Draft Decisions: Which teams have the most hanging in the balance?
Kentucky appears likely to lose freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones
Neither Butler's Shelvin Mack nor Michigan's Darius Morris are first-round locks
Expected to stay: Xavier's Tu Holloway, Mizzou's Kim English and Laurence Bowers
Now that the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NBA draft has passed, we look at the 10 teams with the most to lose between now and the May 8 deadline to withdraw. Teams are ranked in order of how much their players' decisions will impact the 2011-12 preseason poll.
Freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones have yet to hire agents, but they're close to gone. Knight's mother said it would take "something unexpected" to keep her son out of the draft, where he's projected to be either the second or third point guard off the board, and be taken in the top 10. Jones, also a lottery pick, is a long shot to return. In the unlikely event both players contract lockout-itis and opt to stay in Lexington, the Wildcats would overtake North Carolina as 2011-12's preseason No. 1.
Coach John Calipari has a better shot at keeping junior defensive stopper DeAndre Liggins, who's fishing for a guaranteed contract. "He's a mid-to-late second-rounder right now," one NBA scout said of Liggins, "but he could be a find for someone, because he has offensive talent that he hasn't been able to fully show while playing with ball-dominating guards, like John Wall, or [Eric] Bledsoe, or Knight." Liggins would be playing with another ball-dominating guard (incoming freshman point Marquis Teague) in 2011-12, but could elevate his profile by serving as the key veteran on a national title contender.
Three Longhorns threw their names in the draft on Friday; sophomore Jordan Hamilton announced plans to hire an agent, but freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph are leaving open the option to return. The two Canadian rookies have talked about sticking around for one more season to join forces with fellow Ontario product Myck Kabongo, a five-star point guard from the Class of 2011. The Kabongo-Joseph-Thompson trio could very well lead Texas to a Big 12 title, and serve as the nucleus of a top-10 team, but will they ever take the court together in Austin?
If Thompson, a 6-foot-8, offensive-rebounding, shot-blocking force, makes his decision based on draft stock alone, his college days are over: He's viewed as a certain first-rounder, and could even be selected in the lottery. "People draft on potential, and you can see his potential," one scout said of Thompson. "I think his stock is even higher than Hamilton's." As for Joseph, a 6-3 combo guard, the current odds are that he'll return, giving the 'Horns a killer Canadian backcourt that just might be strong enough to make up for their lack of a dominant post presence.
Brad Stevens' tournament magic is only so powerful: If Shelvin Mack doesn't return for his senior season, the Bulldogs won't be a Final Four contender for a third straight season. The junior combo guard made the logical decision to declare for the draft, given that he's coming off another run to the national title game, and had plenty of NBA hype last summer as a member of USA Basketball's Select squad. But scouts expected Mack's college productivity to go way up after his impressive summer, and because that significant sophomore-to-junior surge didn't happen, it's hard to find an NBA source who'll call him a first-round lock. ("I have five, maybe six [point guards] ahead of him," one scout said of Mack. "I'm not saying he won't be able to make a team -- I'm just saying there's a good chance he gets dumped into the second round.")
In the short window Mack has to audition, it'll be difficult for him to change minds. That means he'll be faced with a choice: Is it better to stay in a weak draft and hope his later workouts secure him guaranteed money -- which could very well happen -- or come back to Butler and try to elevate his stock for 2012?
Point guard Darius Morris was one of the nation's biggest breakout sophomores, going from averages of 4.4 points and 2.6 assists as a freshman to 15.0 and 6.7 this season. Now he's testing out his draft stock while the Wolverines pray that he returns. Their breakthrough season -- John Beilein has spent four years building a top-15-quality team -- hinges on Morris staying in school. He and Tim Hardaway Jr. could form the Big Ten's best backcourt duo, and give Ohio State a serious run for the Big Ten title. That very well could happen, because scouts seem to favor another year of seasoning for Morris.
"I can't see him getting picked in the first round," one scout said. "He has a good feel, especially in transition, but there are still some issues with shooting [25.0 percent on threes] and athleticism that leave a lot to be desired."
The Panthers can be a top-four team in the Big East if they keep junior combo guard Ashton Gibbs, who's one of the league's most efficient scorers. Conflicting information has been floating around about him; he reportedly told one agent he was "100 percent certain" about staying in the draft after declaring, but NBA sources seem to think that's just posturing, and Gibbs' father has since said that his son's future is still TBD.
That's a good thing for Gibbs, because leaving now would be unwise; multiple scouts I spoke with predicted he'd go undrafted in June. "Very good college player," one scout said, "but not prepared [for the NBA] on a number of levels." A season as Pitt's primary scorer and playmaker off the dribble (which was more of what Brad Wanamaker did last year) could enhance Gibbs' preparedness for the pros.