Staying in college or popping off to the NBA Draft and pursuing a pro career full time was once a cut-and-dry decision: stay, and you can get closer to a degree, albeit doing so on scholarship and stipidend; go, and you financially reap the benefits. Now, with NIL in effect and players reaping significant financial benefits at the college level, the decision is much more complicated.
This draft cycle in particular has a list of talents whose decisions because of the complicated nature of NIL and draft prospects are hazy-at-best. Some I’d speculate are heavy draft leans; others I’d say are heavy leans on returning to college.
Their decisions will have a cascading effect that will affect the draft and the collegiate hierarchy for the teams they represent. Take Shaedon Sharpe, a former No. 1 recruit, for instance. Stay in the draft, and he likely goes top 10. Return to school, and he’s a star on a potential preseason No. 1 team — in a Kentucky program where he’d likely cash in by the hundreds of thousands off the NIL structure. The expectation is that Sharpe will forgo his collegiate eligibility, but he has retained the option of returning to school if he so chooses during the draft process.
Julian Strawther of Gonzaga is another name to watch in the coming weeks in a similar situation. Borderline first-round talent as things stand now. Could be a star if he returns to the Zags, though, where next season he could potentially build his NBA bonafides and become an even more sought after commodity in league circles.
So who are those with tough stay-or-go decisions? What factors are in play? Below are the curious cases of Sharpe, Strawther as well as eight other prospects with looming decisions.
Baldwin Jr. spent last season playing for his father at Milwaukee with middling results. He averaged 12.1 points and 5.8 boards per game in an injury-riddled season that ended with him on the bench and later with his dad’s ouster. Now on deck is his decision to stay in college — if he does, he’ll play elsewhere — or to turn pro.
It’s not easy despite his stellar high school resume as a former No. 1 overall recruit.
Injuries derailed his senior season and hung over him in his freshman season at Milwaukee, too. Turning pro wouldn’t necessary guarantee him first-round capital even if his frame, pedigree and skill suggest he should be a first-rounder. Staying in college to rebuild his stock may be the move, and that’s been rumored in recent days, but all options are on the table here and his choice may have a big impact either on the draft or in the college landscape.
2. Shaedon Sharpe | Kentucky
After enrolling at Kentucky mid-season, Sharpe played a total of zero minutes. Zero. Nada. But as a former No. 1 overall recruit (pre-reclassification) and a 6-foot-6 guard with elite shot-making, his presence in this draft could change the complexion of the top five if things go right for him.
Sharpe, though, has kept his option open to return to school, where maybe in 2022-23 he could establish himself as a No. 1 pick candidate even in a loaded 2023 class.
The feeling in NBA circles is that he’s done with college. And if he stays in the draft, he’ll be a lock for the top 10 and a potential top-five contender in a draft where there’s a steep drop-off in talent after Chet Holmgren, Jaden Ivey, Jabari Smith and Paolo Banchero.
One-and-done material with first-round potential … but does he go?
Christie, a former five-star recruit, had an up and down season on the whole as a freshman at Michigan State. Not a guaranteed top-20 pick. Coming back to school might be the move to polish himself as a player and prepare for the leap to the next level while potentially establishing himself as a lottery pick.
It’s hard to turn down being a potential first-rounder, though, which right now I’d expect he’d be. With a draft range somewhere between 20-30, this is one of the more challenging choices among prospects on this list.
This might not be the hard decision some think it is — I have Lewis as a top-25 guy on the CBS Sports Big Board, making him a clear first-round talent — but it’s unclear if the NBA sees him the same way. And admittedly, I’m higher on him than most. Guilty.
But 6-7 wings who can shoot 35% from 3-point range, have long wingspans and can defend in space are always going to have roles in the NBA. That much we know. He’ll be drafted. How high he’ll go is probably the sticking point here. If he stays in college, we’re looking at maybe an All-American talent in 2022-23 and a potential lottery guy next year. Doesn’t feel like there’s a wrong decision for him.
5. Julian Strawther, Gonzaga
With Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard gone (and maybe Drew Timme, too), Strawther next season as a junior could step into a starring role with a preseason top-10 Gonzaga team. He’s a 6-7 wing who can space the floor and averaged nearly 12 points per game as a sophomore role-player next season.
The mystery surrounding him has created some real NBA buzz, though. You could argue his situation as a high-level role player at Gonzaga accentuated his strengths, and that a step up into a bigger role may not be best for him — hence declaring now and leaving school would be beneficial.
Right now he’s got a first-round grade but unlike some others on this list, I’m not convinced he can drastically improve his stock for next year by returning, given how much his role would likely change and how his game is currently set up.
Houstan gets the nod here as the person of interest from Michigan but Moussa Diabate gets an honorable mention as well. Both pulling out of the draft and returning could be a boon for a program that’s already bringing back big man Hunter Dickinson. Houstan, though, would be passing on something substantial and meaningful, so returning does not feel like a lock. Houstan shot 35.5% from 3, and is a 6–8 wing and a multipositional defender … those don’t grow on trees in the NBA even if his freshman season at Michigan had some ups and downs.
Key piece of KU’s title-winning formula from last season. Braun’s a bouncy athlete who unlocks Kansas’ potential in transition and has a smooth 3-point shot to boot. He’s one of the few in this prospect class that has a tough decision because both situations in college — where he’d be a potential All-Big 12 player — or in the NBA — where he’d be a potential first-round pick — are great spots. KU being able to cash in on NIL opportunities post-championship is a factor here to consider.
Assuming Bennedict Mathurin and Christian Koloko stay in the draft — as expected — Terry next season at Arizona has an opportunity to flourish as the face of an Arizona team that may be a favorite in the Pac-12. His late-season emergence out of nowhere was key to UA’s eventual clinching of a No. 1 seed, as he hit 36.4% of his 3-pointers and flashed star power as a scorer down the stretch. The NBA took notice of that development though as well, and smart teams will be hoping he stays in the draft to get him in the late 20s or early 30s. Still only 19 years old, so plenty of room for him to grow — and he already looks ready to be a role player in the league given his scoring and size.
McCullar has said he’s down to three options: returning to school and either attending Kansas or Gonzaga, or remaining in the draft. So there are a lot of very interested high-profile parties curious about what he does. Flew a bit under the radar last season at Texas Tech, but he was an elite defender who did a little of everything for the Red Raiders and their top-ranked defense — passing, scoring, defending, rebounding. He’d be a huge get for Gonzaga or Kansas, but he’s a top-60 player on the CBS Sports Big Board and someone who, at 6-6, is very draftable as well.
Williams was the SEC leader in charges taken last season and a key cog to the Razorbacks’ top-10 defensive unit. As the season unfolded, his rebounding and defense helped power Eric Musselman’s team into a terror of a matchup, all the while he groomed himself into a potential first-rounder. Arkansas is bringing in four big men for next season so if he leaves, it’d make sense, and both Arkansas and Williams are positioned well enough that his decision to stay or go likely won’t have a major impact one way or another even for someone as talented as he is.