In a normal year, college basketball teams would be getting their final answers as to which of their players would be heading off into the NBA draft and which would be returning right about now. The NBA Draft Combine would have been around last weekend and players would be going through interviews now and getting a pretty good sense about whether or not they’d have a chance to be taken.
But this is not a normal year with the COVID-19 pandemic having shaken up the NBA calendar as much as any other sport with the exception of the NHL, which generally operates on the same timeline. The first round of the playoffs is just now underway, so the draft that usually occurs in late June will be held back until July 29. Though nearly two months have passed since the NCAA Tournament ended, players still have until Saturday to enter the draft and they have until July 19 to withdraw if they so desire.
It’s a particular issue for college teams, because the NCAA calendar is mostly back to normal, and they will have to scramble to fill any surprise roster openings between now and the end of July.
The Big Ten in particular will be affected with a number of its 2020-21 stars being fringe NBA draft prospects. There are no surefire lottery picks coming out of the conference this year, but a few could be mid-to-late first rounders and a few more could play their way into the second round with good performances in workouts and interviews. The decisions of those players will shift the balance of power in the conference.
Indiana is fortunate that their potential NBA prospect Trayce Jackson-Davis has already committed to play at least one more season under coach Mike Woodson. Many of the teams who contended for the Big Ten title in 2020-21, however, are still not sure which of their players will return. Here’s a look at some of the key players in the league who have declared for the draft but are still not certain to withdraw.
Kofi Cockburn, center
Illinois’ 2020-21 campaign didn’t end the way it was supposed to, as the No. 1 seed Fighting Illini fell to No. 8 seed Loyola in the NCAA Tournament’s second round after claiming the Big Ten tournament title. The offseason has hit about as hard as expected. All-American Ayo Dosunmu stuck around for his junior year despite being a fringe first-round draft prospect, but he isn’t staying around for a fourth year, entering the draft and hiring an agent. Highly regarded freshman wing Adam Miller entered the transfer portal, and the Fighting Illini lost all three of their assistant coaches to other jobs.
But if Cockburn stays, the Illini would still have a first-team All-Big Ten pick and All-American to build around. In a conference that was dominated by big men in 2020-21, the Illini would have the biggest. The 7-foot, 285-pounder from Jamaica has been a force since he arrived in Champaign, and added post skill to his remarkable power in 2020-21, making 65.4 percent of his shots and averaging 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He still has some shortcomings, making just 55.3 percent of his free throws, and the NBA is moving away from wide-bodied big men in its more open game. He is at the moment projected to be a late second round pick. The Illini will return veteran guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams for fifth years as well as dazzling freshman point guard Andre Curbelo so with Cockburn, the Illini should be a fringe conference contender and likely NCAA Tournament team. Without him they are not nearly as sure of a bet to get in the tournament.
Joe Wieskamp, guard
The 6-foot-6 Wieskamp is showing up in the late second round of mock drafts because he has a skill that absolutely plays in today’s NBA — he can shoot the heck out of the ball. Wieskamp made 46.2 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2020-21 and his 73 3-pointers put him third in the Big Ten behind teammate Jordan Bohannon and Ohio State’s Duane Washington. He was sixth in the league and first among guards in shooting percentage at 49.1 percent, also finishing on 63 of his 105 attempts at the rim according to Hoop-Math.com.
The NBA has a lot of players like Wieskamp, but it could always use more with so many rosters built on floor spacing. Even if he isn’t drafted, he would have a good chance of making a roster of a team that needs more shooters than it currently has.
That being said, he’s still projected as a late second-round pick and that certainly keeps him from being a sure thing. He could improve his stock with another year, especially because if he comes back he’ll be even more featured in the offense.
The Hawkeyes, who went 22-9 and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament this year before losing to Oregon in the second round, will take a hit with the loss of big man Luka Garza, who has also declared for the NBA draft and appears certain to be staying in it and the transfer of C.J. Frederick to Kentucky. However, Bohannon is also coming back, provided the serious head injury he suffered when attacked in an Iowa City bar over the weekend doesn’t prove to be a major problem. The Hawkeyes continue to struggle with defense, but having two of the league’s best shooters would continue to make them a tough out.
Eric Ayala, guard; Aaron Wiggins, wing, Darryl Morsell, wing
In Ayala, Wiggins and Morsell, Maryland has three of its top four scorers entered in the draft. Coach Mark Turgeon told reporters recently that he expects Ayala to return. Morsell had shoulder surgery earlier in the offseason and is both an early draft entrant and in the transfer portal, but Turgeon thinks he will return, in part because he won’t be able to shoot a basketball until July anyway.
Wiggins is the most interesting prospect of the three, though, and it’s tough to say what he’ll do. At 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, he has NBA size for a wing and high-level athleticism. He averaged 14.5 points and 5.8 rebounds this season and made 57 of 160 3-point attempts (35.6 percent) but he’s not a sure bet first-rounder and was hoping to be to stay in. The Athletic and ESPN.com both have him rated as a top 100 player but not in the top 70. NBA Draft.net has him pegged as the No. 20 pick of the 2022 draft, but doesn’t expect him to be taken in this year’s. Wiggins has reason to take his time with a decision, but if he returns the Terps should be a top five team in the Big Ten. They also return power forward Donta Scott and add transfers Fatts Russell from Rhode Island and Qudus Wahab from Georgetown, plus a top 60 recruit in Julian Reese from Baltimore. ESPN actually has them No. 10 in their current rankings after they entered the NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed in 2020-21.
Hunter Dickinson, center
Dickinson announced on Wednesday he is entering the draft while keeping open the option to return. The 7-foot-1, 255-pounder wouldn’t be a sure-thing draft pick if he entered, so it might make sense for him to stick around and build on a phenomenal freshman season in which he was named second-team All-America, first-team All-Big Ten and Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Dickinson averaged 14.1 points and 7.4 rebounds and shot a touch under 60 percent from the field, showing excellent skill around the basket and performing somewhat ahead of schedule even as a top 50 recruit. The Wolverines are losing several key pieces, including wings Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner and Chaundee Brown Jr. and point guard Mike Smith, but they are bringing in the nation’s best recruiting class with four top-50 players including five-star recruits Caleb Houston and Moussa Diabate, both power forwards and both rated in the top 15. The Wolverines are projected to be a top-15 team and their ceiling depends largely on Dickinson’s return and ability to mesh with those players.
Duane Washington, guard; E.J. Liddell, forward
Washington and Liddell were the top two scorers on an Ohio State team that won 21 games and played in the Big Ten tournament title game before being stunned by Oral Roberts in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but they are likely to find that they would be on the outside looking in at the NBA draft. Washington is a bit too much of a gunner who has some issues with shot selection and Liddell, though a top 100 prospect, could use some more seasoning.
If they stay, however, both have a chance to be first-team All-Big Ten picks and All-Americans. With Ayo Dosunmu gone, Washington is the leading returning scorer in the league among guards. Liddell would be the second-leading returning scorer among forwards behind Jackson-Davis and he has more proven versatility, having hit 27 3-pointers a season ago. The Buckeyes also return wing Justice Suieng and forward Kyle Young and add point guard Jamari Wheeler from Penn State. They also add a top 35 recruit in shooting guard Malakhi Branham from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in Arkon. With all those players factored in, ESPN projects Ohio State to be a top five team nationally and the Big Ten favorite.
Trevion Williams, center
Williams could use the testing of the draft waters. At 6-10, 265 pounds he’s a bit more of a wide body than NBA scouts look for these days and he could use some direction for his development as a senior. He could use a little more of a face-up game and some shooting range and some improved athleticism.
That being said, Williams has made humongous strides in three years at Purdue and turned into a dominant college big man, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior after arriving at Purdue at over 300 pounds. He averaged 15.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game this season and also dished out 63 assists as one of the league’s best passing big men. The Boilermakers will be OK without him if he decides to stay in the draft because of the surprising development of the 7-foot-5 freshman Zach Edey, but he’ll be the centerpiece of a loaded roster with Final Four designs if he stays. The Boilermakers return a ton of guard talent around him, most notably freshman Jaden Ivey and veterans Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr, and would also bring in highly regarded forwards Caleb Furst and Trey Kaufman-Renn, two of the highest rated recruits in the state.
Geo Baker, guard; and Ron Harper Jr., guard
Rutgers got hit hard with transfer portal losses with Myles Johnson leaving for UCLA, Montez Mathis leaving for St. John’s and Jacob Young leaving for a still uncertain destination, but if Baker and Harper stick around as expected, the Scarlet Knights will still have two of the most important players from their NCAA Tournament run. Baker averaged just 10.4 points per game this season, but he’s arguably been the most important piece of the Rutgers rebuild. Harper Jr., meanwhile, is one of the toughest matchup problems in the conference at 6-6, 245 pounds with shooting range. That should be enough to keep the Knights competitive.
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