A reintroduction to the best NBA Draft prospects to stay in school
College basketball got lucky this offseason and had quite a few players eschew an opportunity to go pro in order to play one more season of NCAA hoops.
Given that there are more options than ever around the world to play professionally, this season's declaration process seemed to be something of an anomaly. Forty-one of the players listed on my pre-NCAA Tournament top-100 draft board decided to hold off on declaring for the draft. That high number of returnees should help the sport replenish itself despite a weaker incoming freshman class than we've seen in recent years.
While there will undoubtedly be some freshmen that make their mark -- Skal Labissiere, Ben Simmons, Malik Newman and Jaylen Brown specifically come to mind -- the 2015-16 college basketball season will be ruled by players who we've seen before. Here's a quick reintroduction to 10 of the best NBA prospects who made the decision to return to school, what they'll be counted on to do next season, and what they need to work on for next year's NBA Draft.
The players are listed in the order of where they were prior on my top-100 board prior to the NCAA Tournament.
Kris Dunn, Providence
2014-15 Stats: 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 steals, 47% FG
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 14
A look ahead to 2015-16: Dunn was arguably the best point guard in college basketball last season, and it's hard to envision a circumstance where he doesn't have a repeat performance. He had the best vision of any player in college basketball last season, and it showed statistically as he put up the third-highest assist rate of any college basketball player in the past decade. The catalyst of what was a potent offense in the Big East, he was also the co-defensive player of the year in the Big East due to his length, athleticism, and high motor. He'll need to perform well without running mate LaDontae Henton this year (as well as fellow graduates Tyler Harris and Carson Desrosiers), but that shouldn't be a problem. It'll truly be his team next year, and he should perform just as well in that high-usage role.
What he needs to work on: NBA scouts will want to see improvement in his care for the ball, as well as his shooting from the outside. One major impediment to Dunn being named to the All-American team this year was the fact that he was the nation's leader in turnovers. Often trying to do too much due to his team's need for it, Dunn averaged over four turnovers per game for the Friars last season. He also didn't particularly shoot it well until the end of the season, so they'll be watching to see if his final 14-game stretch where he knocked down 38 percent of his 3s was real development or small sample size theatre.
Caris LeVert, Michigan
2014-15 Stats: 14.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 42% FG, 41% 3PT
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 19
A look ahead to 2015-16: LeVert's 2014-15 season was cut short due to a foot injury he sustained in January, but prior to that he was the do-everything guard for a Michigan team that had been one of the country's bigger disappointments. He was averaging nearly 15/5/4 per game, but the team just never seemed to congeal around him in the way coach John Beilein had hoped for. However, he'll get a chance to make up for it next season, and he'll be surrounded by largely the same cast of characters, including Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton. If one of the big men can step up around them, it's possible the Wolverines could be a top-15 team.
What he needs to work on: Already an elite shooter that's made over 40 percent of his 3-pointers over the course of the past two seasons, LeVert needs to work on creating more efficiently for himself in the pick-and-roll. While the Wolverines lacked a running mate for him early in the season, Ricky Doyle stepped up late and become more of a weapon there after LeVert was injured. Having a better roll man might help LeVert make some better decisions out of the pick-and-roll, where he sometimes got into no-man's land after turning the corner last year. Also, he could stand to work on his in-between game offensively and his defense. Despite possessing a massive wingspan that every NBA team will covet, LeVert has been a poor defender in his time at Michigan due to problems with awareness, especially against screens. NBA people will want to see improvement there from the 20-year-old senior.
Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga
2014-15 Stats: 9.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 67.7% FG
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 27
A look ahead to 2015-16: Sabonis did not look like your typical freshman in 2015, which makes given that he'd been playing professional for a couple of years in Spain prior to Gonzaga. The feisty, physical forward was a monster on a per-minute basis, but was also extremely efficient as he finished fourth nationally in field-goal percentage. He'll need to share the frontcourt minutes again next season with Przemek Karnowski and Kyle Wiltjer, but my guess is we'll see another jump in play as he continues to get more and more comfortable with college basketball. My guess on where he improves most statistically? His playmaking ability for others. With Kevin Pangos and the rest of the Gonzaga backcourt gone, I expect the Zags to filter more of their offense through their big men. Sabonis is a terrific passer that didn't get to show it often last season, so it wouldn't be a shock to see him deployed in the high post more in 2015-16.
What he needs to work on: Sometimes letting his emotions get the best of him, Sabonis averaged over five fouls per-40 minutes. He needs to learn to play hard, and yet keep himself in check in order to get the most out of his considerable skillset. Also, continuing to improve defensively in the post would benefit him.
Jakob Poeltl, Utah
2014-15 Stats: 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks 68.1% FG,
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 29
A look ahead to 2015-16: Poeltl was one of the biggest surprises of 2014-15, coming out of Austrian obscurity to become one of the better freshmen in the NCAA. While his numbers look relatively pedestrian, he was one of the more effective defensive players in the country last season due to his size and mobility. He's a legitimate deterrent at the rim, and he moves his feet about as well as any player his size in America. Another thing worth noting is how effective he was in the pick-and-roll with senior point guard Delon Wright, as he has terrific hands and a soft touch around the rim. That also makes him a great option for dump offs after his guards get into the lane, and that should be the same this season.
What he needs to work on: His post game offensively is rather simple right now, and could really use some work this season. Without Wright in the mix next season, those pick-and-roll and dump off opportunities might be fewer and more far between. Poeltl being able to create offense on his own would be really beneficial to his NBA draft stock. But as with the player above him on this list, Poeltl already has a pretty solid skillset that he just needs to keep accentuating and improving upon.
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
2014-15 Stats: 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 steals
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 33
A look ahead to 2015-16: The Big 12 Player of the Year had one of the tougher NBA Draft decisions to make this season as a borderline first round pick. But he ended up returning to Oklahoma, where he will be counted on to lead a potential top-10 team back to the Sweet 16. His ability to shoot gets most of the publicity, but he was also the nation's leader in scoring in transition last season, which was important to an offense that sometimes stagnated in the halfcourt. His solid perimeter defending and scoring will again be essential to the Sooners, who figure to again count on their defense to create offense under coach Lon Kruger.
What he needs to work on: NBA scouts would like him to become a better finisher at the rim in the halfcourt, as well as a slightly more consistent shooter in both catch-and-shoot situations and off the dribble. Basically, Hield needs to refine all of the parts of his game that made him so effective this year beyond the transition game. Becoming a true knockdown shooter as opposed to simply a good one will be his meal ticket in the NBA. If he can do that, he should become a more solid choice as a first-round pick.
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
2014-15 Stats: 15.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.3 steals
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 34
A look ahead to 2015-16: I was probably a bit too high on Blackmon Jr. at No. 34, but his skill set in the NBA is obvious and he's my favorite of the three Indiana prospects. He's a terrific, knockdown 3-point shooter that has a knack for scoring. Plus, he has an NBA frame at nearly 6-foot-4 with a 6-9 wingspan. He was one of the leading scorers among NCAA freshmen, and any sort of improvement this offseason in driving to the hoop and finishing at the bucket could make him one of the best scorers in the entire country in 2016. The Hoosiers should be able to continue running their wide open, 4-out offense next season with point guard Yogi Ferrell returning, which should lead to Blackmon continuing to get open looks. A pure scorer that will be my pick to lead the Big Ten in scoring average next year.
What he needs to work on: There are some pretty clear spots for improvement. As mentioned above, you'd like to see him be better both as an in-between scorer and around the rim. However, the place where NBA scouts would like to see the most improvement is on defense. His wingspan should allow him to cause more problems for opposing players than he does on that end, as well as force more turnovers. Finally, it could help his stock if he was to get some opportunities on-ball as a point guard when Ferrell goes to the bench due to his size.
Ron Baker, Wichita State
2014-15 Stats: 14.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 37
A look ahead to 2015-16: Baker was thought to be as good as gone if coach Gregg Marshall left Wichita. However, Marshall got a massive contract extension, and Baker in conjunction decided to extend his stay in Kansas by one more season. He's a terrific shooter and a solid, physical defender on the college level with long arms that will again be the heart and soul of Marshall's "play angry" mantra. he and Fred VanVleet are already legends at the university, but if they can combine to lead the Shockers to another Final Four that would be the icing on the cake of a celebrated, storied career.
What he needs to work on: Honestly, he's not going to benefit a ton developmentally from with another year in college. Obviously he'll improve as he gets older, but he's physically ready for the NBA now at 22-years-old. The question is simply whether or not he will be able to defend well on the next level athletically. If he can do that, he should stick as a smart player that moves the ball well and can knock down shots. If not, he'll be well paid to ply his trade in Europe for a decade if he so chooses.
Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
2014-15 Stats: 12.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 38
A look ahead to 2015-16: This could be college basketball's breakout star next season. NBA scouts love his ability to get into the lane in the pick-and-roll as well as his shooting ability (over 40 percent from 3 the last two seasons). Without Jerian Grant on the roster next season, the keys to Notre Dame's wide open offense will be handed over fully to Jackson, who was forced to split time on-ball with the future first-round senior. He'll have a an excellent pick-and-roll partner in Zach Auguste returning, as well as shooters surrounding him in Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem. Mike Brey's team should be well-positioned to suprise again in 2015-16 if he can take that next step forward.
What he needs to work on: Simply put, the tools and skill levels are there for Jackson already. He just needs to prove he can run the show himself without any help, and that he can continue to develop as a playmaker for others. He's a low-turnover, high-efficiency guy that has succeeded in a smaller role already, now it's just on him to take over and become "the man." On the other end, his defense on the perimeter could stand some improvement.
Melo Trimble, Maryland
2014-15 Stats: 16.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, three assists, 41.2% 3PT
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 46
A look ahead to 2015-16: Trimble will likely be on many preseason All-American teams in 2015, as he'll be the key cog on a national championship contender. He was a complete scorer as a freshman last season, a terrific 3-point shooter as well as an unstoppable force at getting into the lane. Once he got into the lane, he was fouled regularly and made his living at the free throw line. No one took better advantage of the stripe, making 86 percent of his 240 attempts at the line. His ability to lead Maryland's offense has helped re-frame the Mark Turgeon era, and could lead to him becoming a first round pick down the road.
What he needs to work on: He's a lot like Jeff Teague was at Wake Forest in his freshman year. A terrific, skilled scorer with great lateral athleticism but without great vertical explosiveness, Trimble needs to work on his traditional "point guard" skills. His distribution skill will need to be better for him to be an NBA point guard. This season at Maryland, he'll have many options around him in Jake Layman, Jared Nickens, Robert Carter and Diamond Stone, so he'll be counted on to get everyone involved as the lead guard. If he succeeds there and Maryland reaches its potential, his draft stock could go through the roof.
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
2014-15 Stats: 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, two assists, 39.6% 3PT
Pre-NCAA Tourney Draft Ranking: No. 61
A look ahead to 2015-16: Hayes had a strong season next to Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, and will be counted on to step forward in 2015-16. He was a big reason they were the runner-up for the national championship in 2015, after improving his jump shot and becoming a pick-and-pop threat. The next step for him will be becoming a better ball-handler and offense creator himself in order to take become a collegiate star. He was also a solid defensive player that was a big part of Wisconsin's scheme in switching screens. It would not be a surprise to see him -- in conjunction with Bronson Koenig -- become the next Badger to take that leap into collegiate stardom.
What he needs to work on: He needs to keep improving defensively, because that will be his ticket to the NBA. Teams are looking for Draymond Green clones: guys who can switch screens and guard players both in the post and on the wing. Hayes has that kind of potential, but he's not quite quick enough yet to hang with perimeter players consistently. Also, as mentioned above, improving his ball-handling would be nice if he's to play the 3 regularly in the NBA, as would becoming a consistent, knockdown 3-point shooter. He'll have a shot to be a first-round pick in 2016.
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