Top NBA Draft Prospects Returning to School

The full list of early entrants for the 2020 NBA draft was announced on Tuesday, but an intriguing collection of players decided to return to school. Here are 10 players to keep an eye on in 2021.
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With the official release of the NBA’s early-entry list, the pre-draft process—what’s become of it, due to the ongoing impact from the COVID-19 pandemic—opens up in earnest. Although the general expectation among NBA personnel has been that the draft itself will move back to August or September, teams have already begun to schedule interviews via Zoom and FaceTime and sifting heavily through players’ film, preparing their boards as if the draft will be June 25 (as originally scheduled). Interviews between teams and prospects (the extent of allowable contact at this stage) can officially begin now that the early-entry list has been officially released. The key missing components here are medicals and in-person workouts, which teams continue to hold out hope might become possible with an extended draft calendar.

The number of early-entry declarations—205 in total—is just slightly down from last year, when 233 prospects (175 of them from colleges) initially declared for the draft. In the end, 136 of those 233 players withdrew. The general thought was that the coronavirus might be a significant deterrent for players on the fringes, who may have a harder time raising their profile in a worthwhile manner, even for future drafts given the lack of in-person access. It’s not a huge difference from the past couple years, and as always, there are a lot of players with no chance of being drafted who declared anyway.

Players who have not exhausted college eligibility or aged past the international cutoff date can withdraw up until 10 days prior to the draft and retain NBA eligibility moving forward. Unless the NBA decides to call off the rest of the season sooner than later, it’s hard to see how the draft would proceed before the official conclusion of games. So at this stage, it’s best to consider all dates as fluid. The NCAA’s deadline for college players to withdraw and remain eligible is currently June 3.

Even in a down draft year, there’s an intriguing collection of players set to return to college in the fall, many with a chance to figure prominently in the draft conversation a year from now. Here are 10 key names to file away moving forward.

James Bouknight, UConn

Arguably the most intriguing, would-be eligible prospect not to declare for the 2020 draft, Bouknight made massive strides in the second half of UConn’s season and will walk into a brighter spotlight as a sophomore, as the Huskies exit the AAC and return to the Big East. In terms of long-term potential, Bouknight already had a case as a first-rounder, with a demonstrable level of maturity for a freshman and a high-end, natural level of smoothness and explosive athleticism. He remained under the radar for much of the season, but in a live setting, he’s hard to miss. Bouknight must continue to add strength and improve his shooting off the dribble, but has real breakout potential in year two as a multidimensional scoring guard who can play on and off the ball and contribute in a variety of situations. It’s unlikely he’s a secret much longer.

Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana

From an analytic perspective, Jackson-Davis put together one of the better statistical profiles of any freshman, with impressive efficiency around the basket and a prolific block rate pointing to his potential as a low-maintenance, high-energy big. He did that in spite of being unpolished from a skill perspective, with extreme left-handed tendencies as a finisher and an undeveloped jumper. Jackson-Davis is already 20 and isn’t as tall as you’d like for an NBA center, but his wingspan, quick second jump and basketball bloodlines (his father is Dale Davis) all help his case as a potential late-bloomer. He’s not the type of guy teams will end up playing through, but has the tools to succeed without heavy usage, provided he can diversify his game around the basket.

David Johnson, Louisville

Johnson piqued legit NBA interest with his size and impressive vision, and will be relied upon as the trigger-man in Louisville’s offense as a sophomore after coming off the bench for much of this season. He still has plenty to prove, as he shot just 5-of-23 on threes this season and will have to handle a much bigger dose of ball-handling duties, which will be a valuable litmus test for his NBA readiness. Johnson is a solid athlete, has undeniable creativity as a passer and did well distributing in ball-screen situations as a freshman. Had he entered the draft, he would have been the type of prospect teams tried to take ahead of schedule, anticipating a major leap ahead. How well Johnson scores it individually and whether or not his shooting improves will determine a lot, but as a big playmaker in what looks like a thinner 2021 point guard class, a breakout is well within reach.

Keyontae Johnson, Florida

He didn’t enter the year with any hype, but Johnson wound up being Florida’s most intriguing prospect, turning himself into an All-SEC player with a pretty obvious pathway to success. He’s proven extremely efficient and productive in a complementary role after two seasons. Despite standing just 6’5” has shown the ability to defend both forward spots and rebound at an impressive clip. Johnson’s versatility on both sides of the ball and sneaky athleticism should put him in the first-round conversation a year from now, and had he chosen to test this year, he would have garnered substantial interest from teams. He’s not flashy, but he’s already pretty valuable, and Florida should have nearly all its key players back in the fold next season.

Kai Jones, Texas

Although he was somewhat of a known quantity coming into college, Jones never fully broke through as a freshman and was slow-rolled into the rotation at Texas, but wound up starting 10 of his team’s final 13 contests and went for 20 points against Oklahoma State in what ended up being the last game of the season. A native of the Bahamas, Jones has nearly every physical tool you could ask for at a long 6’11”, and while he needs to add more strength to his frame, it takes about two minutes of watching him live to see serious untapped potential in the way he moves for a guy that size. His jumper is still developing, and it’s unclear exactly how productive he’ll be with a full diet of minutes (for what it’s worth, he was at 8.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 4.7 fouls per-40 as a freshman), but Jones has fans in various corners of the NBA who buy the upside. Texas should be in for a big leap forward as a team next season, with potential top-five pick Greg Brown joining an otherwise experienced team. If Jones can beat out Jericho Sims and others for a big chunk of frontcourt minutes, he’ll have a platform to play his way into the 2021 draft. But it’s not quite a sure thing.

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Scottie Lewis, Florida

Lewis was widely seen as a potential lottery pick coming into his freshman year, which ended up being a wildly aggressive projection (we’re among the guilty) as things never truly got off the ground for him. Lewis offers a lot from a defensive standpoint as a rangy, competitive wing who embraces challenges on that end, but his offensive feel appeared somewhat lacking at times, and his scoring contributions were often limited. But he shot 36% from three and 81% from the line on limited attempts, and if he can clean up his overall shot selection and decision-making with the ball (and better fit into a role without it), Lewis still has a viable pathway to success in the pros. He’s old for his class and turns 21 before next year’s draft, but he may be a few minor tweaks away from regaining some of his status as a prospect.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova

Robinson-Earl briefly decided to test before ultimately announcing he’d return to a Villanova team that has national title aspirations with him firmly in the fold. His mixture of feel and versatility on both ends of the ball gives him some unique NBA appeal, and he’s a terrific passer and decent jump shooter with legit size and solid mobility for his body type. The chief issue is that Robinson-Earl is somewhat caught between positions at the moment, as a college center whose better long-term position may actually be power forward, due to his lack of shot-blocking presence at the rim stemming from average vertical explosiveness. He’ll need to finish much better at the rim and establish himself as a scoring threat more often, but Robinson-Earl has some innate traits that are hard to find, and Villanova’s player development record leaves plenty of room for optimism.

Terrence Shannon, Texas Tech

An intriguing sleeper going into the summer, Shannon showed real flashes of talent at various junctures of his freshman year, but ultimately made a good decision to remain in Lubbock and develop his game. He should figure in more prominently to next year’s prospect picture, with plus athletic tools on the wing, an attractive degree of toughness and composure, and presumably a bigger role in the offense with Jahmi’us Ramsey likely gone. A late-blooming athlete who took a prep year before landing at Texas Tech, Shannon is still figuring out what he can do as a scorer, but we were in attendance for his 24-point showing at DePaul in December, a performance that ended up being a positive outlier, but could be indicative of what’s to come. Shannon has to shoot it much better, and probably isn’t going to a Jarrett Culver-esque leap, but he’s on the right track.

Franz Wagner, Michigan

Although Wagner didn’t take the Big Ten by storm as a freshman, an impressive final month of the season pointed to his individual growth in a short period of time. He came to Michigan with a strong reputation internationally, and was extremely efficient scoring the ball on whole, despite some forgettable games. He’s been viewed by some scouts as a first-round talent for some time, and if his development is any indicator, Wagner should be capable of leading the Wolverines next season. He’s not an elite athlete and has to continue getting tougher and more physical, but he’s a gifted, versatile scorer who looks to be trending in a positive direction.

Romeo Weems, DePaul

Weems’ general lack of an offensive identity led most scouts to view him as a project for the time being, as he’s not a very good ball handler or a consistent shooter, and has trouble involving himself in games as a scorer. But he has a ton to offer from an athletic perspective, occasionally flashes brilliance as a passer, and had strong block and steal rates as a true freshman, the counterpoint being that he’s already pretty effective without having to shoot the ball much. It says something that on his tools and motor alone, he’s established himself as a prospect. Teams will look for improvement across the board next season, but really, any step toward becoming a viable two-way role player will help his case. He’s certainly worth a return trip in the fall.