The 2020 NBA predraft process -- whatever that even means this year -- will feature.
Think that's a lot? It is -- there are of course just 60 draft slots -- but the number is down from 175 a year ago. It's almost 20 players fewer than 2018's record number of 181 declarations. I spoke with more than a dozen coaches and scouts in recent weeks and there's general agreement that COVID-19 made a significant impact on the early entry trend line. Among the 163 names, at least half are easy tells in terms of what awaits before the NCAA deadline of June 3 for players to keep their names in or return to school. (That deadline is susceptible to change, as the NBA Draft getting postponed seems inevitable.)
Obviously we'll see close to half, if not more, of the 163 underclassmen ultimately decide to return to school; they have nowhere else to go, particularly when the global economy of basketball is precarious.
Still, there is a batch of players who fall into a curious category of unpredictability. Whereas a college star like Luka Garza, even though his name is in the draft pool for now, is overwhelmingly expected to return to Iowa, there are others who are tough reads. Below, I've identified the most interesting group of candidates: the really good college players who stand to have great individual seasons if they return in 2020-21 ... but who are toss-ups in terms of whether to stay or leave. Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Most critical toss-up NBA decisions
1. Kofi Cockburn, Illinois: Cockburn was last season. He averaged 13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks on his way to becoming the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Cockburn is a traditional around-the-rim big. If this is 20 years ago, he's easily a first-round pick. His teammate, Ayo Dosunmu, is believed to be gone for good. Cockburn wasn't outrageously efficient (53.5% from 2-point range) and he's got room to grow. Illinois still wouldn't quite be a preseason top 25 team with him, but the Fighting Illini would immediately, and again, have one of the five best players in the Big Ten if he decided to come back. Brad Underwood would have a fair chance at coaching him into first-round status a year from now.
2. Isaiah Joe, Arkansas: Joe needed right knee surgery in early February. That put a damper in his stock, but the shooting guard is a tempting long-term prospect. He averaged 16.9 points and 4.1 rebounds, but his 3-point shot was a just-OK 34% on 275 attempts. NBA evaluators expect his teammate, Mason Jones, to be gone for sure. Joe could potentially lead the SEC in scoring next season if he's able to play at full strength. Arkansas brings one of its best freshman classes in two decades, which should ultimately help Joe out if he returns, becomes the leader, and guides Arkansas to a top-five finish in the SEC.
3. Corey Kispert, Gonzaga: Kispert, like every other prospect on this list, would be for sure gone with a top-35/just-outside-the-first-round guarantee. But that's not the case. And whereas his teammate, Filip Petrusev, is projected to be the better college player next season, Petrusev is not the pro prospect right now that Kispert is. Based on conversations I've had with multiple scouts, Kispert likely to be drafted if he stays in. But it's a wide spectrum of opinion. He could go as high as 40, low as 57-60. He's got NBA skills on the offensive end. Kispert can make shots at the mid-range and long-range level. He averaged 13.9 points on 43.8% 3-point shooting. He's a smart player who is in an advantageous position: He has a good chance to boost his stock even more and go in the first round in 2021-- while playing on a Final Four contender -- but will the uncertainty of everything coronavirus-related push him to leave school?
4. Andrew Nembhard, Florida: A 6-5 point guard who seldom had takeover games, Nembhard averaged 11.5 points, 5.6 assists and 3.0 rebounds. Were he to return to Florida, the Gators would be that much closer to top-15 status in the preseason. He's largely not seen as draftable at this stage, according to people I spoke with. There are rumblings that a transfer could be on the table as well. Of all the players listed here, his forecast for the next five months seems foggiest.
5. John Petty Jr., Alabama: Petty averaged 14.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 44% from 3-point range. He wasn't a usage monster, either. Feels 50/50, very much so. Remember, Petty endured a coaching change -- just like NBA-bound teammate Kira Lewis, who is certainly gone for good -- and his relationship with Nate Oats could play a huge part in what he decides. If he comes back, Petty is my super sleeper guy to be the SEC Player of the Year in 2020-21. Were that to happen, he'd be a lock pick more than a year from now.
6. Tyrell Terry, Stanford: It's rare that a Stanford player is in position to make a decision that could turn the team into a Final Four hopeful. But if Terry -- who was irrefutably a top-15 freshman last season -- comes back, he'll bolster the Cardinal in a way that could put Jerod Haase's team into the preseason top 15. As things stand, CBS Sports' . Terry shot 40.8% from 3 and was Stanford's best player last season. The 6-foot-2 guard, should he return, could change his stock from late-first/early second round pick into the top 20, potentially. Terry told The Athletic he's leaning toward staying in the pool. If he were to play alongside incoming five-star , whoo boy, that would be a delight.
7. Xavier Tillman, Michigan State: Without fail there are a batch of players every year whose projections don't line up with my own reality and impressions. What I mean by this: Xavier Tillman should be a first-round draft pick, and yet many don't see it that way. If I'm a general manager and I have a pick in the 20s of this year's draft, I'm strongly considering plucking Tillman. And we may get to draft night to discover that's indeed the case. But there is intel out there, as of now, suggesting that Tillman would be hanging around in the second round. If he came back to college basketball, Michigan State would be a universal preseason top 10 team yet again, and Tillman would be knocking on the door of preseason First Team status. It must be mentioned that Tillman recently just had his second child. When you're three years deep into a pretty good college career, have a grown man's body, are elite defensively and have to feed for four, how do you not turn pro?
8. Trendon Watford, LSU: He was another five-star get for LSU, but Watford was far from dominant in 2019-20. The 6-9 power forward averaged 13.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and shot 47%. Good not great. He's got no chance at going in the first round, and I do believe he's a great example of a five-star player who didn't quite hit it big enough in his first year but who could be a boon and pop as a sophomore. I think he's going to stay in the draft, though. The Bayou Bengals dropped out of the once Watford announced his intentions. If he doubled back, LSU would be ranked material. Without him, more uncertainty.
Five key prospects who should return
There's a small list of players who've declared and are worth checking in on. While it's not a sure thing that they are coming back, feedback indicates it's probably going to happen. This would be not just good for college basketball, but would be crucial to their respective teams' postseason hopes for 2021.
1. Jared Butler, Baylor: Preseason All-American of the First Team variety if he comes back. I think he should and I think he will. Wonderful player, smart kid, someone who can help Baylor come off its best season in program history and one-up that effort in 2020-21. He led Baylor in scoring (16.1 ppg) and took 30.9% of BU's shots in Big 12 play, which was the highest rate in the league.
2. Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga: Petrusev would be right behind Iowa's Luka Garza for preseason player of the year pick if he returned. I think he will, and I think Kispert and Joel Ayayi, who is also testing the waters, will head on back to Gonzaga, too. Gonzaga has never been the preseason No. 1 team in college basketball. If those three are in uniform, it will make program history in doing so. Petrusev would be a junior next season. He averaged 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and only 1.7 fouls. The latest super-productive big to come out of GU, and he'll be doing it alongside the next one in line, sophomore Drew Timme.
3. Chris Smith, UCLA: You might not realize it, but Smith led UCLA in usage last season. He's a good wing who averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. The interest from the NBA side -- in terms of first-round potential -- just isn't there yet, so Smith should head back to beautiful Westwood. He is draftable but also shows potential with another year in college. With Daishen Nix backing out of his national letter of intent at UCLA, opting instead for the G League's Pathway Program, it's going to allow a player like Smith all the more opportunities and minutes to thrive.
4. MaCio Teague, Baylor: Teague's gone from UNC Asheville sniper to big-time Baylor player. He was second to Butler last season with 13.9 points on average. If Butler and Teague both go back, teaming up with Mark Vital in the process, the Bears will be a unanimous preseason top-five team. They'll enter 2020-21 with larger expectations than any group in school history. That would be appropriate and deserved after the unavoidable way the 2019-20 season had to end.
5. McKinley Wright IV, Colorado: Whereas Tyler Bey is 100% gone from Colorado, Wright's stock isn't quite as high -- and yet he can be a top-20 player in college basketball next season if he takes that expected junior-to-senior bump. Coming off a season in which he put up 14.4 points, 5.7 rebounds 5.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game, Wright is a gem of a college player who needs to augment little things here and there to grow into a surefire draft pick. Colorado was bad to end the season -- it lost its final five games -- and that has to serve as some fuel for a competitive point guard with a fine passing mind.