The deadline to declare for the NBA Draft was just over a week ago, and after it came and went we learned one important thing: MAN, did a whollllllllllle lot of people decide to “test the waters.” Overall, 233 college underclassmen declared for the draft, a number that doesn’t include seniors like Admiral Schofield, Cameron Johnson and others who will end up getting drafted.
Meaning, that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 or so players, fighting for 60 draft spots. Woof.
Now obviously not all those guys will end up staying in the draft, which means that basically every major program in college basketball is in wait-and-see mode right, as many of their best players are “testing the waters.” Add it up and it has put college basketball in a straightjacket, making it impossible to project what teams will look like next season. It’s especially difficult when you consider that for the first time ever, players can hire agents and still retain eligibility. Therefore, even hearing a guy say “I’m hiring an agent” doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t be back in college next season.
Still, as I started to look at the SEC picture for next season, I was amazed at how many keep players are currently testing the draft waters. Which is what spawned this article today: The 14 biggest “stay or go” decisions in the SEC This season.
(Please note: I’ve purposely left off players who have already said that they will stay in the draft like P.J. Washington, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, Jontay Porter and Daniel Gafford. I also left off Jared Harper who has said that he plans on staying in the draft regardless of what his draft position looks like).
Here’s the list:
14) Jeremiah Tilmon, F/C, Missouri
The Tigers are a semi-intriguing team coming into next season, with a bunch of young, backcourt and wing players set to return. That includes Mark Smith, Torrance Watson and Javon Pickett, all of whom averaged at least seven points per game last season. It isn’t unrealistic to expect all three to make a jump next season.
The issue in Columbia is down low, where, if Tilmon decides to leave, Cuonzo Martin’s club has next to no size in the paint. Tilmon wasn’t necessarily great last season, but he did average 10 points and a team-high six rebounds per game last year and does give the Tigers an experienced, big body they despartely need.
With Tilmon back, the Tigers are a sneaky interesting, potentially middle-of-the-pack SEC team next year. Without him they are a fun, guard-heavy lineup that basically has no size down low.
13) Savion Flagg, G, Texas A&M
In a bit of a surprising piece of news, Texas A&M doesn’t actually look terrible heading into Buzz Williams’ first season in College Station. Williams has already scrapped together a nice recruiting class and returns some key pieces including second-leading scorer Wendell Mitchell, as well as guard T.J. Starks. Starks missed a bunch of time this year with injuries after showing flashes as a freshman in 2018.
Still, the key piece for the Aggies is Flagg, who led the team in scoring last year (12 ppg) and also averaged nearly eight rebounds per game. Yes, eight boards per contest. As a guard. Not too shabby.
That’s also why Flagg’s return is so important. The SEC is a grind, especially for an undermanned, first-year head coach. Williams needs all the help he can get. And Flagg would certainly provide that.
12) A.J. Lawson, G/F, South Carolina
To be blunt, I’m not sure there was a more bizarre team in all of college basketball this season than South Carolina. Yes, the Gamecocks went just 16-16 overall, but also finished fifth in the SEC standings. Not terrible. But not great, and now they lose a bunch of key guys, including leading scorer and rebounder Chris Silva. It puts South Carolina in a precarious place heading into next season.
Their one saving grace however could be the return of Lawson, who averaged 13 points per game and was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team this season.
The bigger question is: Will he come back? Lawson is an intriguing prospect, but one that virtually all draft pundits believe would be better suited returning to school and preparing for the 2020 NBA Draft. Heck, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony even compared Lawson’s decision to that of P.J. Washington’s last year.
If Lawson does come back, the Gamecocks have a star to build around. If he doesn’t, there’s a realistic chance they’re the worst team in the SEC.
11) Reggie Perry, F, Mississippi State
Although Perry isn’t a household name, he is a former McDonald’s All-American and did emerge into the Bulldogs’ best interior presence over the second half of the year. He finished the season averaging 10 points and seven boards per game, which are pretty impressive numbers for a freshman playing for the notoriously difficult Ben Howland.
And with the team’s two leading scorers – Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters – off to the pros, the Bulldogs really do need Perry back to be a threat in the SEC. With his return, the Bulldogs have a star to build around, and a nice core overall with Perry, Tyson Carter, Nick Weatherspoon and others.
Without him the Bulldogs have a massive hole down low and are at best, a middle of the pack SEC team.
10) Chuma Okeke, F, Auburn
Okeke has quite possibly the hardest decision of any of any player in the SEC. Prior to his devastating knee injury in the NCAA Tournament, Okeke was trending as a first-round pick, but now it’s anyone’s guess if he will even get selected at all if he doesn’t remove his name from the draft.
It really is an impossible decision, with no easy answer. If Okeke decides to return to school, it will probably take him a while to get fully healthy, and it’s hard to imagine him getting back to the form he showed prior to his injury next season. If he does return, it seems realistic that this could be a two-year injury for Okeke, meaning he’d have to come back next season and the one after to regain the form he had before the injury.
On the opposite side, if Okeke stays in the draft he will be entering at the literal low point of his draft stock. It’s still certainly possible he gets drafted based on potential alone. But it’s also possible he won’t get drafted at all.
Okeke’s return greatly impacts Auburn on the court, so we will put him here. But whether he does return or not is anyone’s guess.
9) Emmitt Williams, F, LSU
8) Javonte Smart, G, LSU
7) Skylar Mays, G, LSU
Safe to say it’s been an adventurous off-season in Baton Rouge, where Will Wade’s name continues to come up in the FBI trials, and five different LSU Tigers have declared for the draft. It seems certain that two (Tremont Waters and Naz Reid) will stay in, but what about Mays, Smart and Williams?
None of the three are projected to be picked, which raises an interesting question: What if they all decided to come back?
Should they come back (and assuming their coach does too), the Tigers will again be a really good team in the SEC, probably not elite like this year, but capable of finishing somewhere as high as fourth in the league standings.
Of course at this point, it’s fair to ask whether LSU really wants any of them back, especially Smart, who was at the center of the alleged wiretap in which Will Wade allegedly discussed paying him. Wouldn’t it make sense for LSU to distance itself from Smart (or heck, even pay him to stay away) so he never has to talk to the NCAA?
I think so. And I wouldn’t expect Smart, or frankly, any of these three to be back.
6) Nic Claxton, C, Georgia
Because so much of the focus at Georgia this season was actually on next season when Anthony Edwards arrives, it kind of got overlooked just how good Claxton was. The big, 6’11 center not only led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists, but also showed that he is a great athlete with the tools to play at the next level.
Add it up, and Claxton might be the most under-discussed “testing the waters” prospect in the SEC this season. If he stays in the draft he could end up as a potential late first round/early second round pick. If he comes back, he will give Georgia one nasty inside/outside combination with Edwards, and should make the Bulldogs a threat to make the NCAA Tournament
(Of course because Tom Crean coaches Georgia, I wouldn’t be surprised if they underachieved).
5) Breein Tyree, G, Ole Miss
The Rebels were one of the biggest surprises in all of college basketball last season, going from a last place finish in the SEC in 2018 to an NCAA Tournament bid in 2019. And it was thanks in large part to Tyree, who blossomed under Kermit Davis, averaging nearly 18 points per game. In the process, he earned All-SEC first team honors.
The question now is whether or not he returns. With him, the Rebels have their rock, a star to build around and a realistic shot to return to the NCAA Tournament. Without him they are probably back to be a bottom-half of the SEC type team.
4) Nick Richards, C, Kentucky
3) E.J. Montgomery, F, Kentucky
While Grant Williams and Jordan Bone (more on them coming) are clearly better players, an argument could be made that Richards and Montgomery’s returns are more important to the success of their individual teams.
That’s because while the pair averaged just eight points and seven rebounds last season, they are essentially the only frontcourt help Kentucky has for next season. Grad transfer Nate Sestina will help, but I’m not sure the transition from Patriot League to SEC will be an easy one. Other grad transfers may be available on the market, but as of right now, none are definitively going to Lexington.
These two are literally the difference between the Wildcats being a preseason Top 5 national championship contender, and a good, but not elite team nationally.
2) Jordan Bone, G, Tennessee
1) Grant Williams, F, Tennessee
So I don’t think you need me to tell you the importance of a team potentially returning the conference Player of the Year (Williams) and a second-team All-League honoree (Bone). Still, in case it’s not clear, the return of each is MASSIVE. For whatever you think of Grant Williams, he is a monster down low who averaged just under 19 points and seven rebounds per game. Bone was maybe the league’s most consistent point guard while averaging 13.5 points and six assists per contest a season ago.
The question is, will either stay? Ironically, it’s Williams – projected by some as a late first round pick – who seems more intent on returning to school, while Bone (who some believe will go undrafted) looks more likely to keep his name in the draft.
With both back, Tennessee is again, an SEC and national title contender. Lose both and the Vols will be good, but not elite.