Six biggest winners from NBA draft’s early entry decisions

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The NBA’s draft deadline for early entrants to announce their decision passed last night. The official list of names won’t be final for a few days, but there’s as close to a complete rundown of names as you’ll find here.

In the meantime, let’s break down the six biggest winners.

Ohio State
Jared Sullinger’s a man of his word. After Ohio State’s Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky, the freshman center declared “I’m gonna be here, gonna be at Ohio State next year.” Turns out it wasn’t a rash statement made after a tough loss.

The Buckeyes still lose three key players (Jon Diebler, David Lighty and Dallas Lauderdale) from last season’s Big Ten champs, but Sullinger’s return – along with another dynamite recruiting class – boosts their stock from simply a Sweet16 team to a Final Four contender. They won’t be the same rock-solid, mistake-free Ohio State squad we saw in 2010-11 – not with five freshmen in the mix and only one senior – but Sullinger ensures they’ll be close.

North Carolina
The Heels return all five starters and nearly every player from an Elite Eight and ACC champion squad. Even the return of John Henson and Tyler Zeller made UNC a solid Final Four contender. But Harrison Barnes’ decision gives Roy Williams’ squad the chance for a “special season” and Williams a great shot at his third national title since 2005.

Baylor’s Big 12 trophy chances
Center Perry Jones wasn’t the only major talent to return to a Big 12 school (Kansas Thomas Robinson  was the other), but he’s the most important. The Bears missed out on the NCAA tournament in Jones’ freshman season, but they welcome one of the nation’s top recruiting classes for 2011-12, headed by star prospect Quincy Miller.

With Texas and Kansas dealing with serious attrition, Baylor could vie with Texas A&M for conference bragging rights and a solid NCAA tournament seed. Of course, he’ll have to be far more assertive than he was for most of his freshman season, but that should be easier without LaceDarius Dunn around to take all the shots.

They won the lottery
Once Sullinger, Barnes, Henson and Jones all announced they would return to school, it made the lottery – the first 14 picks of the draft – a little more attainable for some guys who probably would’ve been mid-to-late first round selections instead.

That includes the likes of Colorado shooting guard Alec Burks, Texas forwards Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton, San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard and Kansas forward Marcus Morris. (Thompson may still return to the school; the other have hired or will hire agents.)

How much did it help? Leonard, Burks, Morris and Hamilton are the last four lottery selection, according to DraftExpress.com’s latest mock. And if Kentucky’s Terrence Jones or Brandon Knight decide to return to school (neither have hired an agent), even better.

They’re in the money
Conventional wisdom says underclassmen shouldn’t enter the draft unless they know they’ll be a first-round selection because those are the only players who get guaranteed contracts. Second round? Better make that roster.

When guys like USC’s Nikola Vucevic, Georgia’s Trey Thompkins, Illinois’ Jereme Richmond and UCLA’s Tyler Honeycutt all declared for the draft, none were seen as first-round locks. They’re still not locks, but their chances kept improving once other players returned to school.

Most weren’t calculated decisions, either. Vucevic, Honeycutt and Richmond all declared early and watched as others returned to school. Does that count as lucky and good?

Seniors
In a year when three seniors were first-team All-Americans – uncommon in the one-and-done era – seniors also got a small boost to their draft prospects when all the underclassmen stayed put. Four – Jimmer Fredette, Nolan Smith, Justin Harper and Kenneth Faried – are projected as first-round picks, with JaJuan Johnson, Kyle Singler, Keith Benson, Demetri McCamey, Jimmy Butler and E’Twaun Moore on the cusp.

Among those four first-rounders, Fredette’s slated as the top pick and probably the biggest surprise out of all of this.

After all, who would’ve predicted that last year?

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