9 NBA Draft decisions that will make or break college basketball next season

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The deadline for college basketball players to declare for the NBA Draft is April 22. Players are allowed to “test the waters” to gauge feedback from NBA teams and still return to school provided they haven’t signed with an agent. The deadline to pull your name out of the draft is June 11.

Each and every college basketball season is shaped by who doesn’t enter the draft. Last year gave us a pair of shockers, with Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Texas A&M’s Robert Williams deciding to put off their NBA dreams for another year even as projected lottery picks. The top prospect to already decide he’s returning to school for next season is Daniel Gafford, the Arkansas center who looked like a probable first rounder after his freshman campaign.

There’s a long list of players who have made themselves a lot of money coming back to school. Buddy Hield, Denzel Valentine, and Justin Jackson are three who immediately come to mind. There are also players who probably should have entered the draft while their stock was at its highest. Hamidou Diallo looked like a better NBA prospect before his season at Kentucky.

These are the NBA Draft decisions that will make or break college hoops next season.

9. Tyus Battle, SG, Syracuse

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: No. 29 | SB Nation: Out of first round

Syracuse relied on Battle as heavily as any college team relied on one player last season. As a sophomore, the shooting guard played 96.2 percent of the team’s available minutes, which was No. 1 in the country. He easily led the Orange with 19.2 points per game.

Syracuse was the last team in the NCAA tournament field, then stunned Michigan State to make the Sweet 16 before falling to Duke in a close game. If ‘Cuse has another March run in them next year, they need Battle. This is especially the case after top recruit Darius Bazley decided to skip college for the G League.

Prediction? Return to school without a first-round guarantee

Battle has the length (6’8 wingspan) and athleticism teams look for out of a two-guard, but he needs to prove he’s a consistent three-point shooter. He upped his volume from deep this past season (6.5 attempts per game), but only made 32 percent of those shots.

This draft is heavy on big men, so it’s possible Battle could be a first rounder this June, but it seems like a risky bet at best. The 2019 draft is considered weaker. Battle can make himself a safe first rounder a year from now by improving his three-point stroke.

8. Ethan Happ, C, Wisconsin

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: Undrafted | SB Nation: Out of first round

Happ is just devastating at the college level. As a junior, he averaged 17.9 points per game and finished top 10 in KenPom’s player of the year standings for a Badgers’ team that finished under. 500.

The problem for Happ is the NBA doesn’t value centers with his skill set. He’s only made one three-pointer at Wisconsin, he’s a career 56 percent free-throw shooter and he’s not an elite shot blocker. What Happ does well — score inside efficiency, facilitate from the high post — has a place in the modern game, just not high in the draft.

Prediction? Return to school.

Happ could build some buzz for his draft stock a year from now if Wisconsin’s guards can improve enough to get the program back to the NCAA tournament. Next year’s draft doesn’t have as many centers, either. There’s no doubt Happ would be one of the truly great players in college hoops next season if he comes back.

7. Jontay Porter, C, Missouri

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: No. 33 | SB Nation: No. 24

The other Porter brother only made a handful of starts for Missouri this season, but morphed into the Tigers’ secret weapon while his older brother Michael was sidelined with back surgery. In the process, Jontay turned into a potential first rounder in his own right — a shot blocking, three-point shooting center who fits in seamlessly in the modern NBA.

Porter isn’t as athletic as his older brother and is prone to bouts of inconsistency, but NBA teams should love his skill set. The question: stay in the draft and hope to be a top-25 pick, or return to school and go for the lottery next season?

Prediction? Stay in the draft.

This one could really go either way. Porter should be a first rounder this year. It’s hard to pass up that type of opportunity. That said, next year’s draft is weaker and there aren’t as many big men projected for the lottery. He could be a top-10 pick with a big sophomore year. Is that worth the risk of spending another year in college?

6. Shamorie Ponds, G, St. John’s

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: Undrafted | SB Nation: Out of first round

Ponds broke onto the national radar in his sophomore season during a torrid February stretch that included a 33-point game against Duke and a 26-point game against Villanova, both in unlikely St. John’s wins. He’s essentially a 6’1 two guard who only shot 25 percent from deep this season, but Ponds is still a legit NBA prospect because of his ability to score off the dribble.

Ponds is a better three-point shooter than his percentage suggests — he hit 37.5 percent last year and 86 percent of his free throws this year. Could he sneak into the first round?

Prediction? Return to school.

Ponds could lead college basketball in scoring next season, especially if his three-ball comes back around. In a weaker 2019 draft, he could make himself a first rounder because of his appeal as a microwave bench scorer.

5. Carsen Edwards, PG, Purdue

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: Undrafted | SB Nation: Out of first round

Purdue built a better team without Caleb Swanigan this past season largely because Edwards established himself as one of America’s breakout players. The sophomore point guard was the engine that fueled the Boilermakers all season, averaging a team-high 18.5 points per game and hitting over 40 percent of his threes.

There’s no doubt he can fill it up as a scorer, but NBA teams will also see a lead guard who’s undersized at 6’1 and isn’t a great facilitator yet (2.8 assists per game). One of those things won’t change with another year of school. The other could.

Prediction? Return to school.

Edwards is talented enough to be national player of the year next season if Purdue can keep up its winning pace from the last two seasons. Next year’s draft looks light on point guard talent, which means he could gain first-round hype if he has a big enough junior season.

4. Nevada’s trio of Cody and Caleb Martin + Jordan Caroline

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: Undrafted | SB Nation: Out of first round

Each of these players has a future playing professional basketball, but it’s hard to find a mock draft right now that lists any of them even as a second round pick. If all three go back to Nevada, the Wolf Pack should be a top-10 team in the preseason polls. They could also all be grad-transfers and pretty much pick wherever they want to play college ball next season.

Nevada is praying they all come back after blowing a golden opportunity against Loyola-Chicago in the Sweet 16 this March. If it happens, expect the Wolf Pack to be a trendy Final Four pick.

Prediction? Who knows!

Each of these players has spent four years in college. They’ve all already transferred once. If they turn pro, the G League or Europe are the likely options, at least at the start of their careers. On the flip side is another year playing for free, with a shot at glory at Nevada. Whatever these players decide, it’s a good choice.

3. De’Andre Hunter, SF, Virginia

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: Undrafted | SB Nation: Out of first round

Hunter went from a relative unknown to the ACC Sixth Man of the Year as a redshirt freshman at Virginia. If anyone doubted his value, he broke his wrist just before the start of the NCAA tournament and UVA promptly became the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed.

The NBA needs long, athletic wings who can shoot. Hunter fits the mold. Most expect him to return to school, but it’s possible he’d be a first rounder this year. If he comes back, he could be a top-10 pick in 2019 with a big season.

Prediction? Return to school (probably).

The guess here is that there are a few NBA teams picking in the 20s who are crossing their fingers that Hunter decides to come out. It’s so hard to find high-upside wings in the draft, and that’s exactly what Hunter is. The smart money is on Hunter coming back (and making himself a lottery pick a year from now), but it wouldn’t be a total shock to see some team give him a first round guarantee if he decides to test the waters.

2. Kentucky’s trio of P.J. Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: Undrafted | SB Nation: Out of first round

Kentucky is going to be very good next year even after losing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox. The Wildcats are bringing in a pair of five-star wings (Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson) who should alleviate their shooting problems, as well as point guard Immanuel Quickley. How good Kentucky will be, exactly, will be determined by what Washington, Gabriel and Vanderbilt decide to do.

Washington is the best inside scorer and rebounder and would give John Calipari a small ball five next year. Gabriel really grew as a shooter as a sophomore big man, and Vanderbilt is a dynamic athlete on the wing who can’t shoot but does everything else (namely: facilitate and defend). If two of these three come back, Kentucky is in good shape.

Prediction? Washington and Vanderbilt come back, Gabriel leaves

The Kentucky front court is already so stacked with incoming freshman E.J. Montgomery and sophomore-to-be Nick Richards that it feels like one of these guys is likely to leave. We’ll pick Gabriel, just because he’s already spent two years in school. A lot of people are going to be picking Kentucky as national champs if Washington and Vanderbilt come back.

1. Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo, Villanova

Projected 2018 draft status: ESPN: Undrafted | SB Nation: Out of first round

Villanova is losing Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, but the Wildcats will still have a puncher’s chance to repeat if Spellman and DiVincenzo come back. Spellman is a devastating cover at the college level as a bouncy, three-point shooting big man with a 7’2 wingspan. DiVincenzo just showed the whole world how good he can be by winning Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament.

DiVincenzo would be ‘Nova’s go-to guy on the perimeter next season, and Spellman would be his co-star. Do they cash in now fresh off a national championship and try to carve out NBA careers, even as potential second-round draft picks? Or do they hope bigger roles and a weaker draft in 2019 will help make them first rounders?

Prediction? Come back to school.

Villanova just has a way of keeping players in school. Spellman and DiVincenzo are both draftable this year, but the allure of raising their stock the same way Brunson and Bridges did will likely be too much to pass up.

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