The pandemic year provided a unique college basketball experience for many young players. The season, for all its ups and downs, pauses and limitations, produced a fair amount of NBA-caliber talent and a fairly deep 2021 NBA Draft class.
What it also did was move plenty of intriguing prospects who were on the bubble heading into the draft towards a return to school. Today, our focus is on the best of that group; the NBA-caliber talent we have our eyes on most heading into next year. How will their experience show out? Are they improving in key ways as a prospect that will increase their stock and make a return to school worth their while? Which players are we expecting to burst onto the scene?
Today we'll profile the ten names who stand out as top talents to us, predict what tiers or draft ranges they might currently be penciled near and what they can do this year to increase that standing.
10. Kerr Kriisa, Arizona
Coach Spins sleeper alert. Kerr Kriisa. The 6'3" Estonian guard is a smooth shooter and overall good player who didn't get much run at Arizona last year for reasons outside his control. Upon his return, Kriisa moved into the starting lineup late in the year and was really good for the Wildcats. He was much more of a ball-mover next to scoring guard James Akinjo, who has since transferred.
As the role increases for Kriisa, the fit in a Gonzaga offense under new head coach tommy Lloyd is pristine. His on-ball and off-ball scoring will thrive, as will his strong PNR reads. I'd expect a big year from him, to the point where he'll pop with the same level of intrigue he once had on the international circuit. Kriisa helped carry Estonia to solid performances in Europe the last few years.
16.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game in only 29 minutes... pretty impressive stuff. Factor in that these stats were earned on the FIBA U19 stage and they stand out even more.
Arizona big man Azuolas Tubelis put up this stat line for the Lithuanian U19 team this summer, anchoring their frontcourt and serving as their best player. Tubelis is a highly skilled lefty with underrated mobility and ball skills. He showed a little bit of everything in the FIBA games, which makes him an exciting yet unorthodox prospect:
9. Kofi Cockburn, Illinois
A gargantuan post presence, Cockburn surprisingly returned to college this year after going through the pre-draft process. The circumstances at Illinois were set up well for Kofi last year: a once-in-a-generation rise to the top of college basketball, playing next to an All-American talent. For the Illini, Ayo Dosunmu was the dominant presence on offense, while Cockburn patrolled the paint and slammed home dunks on the other end.
The surprising part of Kofi's decision to return to Champaign isn't that there's risk of the team not being as good (they lost Adam Miller to transfer, too; they'll almost certainly struggle in comparison), it's moreso that Cockburn's game doesn't project as one that can improve a whole lot. He very much is who he is: a hulking interior body who rebounds, hustles, slams things home at the rim and rarely ventures more than ten feet from the rim.
A Drop coverage big man who can be a pick-and-roll finisher, only a drastic addition to his game (shooting, mobility for perimeter defense) will increase his stock. I believe the polish he'll come into the league with and the sheer mass of his body means he has an NBA role somewhere, and should be a firm mid-2nd round target. Going back may not help him a ton, but I don't think it has much risk of hurting him, either.
8. Mike Miles, TCU
For a while, Miles was a fringe draftable prospect on our board. We had eyes on him last year as a freshman, where he burst onto the scene at TCU making 36% from 3 and starting for the Horned Frogs. Miles was a good #2 next to RJ Nembhard; the diaper dandy got more usage out of spot-up situations (33%) than PNR ones (30%).
What sealed the deal that Miles should be firmly in the early second round, and even fringe first-round range, is his performance in the FIBA U19 championships this year for the United States. Miles shot the ball fine, but it was his creation with the ball in his hands that piqued interest. Miles was great at drilling tough pull-ups, splitting the PNR to get downhill quickly and made a good deal of unorthodox floaters in the lane. All those traits are vital for Miles, a 6'1" guard who needs to be great with the ball in his hands to make it to the next level.
His performance in the FIBAs was a great step towards that goal.
Let's be honest: TCU is going to have a tough year in the stacked Big Twelve. If he can lead the Horned Frogs to the NCAA Tournament while being under the tight scrutiny of scouts and the focal point of opposing gameplans, it's likely because he's consistent enough with the ball in his hands to prove that's his best NBA role. Between Miles and Texas Tech transfer Micah Peavy, the Horned Frogs could be a sleeper to go .500 in the conference and make the Tourney.
7. Ron Harper Jr., Rutgers
I'm as big of a Ron Harper Jr. fan as their is out there. Strong-bodied, long-armed and proficient from deep, he checks all the boxes of a versatile wing in the NBA while showing some fascinating on-ball creation. His finishing ability and strength makes him such an unorthodox, mismatch option down the line.
Going back to school isn't that much of a surprise for RHJ. He struggled with consistency at Rutgers, especially from deep. As a role player, he'll need to solidify his off-ball presence on a nightly (or weekly) basis. If he struggles, he's almost certainly going to fall closer to the undrafted/ priority two-way realm. Stabilizing his shooting should at least play him into the second round.
It's the rest of the offensive profile that could play him higher, and is why he finished the 2021 draft cycle just on the outside of the first round. At Rutgers he'll be a top-two option in the Big Ten and won't sneak up on any teams. If he can tap into consistency in his shooting and continue to finish at a high level, he might legitimately plant himself into the early parts of the second round.
6. Matthew Mayer, Baylor
Baylor's run to the NCAA Championship and a dominating one-loss season isn't due solely to the presence of two elite guards like Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler. The rest of their crew deserves attention; Mark Vital and MaCio Teague are fighting for NBA careers now, but it was Matthew Mayer who received the most attention from scouts before withdrawing his name to return to school.
Mayer pops as a low-usage wing who can drill shots, put it on the floor to attack closeouts and play really competitive defense. The return to school decision was an interesting one, where Mayer is clearly betting on himself in a larger role. There's a little bit of Joe Ingles to his game: he's crafty, shoots over 40% on his catch-and-shoot looks and is an underrated ball mover or decision-maker. Standing 6'9", Mayer is ideal in an NBA dependent on interchangeable 3s and 4s. He moves well enough on defense to be solid on that end.
Mayer will have a much larger, more active role in the offense at Baylor this year. That could mean there's bust potential for Mayer, firmly establishing his ceiling and driving him down from the fringe first-round murmurs surrounding him in June. Or it could see him emerge as a facilitating wing who really blossoms in an Ingles-type role at the next level.
5. Jabari Walker, Colorado
Walker got himself onto the scene with an outstanding NCAA Tournament game against Georgetown where he went 5-5 from deep. A good, switchable defensive forward, Walker is the son of former NBA champion Samaki Walker. While dad was more of a true big and played both strong and athletic, Jabari doesn't have a ton of fluidity or vertical burst to his game. He's still a little long and lean, and figuring out how to use his athleticism.
Jabari plays with a really tough motor, is a disciplined defender and shot over 50% from 3 on somewhat respectable volume. When the shot is on, he really becomes an intriguing stretch-4.
Colorado is a program in transition right now, losing McKinley Wright as their offensive focal point the last few years. That puts Walker in a unique situation as a prospect. He got a lot of free spot-up looks due to Wright's strong PNR play. Beyond Wright, two of their other top three scorers were seniors.
Walker isn't a one-hit wonder from a good game against Georgetown. From January 11th on, Walker shot 60.7% from 3 on about two attempts per game. He also averaged 8.5 points and 4.7 rebounds over that span. A larger role could reveal a strong prospect, or a guy who needs plenty of work to his game. With his athletic profile, relative youth and flashes of shot-making, he's the type of prospect whose raw upside propels him into the first.
4. Caleb Love, North Carolina
If the 2021 Summer League taught me one thing it's that too many one-and-done prospects who struggled as freshmen during the COVID-interrupted season got written off when there's more bloom on the flower than thought. Ziaire Williams looked fantastic in Summer League, while BJ Boston showed more consistency and ability to clearly be worth a first round pick.
To me, Caleb Love fits this model to a T. He was beloved coming out of high school for his shot-making ability off the bounce. At 6'4" he's a big guard for someone who can play the point. There's a lot to like.
Unfortunately, Love really struggled. He shot 26% from 3, a putrid mark for someone with the rep of a shooter. Carolina's offense has often strangled point guard prospects, and Love was no exception. While the shooting was bad, his finishing was worse: 36.2% at the rim in the half-court, clearly not an NBA-caliber trait.
A second year of sample size at North Carolina (this time under a new coach, hopefully with better spacing) will either make or break Love's pro candidacy. He could become a fantastic comeback threat the same way David Johnson did this year for Louisville, or he could prove two years of poor shooting and finishing are too much to overcome on draft night.
I remain optimistic due to the craziness of a COVID year. There were flashes of him being the first-round prospect many thought he'd be in 2021:
We'll see if he turns into the projected lottery pick he was as a high school senior. I'm not so sure he climbs that far up, but I am all in on a comeback showing that restores a lot of his draft stock. There's simply too much talent here to avoid mentioning him near the first round range.
3. Jordan Hall, St. Joseph's
There's a pretty big leap from #4 to #3 on the returning list. The tier of top-three seems to have separated themselves as guys who are closer to the lottery (or higher) than falling out of the first round. A depleted pool of returners was a bit of a surprise considering the new NLI legislation in place for the NCAA. Still, it's a shallow pool in terms of high-end talent.
A year ago, Jordan Hall wasn't really on that list. He was a mid-tier recruit for St. Joseph's coming from local power Neumann Goretti in Philadelphia. Big-bodied for a guard, Hall plays a more deliberate style with a jumper that looks to be released on the way down. Those are typical detractors that talk a high-major program out of taking a kid.
But Hall is a high-major talent and playmaker -- he proved that as a freshman at St. Joe's. In fact, Hall flirted heavily with the 2021 NBA Draft before choosing to return to school. An initial commitment to Texas A&M to head to the SEC was ditched to go back home to Philly.
At 6'8", there's a ton that Hall can do as a passer, and that's the part of his game that pops most. He makes a ton of great reads, unorthodox finds and really fun plays. The highlights make it hard not to love him:
The passing and size are great, and Hall rebounds well as a result of both: he loves to crash the defensive glass so he can start the break. But beyond those two traits, Hall has a lot of work to do in order to prove he has enough scoring prowess for the NBA.
I've long been a believer that great PNR passers and playmakers need to be at least adequate scorers in the pros to deserve that role. Without strong pull-up scoring out of the PNR or shake to get to the rim, it's really hard to envision him being much different than a Kyle Anderson type of prospect. That isn't an insult, but it requires a ton of competitiveness, defensive impact and insane IQ to last in the league.
I think Hall has an outside shot of cracking the lottery. He's hovering around the top-20 for me, but has a fairly limited ceiling in comparison to other prospects due to the athleticism and live-dribble scoring on volume. Returning to St. Joe's in the A-10 means he'll likely need to score more to clinch his NBA stock: a sophomore averaging 10 a game with that large of an offensive role would only compound concerns about his scoring being pro-caliber.
2. Jaden Ivey, Purdue
Full disclosure time: I coached against Jaden Ivey before. He was a freshman at a rival school my last year coaching high school, and boy did our teams have no love lost. Throughout his high school experience, Ivey had a rival: the best player on the team I coached. Those two had some epic battles, but at no point in my early years of watching Ivey did I see a future pro, let alone a future lottery pick.
Perhaps it was the fact we broke him down or the fact his jumper wasn't really advanced at that young of an age, but my eyeballs were off him for much of the next three years. Fast forward to 2021 and Ivey had an impressive campaign as a freshman at Purdue. Some eye-popping highlights and great moments lead the way and it was a surprise to many when he withdrew from the draft.
I dove head-first into Ivey back in April and liked what I saw. There was enough to like to call him a first-round guy. I'm not quite on the top-10 train, or even the lottery discussion, because of the shooting: during both FIBA and Purdue action, he's barely at 25% from deep. That violates one of the few tenets I hold true when it comes to scouting: always value shooting for guys who play with the ball in their hands. Its absence drastically changes how they're defended in the half-court, particularly in the postseason.
Ivey showed flashes of an improved jumper, despite the numbers staying low, during the FIBA U19 World Cup. His athleticism, defensive upside and ability to create in the lane showed out:
In the eyes of many, Ivey is a top-five selection and threat. It will take a lot longer for me to get there. I love what he does as a driver and in transition. He's got that athleticism that pops. But man is the shooting still raw, and it's why Ivey isn't the top returner in college basketball for scouts to be watching...
1. Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona
I'll admit: I've long been skeptical of Mathurin and it wasn't until this summer's FIBA performances that he popped for me. The playmaking with the ball in his hands, attacking of the dribble and NBA-caliber pull-ups make me think that, against physical and impactful competition on the FIBA stage, he'll be able to do much of the same at the NBA level.
It was a really impressive few performances for Mathurin, arguably the best scorer in the competition and the heart of Team Canada that guided them to the third place game.
Bennedict is already one of the biggest winners of those who decided to return. While he had his followers and advocates, he was likely more a fringe first than anything if he came out in 2021. After the impressive shot-making performances and live-body leaping, Mathurin is likely a top-20 guy next year. Missing the U19 opportunity during draft processes would have really hampered what he could show.
Moving to Arizona, Mathurin likely deserves a good role with the ball in his hands. The Wildcats have a new coach but three guys who make my top returners list and a solid incoming class. Expect Arizona to put together a really good season, and Mathurin's draft stock to pop as a result. He may be more of a blend-in guy at Arizona in a well-rounded, well-balanced offense, but the flashes of alpha material on the FIBA stage will always stand out to NBA scouts as a positive. I've got him in lottery range right now.