Ignas Brazdeikis, Kerry Blackshear lead college basketball's most impactful draft decisionsSporting News — (Mike DeCourcy)
Not long ago, we used to say the second-most important month in college basketball was July, because that was when the players who would win (and lose) in March were discovered and evaluated.
Now, with recruiting spread more across the calendar and the NCAA fiddling with the old recruiting process, it’s possible May matters more. Because that’s when many essential players make their decisions about whether to pursue another trip through March Madness.
A year ago, future All-Americans PJ Washington, Carsen Edwards, Ethan Happ and Caleb Martin withdrew from the draft before the May deadline. Tremont Waters, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Reid Travis and Admiral Schofield became four of the most prominent players in a rejuvenated SEC. Nick Ward of Michigan State and Austin Wiley of Auburn went from exiting the draft to entering the 2019 Final Four.
They all played significant roles in how the 2018-19 season played out. As the NBA Draft Combine approaches May 15 — and the NCAA withdrawal deadline for player to retain eligibility looms on May 29 — there are a number of players whose decisions will impact 2019-20. In listing the most impactful of those decisions, we will not consider any player prominently mentioned as a mock-draft first-rounder.
(So, um, don’t look for Grant Williams’ name).
13. Andrew Nembhard, PG, Florida
2018-19 stats: 8.0 ppg, 5.4 apg
Overview: It never hurts a player to get different perspectives on his ability, but it’s obvious Nembhard is not close to being ready to make an NBA roster. He is a capable distributor with terrific size for his position — 6-5, 191 pounds — but will have to be more of a threat to open up a defense. He averaged 33 minutes per game, essentially all of that playing the point, and earned only 55 free throws in 36 games. There’s a lot left to be learned, but he’s a promising player.
12. Jordan Bone, PG, Tennessee
2018-19 stats: 13.5 ppg, 5.8 apg
Overview: Bone is a terrific player who might rank higher on this list if UT were not well-positioned to replace him. Lamonte Turner is not as experienced but is even more dynamic and difficult to keep out of the lane; he might have been UT’s best player in the overtime NCAA Tournament loss to Purdue. However, the possibility of pairing these two guards as the primary weapons for the Volunteers is alluring. There will be no Admiral Schofield and almost certainly no Williams next season, which would make relying heavily on a Bone-Turner backcourt the way to go.
11. Amir Coffey, PG, Minnesota
2018-19 stats: 16.6 ppg, 3.2 apg
Overview: At 6-8, 210, Coffey is a difficult player to categorize, but not a difficult one to diagnose. If he wants to last in the NBA, he’ll have to make himself a better jump-shooter. He tried 135 3-pointers last season and made 41, a .304 percentage. Playing primarily as a point guard, he had a fine junior season and was magnificent late, carrying the Gophers on a run toward an NCAA bid with an average of 23.5 points over his final eight games. He has to be that sort of player more consistently. With shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur and center Daniel Oturu in place, the Gophers have the potential to be good.
10. Jarron Cumberland, SG, Cincinnati
2018-19 stats: 18.8 ppg, 3.6 apg
Overview: Cumberland is the one player on the list whose circumstance is complicated by a coaching change. Mick Cronin left for UCLA following the season, and John Brannen was hired away from Northern Kentucky to be his replacement. The Bearcats already have lost center Nysier Brooks to transfer. Cumberland must weigh whether Brannen’s approach will accentuate his strengths in the way Cronin’s helped make him the 2019 American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Cumberland also must weigh the value of perhaps delivering an elite senior season as a sort of local hero. He was not invited to the NBA combine, but rather the G League Elite Camp, suggesting he’s unlikely to be drafted if he stays on the early entry list.
9. Mamadi Diakite, PF, Virginia
2018-19 stats: 7.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg
Overview: Everything is magnified in March, and one tends to remember the brilliant moments if a team’s season ends in success. So we remember Diakite’s game-saving, buzzer-beating jumper against Purdue and his 16 blocks in NCAA Tournament games more than his single-figure scoring production in half those games. Diakite showed what he can be in helping the Cavs to the 2019 NCAA championship more than what he is. There still is much to develop. He won’t have as much help with Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter all departing, and that’s a concern, but Tony Bennett has shown he will find a way to build a team around such a promising player.
8. Kaleb Wesson, C, Ohio State
2018-19 stats: 14.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg
Overview: We saw Wesson was essential to the Buckeyes in the three games they played last March while he was suspended. They lost all three, two of them badly, then recovered to win tough games in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, with Wesson contributing averages of 19 points and 12.5 rebounds in those victories. He needs to get serious about his body if he really wants to be a pro, something he can accomplish while playing next season for the Buckeyes and providing a first option for a first-rate class of freshman.
7. Jordan Nwora, F, Louisville
2018-19 stats: 17.0 ppg, 7.6 apg
Overview: Louisville coach Chris Mack attracted an excellent recruiting class and will need to build around Nwora. He struggled as the Cardinals were eliminated from both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments in a single game (only 17 points combined), which illustrated his necessity to the Cardinals’ offense. Nwora has had three college coaches since enrolling at Louisville: Rick Pitino for a short period before his firing; David Padgett on an interim basis and now Mack. Some year-over-year consistency should help to spur Nwora’s development.
6. Myles Powell, SG, Seton Hall
2018-19 stats: 23.1 ppg, 107 3-pointers made
Overview: Powell lifted his scoring average to impressive heights with a late-season run few have matched in the past decade of college hoops. Powell averaged 27.7 points in March, which included three games at the Big East Tournament, one in the NCAAs and several Big East regular season games that were highly pressurized because of the Pirates’ hunt for a Tournament bid. Powell could take a run at Terry Dehere’s career scoring record of 2,494 points. Another season like the last one — with a few more games played — might do it.
5. Devon Dotson, PG, Kansas
2018-19 stats: 12.3 ppg, 3.5 apg
Overview: If the Jayhawks get back both Dodson and Grimes, they’d be in contention for the 2020 NCAA championship. Dodson — ranked as the No. 57 NBA prospect by Sporting News draft analyst Chris Stone — used electric quickness to help him navigate his freshman season, but it’s hard for a player to get somewhere fast when he doesn’t know for certain where he’s going. That was a problem through much of the Big 12 season, but like Grimes he excelled through most of March, scoring double figures in every elimination game and hitting half of his shots in four of the five games.
4. Quentin Grimes, SG, Kansas
2018-19 stats: 8.4 ppg, 34.0 percent 3-point
Overview: Grimes had a horrible freshman season, struggling with confidence and responsibility as the day-to-day demands of being a Division I basketball player escalated. He lit up Michigan State in the season-opener, scoring 21 points and hitting six 3-pointers, but reached double figures only seven more times before March. There were hints late last season, though, that he was getting more comfortable. Most notable was an 18-point performance in the Big 12 Tournament against West Virginia, which also included eight rebounds, four steals and four assists. He became a far more assertive passer in March. With Udoka Azubuike back at KU, he could become part of an excellent team.
3. Killian Tillie, C, Gonzaga
2018-19 stats: 6.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 15 games
Overview: The season in which Tillie was expected to become a Gonzaga star was destroyed by injuries, which opened the door for transfer Brandon Clarke to become an All-American and projected first-round pick. With Clarke and All-American Rui Hachimura in the draft, Tillie could become the focal point for the Gonzaga frontcourt. He’ll have to stay healthy, of course; in his first NBA draft workout, he sprained an ankle. The Zags added combo guard Admon Gilder from Texas A&M and should get wing Zach Norvell back from the draft, so there’s plenty of talent to surround Tillie — Stone's No. 43 prospect — if he’s back in Spokane.
2. Kerry Blackshear, F, unattached
2018-19 stats: 14.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg
Overview: He’s 6-10, rebounds, can make the occasional deep shot and has been wonderfully coached. He’s not as productive as Reid Travis was prior to entering the grad transfer market last spring, but in some ways Blackshear could be a bigger addition to his next college team. He averaged 17.6 points in five March elimination games in 2019, and that includes 18 points and 16 rebounds when matched up against Duke and All-American Zion Williamson. Several big-time schools would love to see him withdraw, but only one of them will end up happy if he does. The rest might have to deal with him.
1. Ignas Brazdeikis, F, Michigan
2018-19 stats: 14.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, .392 3-point shooting
Overview: Wing Charles Matthews always was expected to move on, and guard Jordan Poole made the hasty decision to go all-in as a draft prospect. That opens the possibility for Brazdeikis — Stone's No. 33 prospect — to take on much greater responsibility than during his first season with the Wolverines. Brazdeikis took 11 shots a game, the most on the team by a small margin, but Poole and Matthews combined for 20. UM still have its point guard (Zavier Simpson) and center (Jon Teske), as well as talented power forward Isaiah Livers, so there’s a foundation for continued success. There’s also the opportunity for Brazdeikis to play more as a small forward, where he excelled late in the season during Matthews’ injury absence.