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The players whose NBA Combine performance could impact college basketball next season

While most of the sports world has spent the last few days focused on the NBA playoffs and Rick Pitino’s latest non-interview (which of course turned into an interview), the reality is that this was a massive week in terms of putting together the puzzle that is the NBA Draft. On Tuesday night we learned the NBA Draft lottery order (the Phoenix Suns are on the clock) and Wednesday marked the first of three days of the NBA Combine.

That’s right starting yesterday, some 70-odd draft hopefuls descended upon Chicago for – to throw out a terribly overused cliché – the biggest job interview of their lives. For the best players (think Duke’s Marvin Bagley or Texas’ Mo Bamba) the trip to Chicago is only for the basics; to meet with NBA personnel and do a couple of one-on-one interviews. For others whose draft stock is more up in the air, they’ll be in Chicago to pretty much do everything, from interviews and measurements to five-on-five play.

With the combine underway, it also means that by the end of the weekend, we should also start to have a clearer picture of who will stay in the NBA Draft and who will stay out. Obviously the combine isn’t a be-all, end-all for players, but it could be the final push they need to stay in the draft or the final push they need to know they’re not ready. So with that said, what players have the most to gain and lose?

More importantly, how will it impact college basketball next year? It’s time to take a look.

But before we get started, a few caveats. One, we are only looking at players who’ve declared without an agent and who could – at least in theory – return to college hoops. Therefore we won’t be talking about some of the more randomly interesting prospects (say like Kansas’ Billy Preston) if they have no chance returning to college. We’re also going to skip those like Jarred Vanderbilt who elected to pass on the Combine altogether as well.

But for these players, a big week in the NBA Draft Combine could swing things one way or the other. Here are seven interesting players:

P.J. Washington, Kentucky

It only seems fair that we start with P.J. Washington. If you follow my work on Twitter you know that I find him to be one of the most interesting guys in this draft, and one of the hardest to figure out.

Look, if you all have been reading the tea leaves (which I know you have) it really seems like Washington is intent on keeping his name in the draft. His father recently said that P.J. wanted a first round guarantee to stay in, but then back-tracked and said he might not even need a first round guarantee if he felt comfortable with where he’d go in the second round. And after reading multiple reports over the weekend (one from NBC’s Rob Dauster, the other from the Athletic’s Sam Vecenie) about the increasing amount of guaranteed money given to second round draft picks, it’s hard to blame Washington. These aren’t the old days. And there’s a good chance that Washington will still get guaranteed money even if he falls to the second round.

Still, I know I’m in the minority on this one, but to me, I still don’t totally agree with this line of thinking.

Look, at the end of the day there are plenty of reasons to stay in the draft even if you’re not going to get drafted in the first round. For some players there is no guarantee your draft stock will improve by coming back to college (think Wenyen Gabriel). For some like Jarred Vanderbilt, returning to college basketball only heightens risk of injury. We all get why those guys might consider staying in.

But Washington is almost the exact opposite; he feels like a player who can gain A LOT by returning to Kentucky. It seems to me that if he simply came back and worked on his three-point shot, then all of a sudden he becomes much more versatile offensively, much more valuable to NBA teams and his draft stock could go through the roof next year. Apparently I’m not too far off, since Sports Illustrated recently named him a Top 20 pick in their 2019 NBA Draft. Sure, he can get guaranteed money this year in the second round, but if he comes back for one season and does what he’s supposed to do, he can go in the Top 20. And if he goes in the Top 20 he’ll double his guaranteed money.

Therefore Washington has a tough decision to make: Take whatever money he can get now, and bet on himself that he can make back in the long run? Or return to Kentucky and bet on himself that he can do what he needs to, to improve his draft stock?

Either way, this will be a massive decision in terms of next year’s college basketball season. If Washington returns he’s a key cog for a Wildcats’ team which could be No. 1 in the preseason. If he decides to stay in the draft, Kentucky is still good but woefully thin in the front-court.

Brian Bowen, South Carolina (via Louisville)

I know this is probably a pretty unpopular opinion, but I kind of feel bad for Bowen. HIs parents spent his entire recruitment with their hands out looking for money, and they got the money… only then got caught and cost their son a season of college basketball. And now because of it, Bowen is in somewhat of a basketball purgatory. He could return to college basketball, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be cleared to play. He can stay in the NBA Draft, but after not playing all season, it seems unlikely he’ll get drafted. So what do they do now?

It’s impossible to say, but this will be a fascinating case study. If Bowen does enough to even garner draft buzz it seems logical that he’d stay in the draft, but if he returns to college and gets eligible, he will be a fascinating prospect for Frank Martin and South Carolina next year. Coming off a Final Four run two seasons ago South Carolina was young and inexperienced and Bowen very well could be the go-to guy for the Gamecocks. Again, assuming he comes back. And is granted eligibility.

While P.J. Washington might have the most interesting decision, Bowen might have the toughest one. As of right now, there is no right answer. Or even a good one.

Austin Wiley, Auburn

By technicality there are three Auburn players who declared for the draft without an agent. But since Jared Harper and Bryce Brown didn’t get invited to the Combine it feels at least reasonably safe to assume that they’ll be back. But Wiley? Your guess is as good as anybody’s.

That’s because like Bowen, Wiley was forced to miss all of last season after getting ensnared in the FBI probe. The difference is that the NCAA has cleared him to play next season, and if he comes back, he could be the missing piece for a reallllllly good Auburn team. The Tigers were already SEC co-champs this past season, and assuming Harper and Brown return, they’ll bring back virtually every key piece off last year’s team. The one thing they were missing last year however was a true low post threat, something that Wiley could unquestionably provide.

Considering that Wiley isn’t projected by any major service as a first rounder, it seems at least realistic that he could come back to college next year, and if he does, watch out. Auburn will already be “Top 25” good without him. But if he comes back, they’ll be right up there with Kentucky and Tennessee as SEC favorites. They might also be a Final Four sleeper.

Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, UCLA

Next year will be the first time since the 2013-2014 season that UCLA isn’t on Kentucky’s regular season roster. But like Kentucky, the Bruins’ will be loaded with young talent and could be a threat to make a deep run in March. That’s assuming both these guys come back.

For those not familiar with the Bruins, Wilkes is a silky smooth wing player who finished second on the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game, but is still a bit thin and not greatly defensively. Like P.J. Washington, Wilkes feels like one of those guys where – if he does come back – that could make a massive leap in next year’s draft. Then there’s Hands. He wasn’t nearly as consistent as Wilkes and isn’t currently projected to be selected anywhere. But you can never have too many point guards, especially one who is an elite athlete. Which might induce some NBA team to take a chance on him.

It also leaves UCLA with quite possibly more to gain or lose than any college basketball program heading into the NBA Draft Combine.  If both come back, UCLA instantly becomes the favorite in the Pac-12 and a dark-horse to finally get Steve Alford to the first Final Four of his career. If they don’t come back however, UCLA could be out their best scorer in Wilkes and starting point guard in Hands, and would be forced to play a true freshman at point. There’s a chance they could fall to the middle of the pack in the Pac-12, and in a year where Alford enters on the hot seat, it could cost him his job.

But hey, no pressure on these two. Not like the entire future of the program depends on their decisions or anything.

Donte DiVencenzio and Omari Spellman, Villanova

It’s no secret that over the last couple years, Villanova has become the model of consistency in college basketball. With four regular season Big East titles in five years and two national championships over the same stretch tends to do that. And part of the reason for their success is an uncanny ability to replenish their roster with players already in the program. It feels like when one star leaves for the pros the next is ready to step in.

However that could totally be flipped on its head this year with both Final Four MVP DiVencenzio and big, three-point shooting power forward Spellman testing the NBA Draft waters. Had Villanova not gone on a run to the title this year neither likely would have even considered declaring. Instead, the big stage of the Final Four showed just how good they can be.

It also leaves Villanova in a bit of unchartered water. If both come back, a compelling case could be made the Wildcats should be the preseason No. 1 in the country (I’d probably have them at No. 2). If both leave though, Villanova will still be good. But their unquestioned reign atop the Big East would be all but over as well.

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”