Non-Freshmen Most Likely to Leave School Early After the 2016-17 CBB Season
With the 2016 NBA draft withdrawal deadline in the rearview mirror, there's no better time to start looking ahead to next year's early-entry candidates to forecast college basketball's sophomore and juniors most likely to turn pro in 2017.
Based solely on the number of players who "tested the draft waters" this year before opting to return to school, there was no shortage of options for this list. And considering there are 35 D-I sophomores and juniors who decided to stay in this year's draft class, picking 10 shouldn't be too difficult.
But there are always surprises—both in the returnees and the early departures.
Guys like Ivan Rabb, Thomas Bryant and Grayson Allen top our list of players bound to go pro next year, primarily because we're surprised they elected to come back this year without even seeking an invite to the draft combine. However, most of the players in our top 10 (and honorable mentions) were among the 57 players to declare for the draft in April and return in May.
Which of these players (if any) do you think will still be playing college basketball in 2017-18?
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky
9.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.1 APG
Kentucky players are usually a safe bet to declare for the draft, but Briscoe desperately needs to improve his shooting stroke (46.0 percent from free-throw line, 13.5 percent from three-point range) before an NBA team will even consider using a first-round pick on him. And with De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk likely becoming the two go-to guards on this roster, Briscoe might not have the freedom necessary to properly develop that aspect of his game.
Antonio Blakeney, LSU
12.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG
Over the past three years, LSU has sent five players to the NBA draft before exhausting years of eligibility: Johnny O'Bryant, Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey, Ben Simmons and Tim Quarterman. Blakeney seems likely to join that club as the Tigers' leading returning scorer. He might also be headed for a bit of a sophomore slump as he becomes the clear focal point for opposing defenses.
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
15.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.2 APG
Bluiett probably isn't even the best pro prospect on Xavier's roster—we're expecting a big year from Edmond Sumner—but he was one of the last players to withdraw before this year's deadline. If the Musketeers have another great season and actually do some damage in the NCAA tournament this time around, Bluiett will likely forgo his senior year.
E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
Played 10 minutes before tearing ACL
Matthews averaged 16.9 points per game as a sophomore and was the primary reason we all bought stock in Rhode Island last offseason, but he didn't even make it through one half of one game before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Provided he comes back healthy and has a strong redshirt junior year, there's a good chance he'll go pro. Either that or he'll graduate-transfer to a blue-blood program and make huge waves with his final season.
Elijah Brown, New Mexico
21.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.1 SPG
We opted to exclude minor-conference players from the list because there's just no telling whether a stud will stay for four years like Shawn Long or leave early like Elfrid Payton. But Brown—one of our only mid-major constituents—seems like a near-lock to go pro. Because he transferred from Butler and sat out a year, he'll be 22 by the end of next season and was already one of the nation's leading scorers this past season. It's a bit surprising he even opted to return for a junior year.
10. Dedric Lawson, Memphis
2015-16 Stats: 15.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.7 BPG, 1.2 SPG
Because Memphis had a disappointing season, Dedric Lawson's incredible freshman campaign flew criminally below the national radar.
In the past 23 years, Lawson is the only freshman to average at least 15 points, nine rebounds, two assists and 1.5 blocks per game. Even if we remove the "freshman" qualifier, it's a stat line that has only been achieved 30 times (by 24 unique players) since 1993-94. Tim Duncan pulled it off in each of his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, but even one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history wasn't able to do as a freshman what Lawson just did.
Not too shabby for someone who won't even turn 19 until October.
Of Memphis' five leading scorers from last season, Lawson is the only one returning. If you thought the Tigers relied heavily on their young big man in 2015-16, just wait until you see how many touches he gets in 2016-17. It would be a bit of a surprise if he doesn't rank in the top 10 nationally in points per game.
Considering he declared for the draft multiple times this offseason, it's almost a foregone conclusion he'll make the leap next summer.
9. James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
2015-16 Stats: 15.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.2 SPG
James Blackmon Jr. only appeared in 13 games this past season due to a torn ACL. Indiana played better without him. (All hail OG Anunoby.) Because of the knee injury, he was unable to even work out for any NBA teams.
And still, Blackmon was one of the last underclassmen to withdraw from the draft.
Despite the circumstances working against him, someone almost certainly would have taken a second-round flier on Blackmon if he had stayed in the draft. Based solely on what Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have been doing for the Golden State Warriors over the past few seasons, it would be borderline irresponsible not to draft one of college basketball's purest three-point shooters.
Blackmon attempted six triples per game as a freshman and sank 38.7 percent of them. In his limited sophomore season, he improved both of those numbers to 6.2 and 46.3, respectively. In doing so, he became just the eighth freshman or sophomore in the past two decades to play at least 10 games and attempt at least six threes per game while making at least 46 percent of them.
If he ever plays in the NBA, though, he would become the first such member of that club. Particularly with Yogi Ferrell now out of the picture, developing into more of a combo guard is a must—both for Blackmon's future in the NBA and for Indiana's chances of repeating as Big Ten champs.
If he's healthy and becomes more of a dual threat alongside Robert Johnson in the Hoosiers backcourt, Blackmon could play his way into the back half of the first round of the 2017 NBA draft.
8. Dillon Brooks, Oregon
2015-16 Stats: 16.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.1 SPG
Few players were more valuable than Oregon's Dillon Brooks was this past season, and fewer still are back for another year.
There were only eight non-seniors to average at least 16 points, five rebounds and three assists per game in 2015-16. Four of those eight players declared for the NBA draft, leaving Brooks as one of the nation's most versatile returning players. Paired with shot-blocking stretch 4 Chris Boucher and combo guard extraordinaire Tyler Dorsey, Oregon has arguably the most unguardable team in the country.
But Brooks is the centerpiece of that amorphous attack. The Canadian small forward had a surprisingly productive freshman year before blossoming into a sophomore stud. Were it not for Jakob Poeltl's impressive campaign for Utah, Brooks would have been the Pac-12 Player of the Year—perhaps unanimously so.
Despite producing at that high level, though, NBA scouts can't seem to get past his lack of physical prowess. "His short wingspan and average athleticism will likely always render him a second-round prospect," wrote Jonathan Givony for DraftExpress in late March.
Unfortunately, no number of additional years of college basketball will fix his wingspan, so he may as well pursue that second-round pick after what ought to be another excellent season in Eugene.
7. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
2015-16 Stats: 12.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.8 APG
One year ago, Justin Jackson would have been at the top of any list of potential breakout sophomores. He had a solid freshman season, but so did North Carolina State's T.J. Warren before nearly leading the nation in scoring as a sophomore.
Granted, Warren was the only returning member of the Wolfpack's six-pack of leading scorers, and Jackson was on a roster returning everyone except for J.P. Tokoto, but Jackson was such a highly touted prospect out of high school that it wouldn't have been a surprise if he developed into the 2016 ACC Player of the Year.
Instead, he barely improved at all.
His two-point, three-point and free-throw percentages all dropped, while his player efficiency rating and win shares per 40 minutes metrics only increased by about 10 percent with the additional year of experience. He was great in late November with Marcus Paige still on the sidelines, but he was only the fourth- or fifth-most valuable Tar Heel by the end of the year.
Rather than following Warren's career arc, Jackson was content with mimicking what Wayne Selden did with Kansas, playing well enough to remain in the starting lineup but not well enough to live up to the McDonald's All-American hype.
Perhaps with Paige and Brice Johnson both gone, Jackson will continue down the trail blazed by Selden by having a breakout junior year before declaring for the draft.
6. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
2015-16 Stats: 15.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG
Much like Lawson at Memphis, Dwayne Bacon's freshman season went largely unnoticed while his team missed the NCAA tournament.
And much like Jackson at North Carolina, Bacon was fantastic early in the season before tapering off. According to KenPom.com, he was the MVP in seven of Florida State's first 11 games. He scored at least 19 points in eight of his first 12 games before the start of ACC play.
Had he really dipped his toe into the draft waters, he likely would have stayed in the pool. Prior to the start of the NCAA tournament, B/R's Jonathan Wasserman had Bacon projected for the 36th overall pick. But four days after declaring for the draft on March 24, he changed his mind.
"I'm not satisfied with the work I've put in all my life to just be a first-round pick," Bacon told reporters. "I'm not satisfied with all the work I've put in to just be a second-round pick. I would be satisfied if I'm a top-10 pick, top-15 pick."
Putting in even more work this summer on three-point shooting could be enough to get him there. Despite some big scoring outputs, Bacon shot just 28.1 percent from beyond the arc. If he can get that number up to 35-37 percent in 2016-17, he'll have the stroke and the athleticism to potentially sneak into the lottery.
5. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
2015-16 Stats: 10.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.8 APG
From a purely physical standpoint, Caleb Swanigan is ready for the NBA. Despite sharing the lane with either 7'0" A.J. Hammons or 7'2" Isaac Haas on nearly every possession, the 6'9", 250-pound Swanigan was one of the best defensive rebounders in the entire country. He has a Dennis Rodman type of nose for the ball and the body to go get it.
Aside from the rebounding, though, most of his game needs another year of polishing at the collegiate level.
Turnovers plagued Swanigan all season long. He coughed up the ball nearly once for every free-throw attempt (90 vs. 94)—a rather inexcusable trade-off for a guy built to finish through contact. As a result, he recorded a brutal negative-0.1 offensive box plus/minus for the season.
He seemed to struggle to find his identity within the Boilermakers offense. Nearly two years ago, Swanigan's guardian, Roosevelt Barnes, told B/R's C.J. Moore, "When he decided he wanted to be a basketball player, we consciously made a decision that he was going to be an old-school power forward in the Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Buck Williams, even guys like Al Jefferson, Zach Randolph type where he's going to beat you up."
Moore went on to say that a good comparison for Swanigan might be Marquette's Davante Gardner—a hefty power forward who attempted just seven three-pointers in his first three seasons. But it only took two games for Swanigan to match that mark, as the supposed back-to-the-basket big man seemed to be mirroring his game more after Kevin Love than Moses Malone.
However, Swanigan only connected on 29.2 percent of those shots—hence the poor offensive rating. With Hammons out of the picture, perhaps he'll develop into more of a conventional big man as a sophomore. He certainly has the talent to average a double-double before bolting for the pros.
4. Melo Trimble, Maryland
2015-16 Stats: 14.8 PPG, 4.9 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG
If this looks familiar, it's because Melo Trimble was also No. 4 on our list last summer—back before both he and the Terrapins failed to live up to their preseason potential.
However, reports of Trimble's demise were grossly exaggerated.
The way people were harping on his play toward the end of last season, you'd think he was throwing the ball into the wrong basket on a regular basis. After he made his decision to come back for another year, ESPN's Jeff Goodman tweeted, "Trimble made the right call to return to Maryland. Want to leave when stock is at its height. His was near its lowest."
Look at his stats, though, and keep in mind Trimble's stock might be as low as it ever gets.
Only 19 players averaged at least 14.5 points, 4.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.25 steals per game last season, and the only ones to do so for a team that made the NCAA tournament were Kris Dunn, Gary Payton II, A.J. English, Thomas Walkup and Trimble.
But because his three-point percentage dropped nearly 100 points from what he posted as a freshman, he might not have been drafted this year. That's just silly. He's arguably the best combo guard in the country, and he might be even more dominant this season after losing all four of his starting teammates.
3. Grayson Allen, Duke
2015-16 Stats: 21.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 SPG
There are only three returning players who scored at least 700 points last season: Howard's James Daniel (812), Davidson's Jack Gibbs (725) and Duke's Grayson Allen (779).
Allen's decision to come back for another year without even testing the NBA draft waters was a surprise. Despite acquiring a reputation as a serial tripper, he was one of the best offensive weapons in the country. According to Sports-Reference.com, only Oakland's Kay Felder (6.2) had more offensive win shares in 2015-16 than Allen (5.9).
When he wasn't busy shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range, Allen was driving through contact to the tune of seven free-throw attempts per game—83.7 percent of which he made. He had a couple of duds—most notably in the losses to Kentucky and Utah—but he scored at least 15 points in each of Duke's final 25 games.
Allen isn't nearly the draft prospect that Brandon Ingram is, but as far as production in college is concerned, Allen was even more important to Duke's cause than the possible No. 1 pick in this year's draft.
If he ends up staying for four years, it's probably only because he wants to challenge Christian Laettner for the title of most hated player in college basketball history.
2. Thomas Bryant, Indiana
2015-16 Stats: 11.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 0.9 BPG
The per-game numbers don't even begin to tell the whole story of how effective Thomas Bryant was in his 22.6 minutes per contest.
Indiana's stud freshman shot 70.7 percent from inside the arc, including 10 games in which he didn't miss a single two-point attempt. In conference play, he posted offensive and defensive rebounding percentages that ranked fourth and ninth in the Big Ten, respectively.
He was never going to steal Big Ten Player of the Year honors away from Michigan State's Denzel Valentine, but with a little more playing time, he could have at least been B1G Freshman of the Year (instead of Wisconsin's Ethan Happ) and a unanimous first-team selection. He was that dominant with his limited minutes.
What's kind of crazy is that the Hoosiers didn't ride him more often. Bryant was only responsible for 20.1 percent of Indiana's field-goal attempts while in the game, compared to more than 24 percent by each of Ferrell, Troy Williams and Max Bielfeldt.
With all three of those players gone, though, Bryant is bound to become more of a go-to weapon as a sophomore, right? If he keeps playing anything like he did in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Kentucky, routinely feeding the post is Indiana's best shot at a return trip to the Sweet 16. And after he puts up 17 points and eight rebounds per game this year, he'll be ready to go claim his millions in the NBA.
1. Ivan Rabb, California
2015-16 Stats: 12.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG
There's always one.
Over the past few years, it has become almost commonplace to see a player turn down a potential lottery pick only to come back even better. It's tough to pinpoint who started the trend, but just in the past few years we've had Harrison Barnes, Cody Zeller, Trey Burke, Marcus Smart, Willie Cauley-Stein, Poeltl and Dunn surprise us with an extra season before becoming top-10 draft picks (assuming Poeltl and Dunn are taken that high on June 23).
Chances are Ivan Rabb will be joining that club in about 13 months, as California's freshman phenom didn't even bother fully exploring his NBA draft potential before deciding to return to school. Wasserman had Rabb projected as the No. 7 pick in mid-April, and Wasserman wasn't alone on that island. Most sites had Rabb going in the top 10, so he gave up a lot of money to return to school.
It's hard to imagine he would make that decision twice, though. Barring injury or an absolute disaster of a sophomore year, Rabb is a mortal lock to declare for the 2017 NBA draft. With a monster sophomore year, perhaps he'll be able to climb up into the top five.