The Returning Prospects Series, Part 1: Understanding the Stakes and The Criteria

Returning college players have made up over half of the field in the last three drafts. Here's why that matters, and what this project is about.

Folks, welcome to the latest BaumBoards Monstrosity Project. After extensive film work, analytics research, and note taking, I have compiled a list of the Top 59 NBA prospects returning to college basketball this season. Why 59? Because there will be 59 players selected in this year’s NBA Draft! I’m essentially treating this as if I am compiling a 59 player Big Board in a draft where only these players are available for selection. I will also be writing a post with shorter summaries of players who barely missed the cut, but warrant consideration. Keep in mind: this is not about who the best 59 college basketball players will be this season, but rather, which returning college basketball players I believe will have the best NBA careers.

First, however, I think we should understand the stakes of looking exclusively at returning college players. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was how thin the margins are between players. I actually had a much harder time deciding rankings here than I did on my Top 100 Big Board. Why is that? Well, for one, the tiers are much looser. There is no Cade Cunningham, no surefire top selection. Instead, this list tops out at “guys who might crack the lottery.” By the time you’re about a dozen deep, you are already talking about fringe players who perhaps top out as second round picks or undrafted free agent signings. The gap in talent between pick 1 and pick 16 is, in general, much greater than the gap between pick 45 and pick 60. Let’s take a look at how many returning college players have been selected in the last three drafts.

2019:

Total of Returning College Players Selected: 37

-Lottery: 5

-Rest of First Round: 9

-Second Round: 23

2020:

Total of Returning College Players Selected: 31

-Lottery: 6

-Rest of First Round: 6

-Second Round: 19

2021:

Total of Returning College Players Selected: 32

-Lottery: 4

-Rest of First Round: 7

-Second Round: 21

Well, would you look at that! More college returners were selected than any other type of player! Now, keep in mind the changes we have seen to the second round of the draft in recent years. We are seeing many more talented players “purposefully” go unselected after the first round so they can receive a more favorable contract, while some less talented players are taken because they are willing to take lesser contracts or two-way deals. With that being the case, there are also a handful of players who go unselected, but are in a similar tier or possibly even a tier above those who are drafted.

But, if you assume that roughly 25 players in each draft stick around in a meaningful capacity, then likely, only a handful of these college returners will have a long term impact. Few of them go in the lottery, and only a handful more go in the first round. These player largely make up the second round, which has become more questionable in quality given the changes we’ve seen over the last few years, as noted in the prior paragraph. So why go into such depth on a topic like this? Because the margins are fun! Just about anyone can point at Jalen Green and say, “I think he will play in the NBA for a long time.” The fringe is harder to assess. The smallest details could drastically influence a player’s draft stock, and then, their career. It’s more exciting to me, and I’m going to make content that I think is exciting.

I’ve also found it particularly difficult to evaluate returning players, because you are going in blind with regard to improvements. During the pre-draft process, there are tons of stories about what players are working on, what they have added to their game, etc. With the college off-season, there isn’t the same hype machine. Can Kadary Richmond stroke it from deep now? Has Kofi Cockburn slimmed down and enhanced his lateral mobility? Has Jordan Hall beefed up to better absorb contact? I have no idea! This requires a great deal of conjecture. We don’t get the luxury of seeing this group compete against each other in a combine. The exceptions come from players that we got to see complete on the international stage for the FIBA U19 championship.

I previously wrote about what I value in the draft here. With regard to returning players in pre-season type of Big Board, there are a few additional things I am factoring into the equation.

Situational Fit. Is a player going to be in a position to grow their value? Will they be overexposed in an area that could hurt their stock, or put into a situation where they do not get the proper opportunities to showcase their skills? I will again go back to Kadary Richmond, who played at Syracuse last season in a system that could not have been a worse fit for him. I would be far less interested in Kadary Richmond if he was returning to Syracuse, but knowing that he will be able to show off more of his tools elsewhere, he certainly has my attention at Seton Hall. Additionally, a player like Bennedict Mathruin could get more on-ball reps under a new head coach at Arizona, where as last season he spent a good amount of time watching James Akinjo dribble while parked in the corner.

Improvement Probability. How likely is it that a player can either improve upon a flaw, or add an entirely new skill to their game? A big man like Efe Abogidi hit over 80% of his free throws, and took over two three pointers per game last season, though he only hit 27.3%. He’s flashed a soft touch, and has shown a semblance of range. With that being the case, I’m more likely to buy into him becoming a deep threat than someone like Trevion Williams, who has taken 15 total threes in his college career, and is a sub-50% career free throw shooter. When pundits say things like, “If this guy can learn how to shoot, then look out," we need to respond with, “Okay, but how likely is that to happen?”

Physical Profile. I tend to be harder on physical shortcomings with older players. A lot of 18-year-olds are thin and need to put on size, so that’s not a big deal to me. But if a player is 23 and hasn’t put in that type of work yet, the clock is ticking faster for them. It also gets under my skin to a small degree in some instances; you’ve known this is something you’ve needed to work on, so why haven’t you done it? There is also an inverse to this: is a player performing well solely because of their physical profile against younger players? If a Super Senior is 24, and they’re bullying a bunch of skinny 18-year-olds in a way that isn’t translatable to the NBA, that doesn’t mean much to me. I’m glad the player took those steps, but if there isn’t the accompanying skillset, I don’t put too much stock into it.

Opportunity. This is vastly important! Some players are going to have a clear path to production, while others may not. I look at Texas’ guard situation with Marcus Carr, Devin Askew, Andrew Jones, and Courtney Ramey all in the mix. At least one of those four is going to have a diminished opportunity that could potentially hurt their draft stock, where as if they were on a team with less guard talent, I would not have any concerns. Similarly, Lester Quinones, Landers Nolley II, DeAndre Williams, and Earl Timberlake are all likely going to be slotted into complimentary roles around Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren. While Penny Hardaway has always distributed minutes relatively evenly, someone is bound to get the short end of the stick.

Buckle up, folks! Soon, my takes will be laid out in full, and we can all gawk at my foolishness when the draft rolls around and I look like a big goof for getting so many things wrong. Stay tuned!