The NCAA’s early withdrawal deadline for the NBA Draft expired Monday night, meaning we’re now entering the home stretch of draft season with a definitive pool of draft-hopefuls. With that deadline in the rearview, it’s time to reflect on some of the most important storylines that may have fallen through the cracks.
We all know about Luka Garza returning to Iowa and Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn returning to Illinois, because they were among the deadline’s biggest winners and losers. But below I’ve compiled a catch-all list that rounds up those news items to catch you up to speed.
Most surprising stay-or-go decision: Ayo Dosunmu
I had heard in recent weeks that Ayo Dosunmu was very seriously considering the prospect of returning to college, but that went directly against his on-the-record comments suggesting he was 100-percent focused on staying in the draft. Turns out it was posturing.
It’s not a huge shock, but on the shock-level for other on-the-fencers in this class, his ranked the highest. That immediately boosts Illinois into a Big Ten contender next season.
Player who will benefit most from returning: Trendon Watford
Teams who are picking in the early second-round were monitoring closely the decision of Trendon Watford. That may help explain why he decided to come back.
He has a five-star resume and averaged 13.6 points and 7.2 boards last season for LSU, and while his 6-foot-9 frame and productivity are a good foundation, his shot still needs some improvement and his 3-point stroke needs refinement, too.
Returning to LSU should benefit him significantly. With Skylar Mays and Emmitt Williams gone, he likely emerges next season alongside Ja’Vonte Smart as the Tigers’ go-to guy, and his profile as a long wing who can make plays on both ends should be boosted because of it.
Returning player with most NBA potential: Isaiah Joe
I had Isaiah Joe as a first-rounder throughout most of the season despite his struggles because of his elite scoring ability and above-average 3-point stroke.
But dealing with a knee injury and his 3-point shot regressing as a sophomore led him back to college, where at Arkansas next season he might be my darkhorse SEC Player of the Year pick.
Few players can knock down shots at a high level from distance the way Joe can and with a clean bill of health and a big opportunity ahead, I think he’ll work his way back onto first round radars as a player NBA teams view as a role-playing wing who can catch-and-shoot at a high level and be a 3-point assassin.
Most underrated early entry: Tyrell Terry
Although there were dozens of late stay-or-go decisions made, only a handful — Tyrell Terry included — were truly on the fence until the final hour. Terry was an interesting one because had he returned to Stanford, he’d have been the star of a top-15 team that could have won the Pac-12. But, forgoing his remaining eligibility was probably the right decision. He had a stellar freshman season and despite his slight frame, he’s an incredible shot-maker who teams in the middle of the first round were closely watching. Even in a point guard heavy draft class, he’s a potential lottery pick franchises looking towards the future will consider investing in because of his five-year outlook.
Teams that benefited most: Illinois and Baylor
I limited all my responses to one but this one. I just couldn’t break the tie. Illinois gets back Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, the inside-out duo that could determine the Big Ten title race. And Baylor gets back Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, the backcourt that Baylor’s going to ride to frontrunner status in the Big 12. Butler and Dosunmu were fringe first-round caliber this year, so returning to college should benefit them. But let’s be clear here: it’s Baylor and Illinois who come away as the big winners.
Most impactful returning player: Luka Garza
If Fran McCaffery’s exact response to All-American Luka Garza returning to school wasn’t exactly this, then his response was wrong.
McCaffery should be fully-jump-suited and prepped for what might be his best season ever thanks to Garza’s return. He’s a viable Player of the Year contender after losing out to Obi Toppin last season, and his broad shoulders may just be wide and sturdy enough to carry the Hawkeyes to their first regular-season conference title since 1979.
Player I’m glad stayed in the draft: Xavier Tillman
Nothing about Xavier Tillman’s game in particular screams NBA super star, yet everything about his game screams role-playing genius — er, 🗣️ ROLE-PLAYING GENIUS. He sets hard screens, plays nasty defense, rebounds it well, can score in the paint. First-round caliber prospect who was said to be considering a return to college, but staying in was the right decision. Could go between 20-30 in this draft.
Player who should have returned to school: EJ Montgomery
I’m not one to criticize players’ decision — and if someone is even a potential second-rounder, I often think in most cases (with some exceptions) it’s best to just go. But I’m not entirely sure the thought process with EJ Montgomery. Kentucky is losing every one of its starters including Nick Richards and Nate Sestina down low, which potentially opens up an opportunity for Montgomery to finally assert himself as a reliable frontcourt force. Instead, he’s going pro after a sophomore season in which he averaged 6.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and rarely played more than 30 minutes per game.
There’s money to be made for him by turning pro but as a former five-star, top-10 national recruit, he’s jumping at a time when his stock is low. No one I’ve spoken with expects he’ll be drafted, and returning to UK — even if it was to jump back into a rotational role of sorts — was from my view the wiser option.
Top small-school star who stayed in: Nate Darling
Darling’s decision to stay in the draft was impactful for two reasons. The first: Delaware is probably out of the running to win the CAA next season. Justyn Mutts transferring out earlier this summer likely made that potential challenging in itself, but without Darling — a superstar scorer who can create and knock down outside shots at a high level — it’s near-impossible. It’s also impactful on the draft front because despite the lack of name recognition, Darling’s got some real NBA potential. At 6-foot-5 he averaged 21.0 points per game last season while shooting 39.9% from 3-point range, with a quick release and a deadeye shot if he has space to get it off. That specific skill set — as a reliable 3-point shooter who can create a little — is potential enough for teams to give him a look in the late second round or even as a G League candidate on a two-way deal.
Top small-school star who returned: Colbey Ross
Pepperdine might wind up as first in line to finish second in the WCC next season (behind Gonzaga). And while that’s not a particularly flattering descriptor, it’d be a remarkable feat for Pepperdine, which has just three winning seasons under its belt since 2005.
If the Waves are going to pull that off, it’ll be in large part because of the return of Colbey Ross — one of the most fierce point guard prospects in the league. He averaged 20.5 points per game last season.
Ross isn’t doing his damage against WCC bottom feeders, at least not entirely (he’s definitely doing that, too). He hung 43 points on Saint Mary’s before the season ended, for instance. And in two games against the Zags last season, he averaged 23.5 points and 8.0 assists. Earlier in the season against Arizona point guard Nico Mannion, he dropped 20 points and 9 assists, nearly leading Pepperdine past a far-more-talented Wildcats team.
Ross is one of the more interesting prospects to watch this season and getting him back should shake up the top of the WCC race and give him a chance to improve his stock. He’ll likely enter the season as a top-60 guy for me in the 2021 NBA Draft.