The Most Influential NBA Draft Decisions

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The deadline to declare for the NBA draft is coming up in the next two weeks — April 22nd — and the deadline for an underclassmen to pull their name out of the NBA draft after testing the waters will be on May 30th, a full five weeks after the deadline to declare.

So there is a long way to go with this process. 

But as things stand today, here is a list of the most influential Should-I-Stay-Or-Should-I-Go decisions left to be made.

JALEN BRUNSON, OMARI SPELLMAN and DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova

This one is probably self-explanatory. At this point, Mikal Bridges is headed to the NBA. He’s a fourth-year senior, meaning that he should be able to finish his degree before having to make this decision, and he’s a potential top ten pick coming off of his second national title in three seasons. It’s a no-brainer for him to make the leap, and it’s a decision that Villanova has prepared for.

The other three?

Not so much.

Villanova may be best prepared to withstand the departure of DiVincenzo should he opt to capitalize on his 31-point outburst in the national title game, but I’m not sold on that just yet. He plays on a team that has multiple other pros on it. NBA scouts were well aware of what he is capable of doing before he won MOP of the Final Four, and they were also well aware of how much of a streak scorer he’s been during his Villanova tenure. Another year on campus probably makes sense for him for no other reason than the simple fact that he may end up being the star of this Villanova program next season.

That’s because the return of Brunson and Spellman is very much a question mark. Brunson is a junior and is on track to graduate in three years. If he has his degree, two national titles and a National Player of the Year award under his belt, what else is left for him to do in college? He’s not a guy whose stock is going to change all that much in a year — he is what he is as a prospect given his physical limitations — and he is projected as a borderline first round pick now.

And Spellman might want to capitalize on what was a promising NCAA tournament run. He played his best basketball of the season down the stretch, blocking shots and banging home threes and thriving as Villanova’s small-ball five in one of the best teams that we’ve seen in the collegiate ranks, and there is a legitimate question as to whether or not he will look as good playing on a team that doesn’t include Brunson at the point.

If Spellman and DiVincenzo both return, Villanova should once again be a top five team — we are projecting that currently, and we have them No. 2. But if they lose one or both of those two, Villanova would probably drop from being a favorite to win the whole thing to being a top 12-ish team picked to win the Big East. Still very good, but not a legitimate threat to repeat as champs.

(Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

CALEB MARTIN, CODY MARTIN and JORDAN CAROLINE, Nevada

Eric Musselman has that thing rolling out in Reno, and there’s a chance that his next team season will be better than this year’s team, which won the Mountain West and made the Sweet 16.

But that all depends on what happens with his three best players, the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline. All three are rising seniors, but all three are also redshirt seniors, meaning that this will be their fifth-year on campus. If they already have a degree in hand, and since all three turn 23 years old in the next year, what is the incentive to return to school if they can get a good contract?

The latter is the bigger question mark. Both of the Martin twins project as second round picks at best, while Caroline is likely to go undrafted if he remains in the draft. With these three back in the fold, Nevada will enter the season as a top ten team in NBC Sports’ preseason top 25. Without them, Nevada may not even be the favorite to win the Mountain West title.

ZHAIRE SMITH, Texas Tech

It is looking more and more likely that Zhaire Smith will be heading to the NBA this offseason, as he is now projected as a mid-first round pick in many mocks. A dynamic athlete with a 6-foot-10 wingspan and the ability to make shots from the perimeter, it might make sense for Smith to cash in on his potential now before scouts have a chance to pick his game apart. Remember, he was a three-star prospect coming out of high school; NBA front offices don’t know as much about him as they do, say, Marvin Bagley III or Deandre Ayton.

But given when Texas Tech is losing this offseason, there’s something to be said for the idea that Smith could return to school — as of now, Smith is only testing the waters — become the go-to scorer for the Red Raiders and play his way higher in the draft’s pecking order.

The Red Raider staff believed they were going to be able to get a second season with Smith in the fold, and if he does make the decision to return to school, there’s an argument to be made for Texas Tech as the third-best team in the Big 12, behind the Kansas schools. Without him, Chris Beard is going to have his work cut out for him trying to replicate this year’s Elite Eight season.

DEANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter is in a difficult situation here, mainly because of the injury that he suffered prior to the start of the NCAA tournament. He’s currently dealing with a broken wrist, and that’s an injury that could end up keeping him off the court until after NBA teams are done with their workouts during this draft process.

Given what Hunter showed us in the latter part of his redshirt freshman season, it’s pretty easy to project him as a good NBA role player. He’s 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he’s switchable defensively and he can make threes, attack a close-out and create for himself. NBA teams traverse the globe looking for players like that.

But … the injury. Even if healthy, I’m not sure that Hunter would be a surefire first round pick this year. If he comes back to Virginia, he would have the chance to prove himself the best player on a top ten team, a potential all-american and play his way into a position to be drafted where the likes of Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges and Kevin Knox are being projected this season.

And with Hunter back, Virginia suddenly has their star back in the fold, the guy that create a shot for himself and the one player on their roster that lets them matchup against smaller teams (ahem, UMBC). Virginia is always going to be fine so long as Tony Bennett is their head coach, but Hunter’s presence on the roster is going to be the difference between the Wahoos being good enough to contend for another ACC title and simply being good enough to finish near the top of that conference.

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

THE KENTUCKY GUYS, Kentucky

There are so many to work through here.

As of Tuesday morning, this is what we’re working with: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox have declared for the draft and will sign with agents. Hamidou Diallo is considered likely to follow in his footsteps, while Sacha Killeya-Jones has opted to transfer out of the program after Kentucky landed a commitment from another five-star recruit, E.J. Montgomery.

That leaves these five in limbo: P.J. Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Quade Green, Wenyen Gabriel and Nick Richards. Kentucky has talent coming in, and they almost assuredly will have talent returning. We’re just not exactly sure who it is going to be, and that will determine whether Kentucky will enter next season as a team in the top 15 or a team in the top five.

MO WAGNER, Michigan

Wagner is a success story when it comes to the process of testing the waters for the NBA draft. He declared last year, was told that he has to be a better defender and a better rebounder, then he turned around and became a good enough defender and rebounder that he could anchor what eventually turned into one of the best defenses in all of college basketball and, statistically, one of college basketball’s best defensive rebounders.

Given that, and his ability to player on the perimeter as a stretch five, and it would seem like a given that Wagner should head to the NBA. I expect that’s what he’ll end up doing, but he’s not exactly a sure-fire first round pick at this point. There are some questions as to whether or not his rebounding was a result of his improvement, Michigan’s defensive scheme changing or a combination of all of the above, and being a passable perimeter defender in the collegiate ranks doesn’t mean that he’ll thrive at the NBA level.

Frankly, I think he’s proved what he needed to and would advise him to head to the NBA, but his return would make Michigan a top 10-15 team in college basketball next season.

ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

The Badgers had a nightmare season in 2017-18, as the combination of youth and injuries meant that they didn’t truly hit their groove until there was about a month left in the year and the Badgers were already locked into a losing season.

But next season, however, Wisconsin will not only be healthy again, but all that youth will be experienced, and if the way that the Badgers played in the last month of the season is any indication, that would be a very good thing. The key, however, is going to be Happ. He’s going to be a fifth-year senior next season with a degree in hand, so no one would blame him if he opted to remain in the draft, but his return to anchor this roster could make the Badgers a top four team in the Big Ten and a back-end top 25 team.

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton

Thomas has a chance to have a nice NBA career. He only stands 6-foot-3, but his 6-foot-11 wingspan combined with the fact that he makes better than 40 percent of his threes makes him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect. I do think there’s a chance that he’ll be a first round pick this year should he opt to declare for the draft, and that should make his return to Creighton all that much more important. The Bluejays already lost Marcus Foster, and losing Thomas — who is the one elite defender on a roster that is built for space, pace and scoring — would be another major blow. With him in the fold and the return of a young core of Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock and Jacob Epperson, the Bluejays suddenly look like the second-best team in the Big East.

CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Edwards averaged 18.5 points on a team that was in the top ten for much of the year and started four seniors. Those four seniors are now gone, and Edwards will more or less be running the show by himself should he opt to return.

In a vacuum, I would say it would be smart for him to leave. He’s an undersized, shoot-first lead guard that benefitted from playing on a team that had myriad other scoring options. His efficiency is bound to take a hit if he does return. That said, he’ll be a top ten player in the sport next season, he’ll have a chance to prove he’s a better distributor than he was last season and he’ll be skipping out on a draft that is absolutely loaded with lead guards in the 20-45 range. If he’s back, Purdue is a tournament team. If he’s gone, there is going to be some serious rebuilding going on in West Lafayette.

THREE MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON

  • THE MISSISSIPPI STATE GUYS: The Bulldogs, as it stands, are in the top 15 of the NBC Sports preseason top 25. But that’s assuming that Lamar Peters and both of the Weatherspoon brothers are back for another season. All three have declared for the draft without signing with an agent.
  • DEWAN HUELL, Miami: Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker are off to the NBA, but if Huell opts to return, he’ll make for an intriguing combination alongside Chris Lykes.
  • TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse: Syracuse desperately needs the only offensive weapon they had last season to return to school. If he’s back, the Orange should be in the mix for another trip to the NCAA tournament.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.