The NBA’s early-entry deadline for the 2021 draft elapsed Sunday night, providing the first official shred of clarity on which players will return to play college basketball next season. There is still a range of players with fascinating stay-or-go decisions to make in the coming weeks that will change the landscape one way or another. But with one eye toward '22, it’s an opportune moment to highlight some of the top returning college prospects, many of whom have already built some buzz on the NBA side.
Potential 2021 lottery picks James Bouknight, Kai Jones and Franz Wagner were among the prospects highlighted in last year’s version of this column. Not all of these players will wind up as projected first-rounders a year from now, and this is far from definitive, but think of it as a useful NBA watch list heading into the fall.
Note: Returning prospects are listed by their rising school year and their present age. Only players who have already announced their intention to return to school were considered.
The full early entry list is expected to be released today.
Jaden Ivey, G, Purdue | Sophomore
Height: 6' 4" | Weight: 200 | Age: 19
Ivey came on strong in the final month of the season, scoring in double figures in 12 of his final 15 games and posting a season-high 26 points in Purdue’s NCAA tournament loss to North Texas. That was plenty to inject some helium into his stock for next season, and he’ll lead a Boilermakers team that returns all its key players and will have high expectations. Ivey came to Purdue with some pedigree: His mother is the head women’s coach at Notre Dame and played in the WNBA, and he was a four-star recruit who was part of USA Basketball. But his game took off in what felt like a real way his season, as he displayed improved aggression and assertiveness as a scorer, even though he wasn’t particularly efficient most of the time. The late-season breakout after moving into the starting lineup felt very real. Had he opted to test the waters, Ivey would have had a shot at sneaking into the first round.
Ivey has good size and length for his position and showed impressive vertical explosion and body control attacking off drives. He’s more scorer than playmaker but has shown the capacity to make plays in pick-and-roll and has a chance to play as more of a combo guard long-term, which would maximize his versatility. He has the tools to be an excellent defender and will fit in the NBA from a physical standpoint. The biggest issue here is his three-point shooting, which leveled out at a questionable 25% on 97 attempts. If Ivey can lift that number into the low 30s, he should have a very real shot at the lottery next season. Without it, his projection is a bit more difficult. But there’s clearly a lot to work with here, and some major upside.
Bennedict Mathurin, SG, Arizona | Sophomore
Height: 6' 7" | Weight: 195 | Age: 18
A native of Montreal and product of the NBA’s Global Academy program, Mathurin put together a strong freshman year and will be more heavily featured at Arizona next season under new head coach Tommy Lloyd. As an 18-year-old freshman, Mathurin shot 52% on twos, 41% from three and 84% from the line, entering the starting lineup in January with some mixed results along the way. His offensive game needs some refinement, and his feel for playmaking is a bit behind, but as a capable shooter with explosive vertical ability and good size for his position, there’s obvious room for development. His shooting and tools offer a viable role-player floor.
Mathurin isn’t the most naturally physical player—he doesn’t get to the rim enough, and could be better defensively—but he’s begun packing weight onto his frame, which at least leaves some optimism in that department. He’s a very good athlete and should be able to attack the paint more effectively as his handle improves. While a bit physically stiff in his upper body, Mathurin has been able to unlock his explosiveness on the open floor and should continue diversifying his game as a scorer. The threat of his jumper ties everything together. If he can maintain his stellar efficiency in more of a starring, volume-heavy role next season, Mathurin’s stock should skyrocket.
Jabari Walker, F, Colorado | Sophomore
Height: 6' 8" | Weight: 200 | Age: 18
The son of longtime NBA veteran Samaki Walker, Jabari began coming into his own as a legit pro prospect, underscored by a 24-point performance (including 5-of-5 threes) in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Walker was regarded as a late bloomer in high school and played a relatively small role this season at Colorado, but he doesn’t turn 19 until the end of July, giving him plenty of runway to develop. Walker has an extremely long frame, rebounds well and shot 52% from three on 44 attempts as a freshman, an impressive number for a young big regardless of the small sample size. He shoots a soft ball and projects pretty comfortably as an adequate floor-spacer right now, which coupled with good physical traits makes him a potential first-round caliber prospect with obvious role utility in the long run.
While not an elite vertical athlete, Walker has good hands and feet and is still at an early stage of his physical development, leaving room for improvement in terms of explosiveness and strength. He’s also flashed some ability to handle the ball, which could add a significant wrinkle depending on how he’s deployed. The pathway for Walker to thrive as a versatile stretch forward is fairly clear; it’s just a matter of how soon everything clicks. He still looked very much like a freshman last season, and we’ll have a much better gauge of his timeline to the pros when his minutes increase as a sophomore. Still, considering the NBA genetics in conjunction with Walker’s present trajectory, he feels like a pretty good bet to break out and make a leap.
Keegan Murray, F, Iowa | Sophomore
Height: 6' 8" | Weight: 215 | Age: 20
Although Murray’s emergence was somewhat obscured by the Luka Garza spotlight, he often looked like arguably Iowa’s most interesting long-term prospect and should be a linchpin for next season’s team. Gifted with impressive mobility and shot blocking instincts, Murray is well-suited for the NBA as a roving, defensive-minded forward who impacts games with his length, can switch ball screens, and cover ground and space that most players can’t. Given how useful that skill set is when covering for a center like Garza, Murray was probably deserving of more minutes as a 20-year-old freshman. A native of Iowa City whose father played at Iowa, Murray developed off the radar, took a prep year and turns 21 in August.
Murray’s individual offense is still a work in progress, and he was never really showcased last season, but he’s a smart cutter, the ball doesn’t stick in his hands, and his shot isn’t bad. He may not be much of a creator for others, but he plays within his means. rarely forces a bad shot, and generally made the most of the opportunities he got in a Garza-centric offense. Murray is probably better suited as a four than a three in the long run, but his defensive versatility blurs those lines in a positive way. He should be on the first-round radar going into the fall, with his development as a scorer determining how quickly he advances up NBA draft boards.
Allen Flanigan, SG, Auburn | Junior
Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 215 | Age: 20
Flanigan will team with Walker Kessler and potential lottery pick Jabari Smith on what could be a formidable Auburn team next season. The athletic lefty showed some encouraging things as a sophomore, with a handful of big scoring performances under his belt and a streaky but dangerous three-point shot. Flanigan has deep range and isn’t afraid to let it fly (he shot 33% on nearly five threes per game), but the rest of his game is still a work in progress. The Tigers used him as a secondary ballhandler with mixed results—Flanigan is a capable passer, but struggled with turnovers, shot selection and decision-making over the course of the year.
With good size, above-average athletic ability for a two guard and a clear willingness to shoulder a heavy load on offense, Flanigan is a candidate to take another big leap forward on a team that should have a pretty potent offense. He recently turned 20 and is on the younger side for a junior. He’s very strong-hand dominant and the more dynamic he can become with the ball in his hands, the more it’ll help his stock. But he was fairly efficient all things considered last season (58.8% TS), bolstered by his ability to get to the foul line. Flanigan needs to prove he’s more than just a scorer—his work on the defensive end was sporadic. Still, there’s no lack of ability here and it’s a matter of better harnessing it.
Jaime Jaquez, G/F, UCLA | Junior
Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 220 | Age: 20
A series of strong showings in the NCAA tournament put Jaquez’s NBA potential on display, as he played a central role in UCLA’s unlikely Final Four run. His impressive feel for scoring—relying on fakes and change of pace in the absence of great quickness and speed—made him highly effective. Jaquez is a smart, capable scorer from all over the floor, and utilizes his large frame effectively. He makes good decisions with the ball and is a strong finisher with his right, unafraid of contact and drawing fouls, and typically in the right place at the right time. His basketball IQ frequently manifests on the defensive end as well.
Jaquez’s average athletic ability will be a stumbling block for some scouts, as will his shooting. He finished the year at 39% from three but just 65% from the foul line, with some occasional reticence to shoot from outside, and streaky results. His chances at a real NBA future likely hinge on the continued development of that jumper: Jaquez won’t be a featured creator on the ball, but if he can make defenses respect the threat of his shot, he should be able to manage by primarily attacking closeouts and making plays against scrambled defenses. Jaquez is regarded as a hard worker and he’s clearly trending in a good direction headed into the summer. UCLA will be heavily scouted next season with touted freshman and potential lottery pick Peyton Watson joining the team. Jaquez should benefit from that exposure.
Walker Kessler, C, Auburn | Sophomore
Height: 7' 1" | Weight: 245 | Age: 19
Kessler’s freshman-year minutes were severely limited at North Carolina, but he built some buzz in NBA circles as his minutes ticked up at the end of the season. He’ll presumably play the lion's share of minutes after transferring to Auburn, giving him a better platform to showcase his skills. While there’s a lot left for scouts to figure out, Kessler’s sheer size, plus mobility and above-average skill level around the basket put him squarely on the draft radar going into next season. A 16-point, 12-rebound, eight-block performance in 21 minutes during UNC’s ACC tournament blowout of Notre Dame was notable.
While Kessler didn’t play enough to really force the issue this season, he’s a person of interest for NBA teams heading into the summer. Developing a reliable jumper would be his ticket to a first-round selection. His mechanics aren’t a disaster, but he was a poor free throw shooter this season on limited attempts, which casts some doubt on his improvement. Kessler is pretty coordinated, plays light on his feet and has shown he can protect the rim, giving him a good baseline of strengths to where he should make a major impact at Auburn. He turns 20 in July.
Mark Williams, C, Duke | Sophomore
Height: 7' 0" | Weight: 245 | Age: 19
If there was a silver lining in Duke’s down year, it was the apparent late emergence of Williams, who arrived in college as a project, became a full-time starter in February, and strung together a run of strong individual performances to end the season. Williams has measured with a huge 7' 4" wingspan, runs the floor well for his size and has become a high-quality rim protector, checking the basic boxes to be a useful contributor at his position. His game isn’t flashy, nor does he possess a ton of individual skill, but there’s value in what he brings to the table, and it looks like his overall processing speed and productivity has begun to accelerate. NBA teams tend to be patient with toolsy bigs, and Williams will be in a great position to succeed on next year’s Duke team, which will be led by potential No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero.
Andre Jackson, G/F, UConn | Sophomore
Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 210 | Age: 19
Jackson had a quiet freshman season, missing all of January with an injury and never quite catching a rhythm, but he should step into a bigger role with James Bouknight gone and he has the ability to be a difference-maker for the Huskies. A nuclear athlete with incredible quick-twitch movement skills, Jackson wasn’t the most polished prospect coming out of high school but has an intriguing combination of athletic tools and playmaking skills, and has yet to fully put everything together. He’s one of the best in-game dunkers you’ll ever see, but that only goes so far. Jackson has long been a demonstrably iffy jump shooter who has a lot of work to do in that department. He has clear NBA potential, and while it may take longer for him to come around, the ceiling here is worth watching.
André Curbelo, PG, Illinois | Sophomore
Height: 6' 1" | Weight: 175 | Age: 19
Functioning as Illinois’s sixth man all season, Curbelo was able to showcase his impressive passing skills and creative playmaking, and by the end of the season he’d mostly cut down on his turnovers and figured out his role. That workload figures to increase dramatically next season, with Ayo Dosunmu turning pro and Kofi Cockburn likely joining him. Curbelo is undersized for the NBA and made just 5-of-31 threes this season, but there are elements of his game that are impossible to teach. He’s tough, resilient and a quality floor leader, and his 34.6% assist rate sets the bar pretty high. Curbelo will run the show next season and have a chance to answer the lingering questions and play his way into the draft. There’s certainly a wide range of outcomes here, but there aren’t many passers like him just lying around.
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