My Top 10 Returners for NBA Draft
This 2021 draft class has a chance to be really special.
With star power at the top, depth in the top ten and a super long list of impactful freshmen, NBA scouts are lining up to stockpile 2021 first-rounders and find themselves in great position next June. We've heard ad nauseam about how poor the 2020 draft was. Well, next year's class more than makes up for it.
But the majority of high-impact players are freshmen, international picks or trying their hand in the G-League Pathways program. Only two players in my preseason top-14 have played a minute of college basketball before the pandemic.
So what do we make of these returners, who we have some film on to make them a prospect but likely need positive showings to increase their stock? We'll dive into the ten best returners on our preseason big board, with a lens for what they do well, what they need to show in 2021 and where they could end up on draft night.
Honorable mentions: Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga; Aaron Henry, Michigan State; Jay Huff, Virginia; Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana; Scottie Lewis, Florida; Yves Pons, Tennessee; Romeo Weems, DePaul
10. Matthew Hurt, Duke
6'9" Sophomore Forward
Hurt was a preseason top-ten guy on my board last year; he's an ideal stretch forward on offense who has obvious defensive deficiencies. He's plummeted down my draft board and is barely a top-40 prospect in this year's class. Still, I am intrigued. He shot 39.7% from 3 a year ago, was above 50% from inside the arc in ACC play and will have more than one scorer or initiator.
He was harmed by the "under" coverage that Tre Jones faced. Jeremy Roach needs to prove a little more dynamic and worthy of guards going over screens, which would help Matthew Hurt on pick-and-pop looks. My knock on Coach K of late has been the lack of tangible improvement in his prospects from freshman year towards their upperclassmen experience. Hurt cannot have another lateral season; two consecutive years of 40% 3-point shooting would keep him as a draft prospect, but he has to get better in other areas and be on the floor for more than 20 minutes a night.
Defense is the name of the game, as is physicality. Hurt isn't a poor shot blocker, but he's in a weird spot. Last year he was too light to guard the 4. It seems like he's dedicated himself to adding strength and gaining weight over the quarantine, which would serve him well. There's even been talk about being a stretch-5 in some lineups, which could showcase how Hurt would play at the next level in those roles.
9. Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois
6'5" Junior Combo Guard
The Fighting Illini will be nationally relevant this year, so Dosunmu will have plenty of opportunities to flash his skills. They are deeper than last year, and when he and post Kofi Cockburn decided to withdraw from the 2020 draft and return to Champaign, we knew they'd be atop the Big Ten. Dosunmu is a hyperathletic defender who guards 1 thru 3, the type of game that isn't appreciated until he locks someone down on a gigantic national stage. That stage disappeared in March, so I like his decision to return.
What would've prevented Dosunmu from cracking the first-round a year ago was shooting 29.6% from 3-point range. He was above 35% on higher volume as a freshman; this year will be critical in stabilizing his perception. If he can get above 34% this season, and close to 40% on catch-and-shoots, there's a chance he is an early second-rounder cut from the same cloth as Garrett Temple or David Nwaba. His specialty could be defending elite shooters at multiple positions and chasing them around the floor.
Ayo is a solid facilitator and a tremendous finisher at the rim. He's got a super strong body, knows how to cut without the ball and has some upside to be a secondary facilitator. Look for Dosunmu's stock to be highest if the Illini have a legitimate top-ten run this year.
8. David Johnson, Louisville
6'5" Sophomore Point Guard
Johnson was hyped as a freshman coming into Louisville; at 6'5" with good athleticism and an ability to score off the bounce, it was easy to see why. Nothing materialized for Johnson at Louisville, though. He only started four games and was bench-bound on a team competing for national prominence. The upperclassmen carried the Cards while Johnson struggled with shooting, decision-making and overall positive impact.
He'll need to turn it around quickly if the first-round remains in his sights. John Hollinger of The Athletic described him as "a triple-double threat that can also run his team into the ground" and on a personal level, I felt that. Johnson's downside is considerable as a 21.7% 3-point shooter a year ago. That's horrific for someone that plays with the ball in their hands. The 7.0 turnovers per 100 possessions turns it into a nightmare; he seemed hell-bent on lowering his head and making a play by sheer force of will. It didn't work.
Chris Mack is an excellent coach, though, and could have Johnson taking a big leap from freshman to sophomore years. To be honest, the Cardinals will rely on it. We'll see Johnson featured much more heavily now that Jordan Nwora and Dwayne Sutton have left for the NBA. He's still really raw and won't have the requisite polish for an NBA point guard, but if he can pull enough together to show the reward is worth the risk, he could sneak back into draft considerations.
7. Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
6'6" Senior Wing
I had Kispert as a fringe first-round prospect before he withdrew from the draft to return for his senior year at Gonzaga. The move likely takes him out of real first-round consideration in the deep 2021 class, though he'll still be a highly-regarded shooting specialist. A big body who is better on defense than he gets credit for, Kispert has an incredibly quick stroke and drills shots in bunches.
Heading into the draft stretch for 2020, I put together a scouting report video on Kispert's junior year at Gonzaga.
With stud freshman Jalen Suggs heading to Spokane, NBA scouts will be in the building for every one of Kispert's games this year. They'll likely come away impressed with how solid he is; a knockdown shooting specialist who doesn't hurt you on the other end.
It's less about adding new skills and continuing to show efficiency in the areas he already has proven. Be above 40% from 3 on high volume. Put up solid defensive metrics and be dependable as a leader. Take only the right shots on a talented team.
6. Trendon Watford, LSU
6'9" Sophomore Forward
Watford jumps off the page as an athletic stat-sheet stuffer. He had seven double-doubles, three games with four or more assists, three games with 3 or more steals and four games with multiple treys. The question with Watford: what's his go-to skill?
At 6'9" he's a little undersized to be a 5, and is best-served at the 4 using his 7'1" wingspan. He's an unselfish scorer who is best-served taking bigger guys off the bounce and using that playmaking when he gets into the lane. I love how he finishes with either hand and was able to push tempo in transition. He can be a really impactful mismatch 4 at the next level.
Still, there's no singular skill that stands out as elite. He's a good but not great as a creator. He's below 30% from 3. He's an efficient finisher on non post-ups, though not an elite above-the-rim athlete and likely spending less time there in the NBA. I want to fall in love with the toolbox, though still haven't figured out what tools are inside.
That makes his sophomore year at LSU incredibly important. Stud freshman Cam Thomas should provide a shooting upgrade from Skylar Mays, which could give Watford room to showcase his skills as an initiator. A sudden rise in 3-point efficiency would put many minds at ease about the investments made in him as a prospect. Can he be a lockdown defender at the 4? I'm intrigued but constantly left wanting more.
5. Jared Butler, Baylor
6'3" Junior Combo Guard
Another one of my fringe first-rounders from 2020, Butler made the decision to go back to Baylor in the hopes of cutting down nets and finally getting a deep NCAA Tournament run. Butler wasn't highly touted coming out of high school; a Louisiana native who barely was in RSCI top-100s (95th in 2018) but has continually gotten better with the Bears. As a freshman, Butler started 21 games as a shooting specialist combo, playing off-ball on a team run by point guard Makai Mason. Mason graduated, and Butler split facilitating duties as a sophomore with Davion Mitchell.
The uptick in facilitating usage, while leading the top-five team in scoring at 16 per game, propelled Butler up draft boards as a trendy sleeper. He shoots it so pure off the bounce and in catch-and-shoot situations. He's got good size to play the 1 or the 2, is a feisty defender on-ball and is effective off screens or on the move. He's a great low-usage, high-efficiency flier after two years of proof in a great conference.
What's the next step for Butler this year?
Further improvement and video of playmaking and PNR ability would be appreciated. Adding strength and some athletic burst or quickness would make him look like he belongs at the NBA level. The time to consider him a first-round prospect is likely gone, though if he has the mystique of a competent NBA pick-and-roll creator, sturdy defender and aforementioned shooting, he won't fall far outside that 31-40 range.
4. James Bouknight, Connecticut
6'5" Sophomore Combo Guard
Now we're in real first-round territory with guys who have a chance to get picked in the top-30. Bouknight is an entertaining scorer. He averaged 13 a game as a freshman, and this year will be hoping to lead UConn to the top of the Big East. Of all the players on this list, Bouknight has a discernible area he must improve before being an NBA-caliber guard: creation for others.
Bouknight had a negative assist to turnover ratio as a freshman, with only 36 dimes in 28 games. Only 21 of those came in the half-court. Of all 660 players in Division I who had at least 60 PNR possessions, Bouknight was 22nd in percentage of shots compared to passes, attempting a field goal 70.8% of the time. That's higher than Anthony Edwards of Georgia and Jahmi'us Ramsey of Texas Tech, two black holes with their teams. Bouknight simply hasn't proven he can set the table for anyone else.
With Alterique Gilbert in town, Bouknight won't be the primary ball handler. But his scoring acumen won't sneak up on anyone; he's clearly the top dog in town. How he reacts to top coverages, more blitzing pressure and being the focal point will dictate how bullish on him I am. The kid has all the raw tools, is an exceptional finisher for a guard and has a smooth-enough jumper (he was very good in a small amount of catch-and-shoots). He passes the eye test in almost every way as a scorer.
If the passing looks competent, he'll quickly be one of my preferred risers and microwave scoring guards with legitimate lead guard upside. If he doesn't, I'll worry about him as a first-round guy simply because two years with poor facilitation numbers isn't a good sign in a league where he's surrounded by other great scorers and players. The leash shrinks once he leaves Storrs, so he better figure it out while he's there.
3. Miles McBride, West Virginia
6'2" Sophomore Athlete
High school teammates with New Orleans Pelicans big Jaxson Hayes, Miles "Deuce" McBride is ready to be the go-to scorer for a rugged and potentially top-five West Virginia group. The Mountaineers are huge, talented and have the defenders to get after opponents. McBride could live in transition, where about 21% of his offense came from a year ago.
McBride is an interesting prospect. He's a 6'2" lead guard on offense. His best skill is how he makes tough buckets, particularly in the mid-range. He was among the best high-volume pull-up scorers in the nation last year. He appeared somewhat ball-dominant, didn't knock down treys at a high rate and struggled as a facilitator in the half-court.
So why so high on McBride? He's a tough bucket that can get to the rim, absorbs contact like none other and has a freakish wingspan (rumored to be 6'10"). If he remains one of the best defensive players in college basketball (2.0 steals per 40, 3rd-best freshman in Defensive Box Plus-Minus), he's a disrupting point guard who can play bigger. I'm not sold on the efficiency being there, but he'll put up numbers and have the aesthetic of a first-round guy.
2. Oscar Tshiebwe, West Virginia
6'9" Sophomore Athlete
The Big O in Morgantown is tough to peg. It's almost like all these guys who returned to college have major question marks or difficult fits.
Tshiebwe's athleticism for a guy of his size (6'9", 7'4" wingspan and 260 pounds) is breathtaking. He's a freak shot blocker, moves really well laterally, is great in the open floor and can even handle the ball a bit. He pulled down 16 rebounds per 40 minutes as a freshman in the Big Twelve, including 4.1 offensive rebounds a game. Oh, and he shot 71% from the charity stripe.
The NBA game is transitioning away from guys like Oscar playing the 4, and that benefits him to take a huge step when he gets there in ways he won't show with the Mountaineers. Derek Culver, another frontcourt 4 or 5, means Oscar will never play with four guards or shooters (Culver is one of the worst shooters in the game). Tshiebwe, who isn't a shooter (hasn't taken a 3) and doesn't set screens in spread PNR, won't show the skills that translate to the NBA in Bob Huggins system.
This year is about continuing to add to the stockpile of raw, jaw-dropping moments that Big O can demonstrate. If there's a large enough catalog, he'll make himself a first-round prospect for teams in need of a hypermobile big man who can rebound, run, block shots and finish everything. I'd look at him in a mid-1st round if I'm a rebuilding team with a billion draft picks (hello, Oklahoma City, Detroit and New Orleans -- can you imagine Oscar and Zion?)
1. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova
6'9" Sophomore Athlete
JRE is head and shoulders above the rest of the returners in college basketball. He averaged 10.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals and shot 32.8% from 3. He's a prime NBA 4-man with how he moves, how he can facilitate and make plays on the interior or perimeter. He had a lot of great performances as a freshman, but his 17, 11 and 4 against Marquette and February put him firmly as a lotto prospect.
Robinson-Earl may never be a star, but he's the perfect complimentary role player to any type of NBA star. He passes, he can score in any way, he's an above-average defender, he guards multiple spots, he's already a great help defender. There's little downside to JRE, while being a stat-sheet stuffer. We love those guys.
What does JRE need more of as a sophomore?
Consistent 3-point shooting on higher volume would be a start. The absence of Saddiq Bey opens the door for more playmaking or 3-point shooting. If he can fill that role, it'll be perfect for his stock to stay in lottery discussions. Improving as a finisher off the bounce (barely over 50% last year on non post-ups) would be a nice addition to his game, too.
Sometimes the sexy one isn't the one you want to marry. JRE may not have much sex appeal, but he's definite wife material, and a smart NBA team will make a union with him for many moons.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)