cohesion with an extremely young group of players.
Michigan State will be bolstered by the arrival of another NBA prospect in freshman big Jaren Jackson. The Spartans’ eventual finish will hinge on improved guard play.
Turning pro: Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Johnson
Returning: Deng Adel
The Cardinals are still going to be plenty good, but losing Mitchell, their still-improving leading scorer, is going to sting. The departure of Johnson, who may not even be drafted, in addition to senior Mangok Mathiang is also a huge blow to their interior.
Louisville will have to creatively crowd-source its offense, and the well-rounded Adel is positioned to benefit greatly from his decision to come back. This is a program that never has much issue with reloading, but there’s a little more slack to pick up than usual. Look for V.J. King and Ray Spalding to take on larger roles, and at least one or two freshmen to step up from a solid class.
Returning: Grayson Allen, Marques Bolden
Turning pro: Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson
There was never any question that Tatum was gone, and losing Kennard certainly hurts (not to mention the seniors). Jackson’s somewhat surprising choice to turn pro is heavily mitigated by the commitment of Trevon Duval, the most college-ready guard in the incoming freshman class. And nobody can blame Giles for leaving while still healthy.
But all that’s just burying the lede here: Allen’s decision to come back for his senior year gives Duke a player of the year candidate and an experienced leader to helm another very young team. He’ll have his share of things to prove as far as composure is concerned, but his talent has never been in question.
A second year from Marques Bolden won’t hurt either and will offer him a fair chance to carve out playing time after a difficult freshman season. Had Allen left, there would be more questions than answers in Durham. With him staying, Duke will have enough talent to challenge anybody.
Loser: North Carolina
Turning pro: Tony Bradley, Justin Jackson
Returning: Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson
With everything just said about Duke, you can make a similar argument for Carolina with Joel Berry. He’ll be a steadying force and help the Tar Heels bridge the gap to what will otherwise be a very new team.
But ultimately, losing an NBA talent in Bradley, who stood poised for a massive season, is a colossal blow given Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are gone, too. This will pose one of Roy Williams’s trickier challenges, with cult hero Luke Maye the only big man back to reprise his role and a largely unheralded group of recruits coming to campus. We may see a lot of small ball in Chapel Hill.
Returning: Chimezie Metu, Bennie Boatwright, Shaqquan Aaron, everyone else
Turning pro: Nobody
The Trojans are a serious dark horse following a nice little tourney run and, more importantly, the fact that every key contributor will be back. At its best, USC could hang with anyone last season, and Andy Enfield will have a shot to maximize a hyper-athletic, tough group of players, starting with Metu on the interior and an unorthodox shooting specialist in Boatwright. There’s going to be depth, and given the way the rest of the Pac-12 is shaking out, there’s a lot to be excited about here.
Turning pro: Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu
Returning: Thomas Welsh, Aaron Holiday
While the Bruins will benefit from a deep, talented incoming class led by guard Jaylen Hands and middle Ball brother LiAngelo, they were in a sense hit by the reverse Lonzo effect this season. Neither Leaf nor Anigbogu entered last season as a first-round lock, and now both look ticketed for guaranteed money, thanks in large part to the number of easy looks they got in UCLA’s up-tempo offense, which was of course enabled by Ball’s unique playmaking strengths. There’s no denying the offensive emphasis played a factor and showcased their strengths.
Returning Holiday in particular to run the show will be massive, but the going should be much tougher in Westwood (especially without seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton). There’s a lot for the Bruins to figure out before anyone can feel great about them.
Returning: Andrew Jones
Turning pro: Jarrett Allen
Shaka Smart kind of has to win next season, right? The explosive but unrefined Andrew Jones returns to Austin alongside a likely top-five pick in freshman Mohamed Bamba, whose surprise commitment mitigates the loss of Allen in a major way. Jones will be one of the better athletes around whenever he decides to turn pro and stands to benefit greatly by returning to school.
Although Allen is an interesting long-term play, he was still more of an idea than a realized contributor as a freshman. Texas will have little excuse not to pull it together from here, with Eric Davis, Kerwin Roach and James Banks all back as well.
Turning pro: D.J. Wilson
Returning: Moritz Wagner
You can argue that keeping one of their two big men around is still a win for the Wolverines, but returning both would have made Michigan a surefire conference contender. Now, the pressure will fall on Wagner to carry the offense alongside transfer Jaaron Simmons (Ohio) and a fairly inexperienced supporting cast.
Wagner has all-conference potential but must improve as a rebounder, and Wilson will leave a void with his shooting and defensive versatility. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are gone, too, meaning it could be a long year for the Wolverines if the breaks don’t go their way.