The college basketball players and programs with the most at stake in this week's NBA Draft combine
The UConn Huskies cut down the nets in Houston, just 43 days ago and the sport of college basketball hasn’t slowed down a second since. The transfer portal has been buzzing for the last six weeks, but it's also time to turn our attention to the NBA Draft.
With the NBA Draft Combine well underway and the deadline to withdraw from the draft on May 31st, this is a big week for NBA Draft prospects - but also, for college basketball as well.
Which players have the most at stake this week, and what does it mean for next year's college basketball season?
Let's take a look at the best players currently on the NBA Draft fence and what it means for college hoops in 2023-2024.
Trey Alexander and Ryan Kalkbrenner (Creighton)
The Blue Jays are fresh off their first Elite Eight appearance since 1941, in large part to both of these guys having phenomenal 2023 seasons. There isn’t a better rim protector in the country than Kalkbrenner, who averaged 2.2 blocks per game to lead the Big East. In addition, Kalkbrenner showed progress on the offensive side of the floor, averaging 15.9 points per game on an extremely efficient 69.5 percent from the field. While many big men in today’s NBA need to be at least some type of threat from three-point range, there will always be room for a true rim protector in the league and there is zero doubt that Kalkbrenner will eventually be an NBA player. The question is just how much he can improve his stock with another year of school, considering he is currently projected to be a second round pick.
Then there's Alexander.
He burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2022, picking up point guard duties following an injury Ryan Nembhard, and that led to a big 2023 season this past season. The lengthy Guard from Oklahoma City, only improved as a sophomore, averaging double-figures while hitting 41 percent from three.
With Creighton getting word that sharpshooter Baylor Schierman will be coming back to school, alongside Utah State Transfer Steven Ashworth, the Blue Jays would enter next season as a Top 5 team in the country, if both Kalkbrenner and Alexander decided to come back.
There isn’t a team with much more at stake this weekend than Greg McDermott and his Blue Jays.
Olivier-Maxence Prosper (Marquette)
This upcoming season has the chance to be a special one in Milwaukee, as Marquette is set to return virtually its entire roster from a group which won the Big East regular season and tournament titles last year. That includes 2023 Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek returning, alongside Kam Jones who developed into one of the best three point shooters in college basketball. It also includes big man Oso Ighodoro, who finished second in the Big East in field goal percentage at 63 percent.
That leaves Prosper, who is currently testing the NBA Draft waters - and definitely has a future in the pros, standing at 6 '8”, with very good athleticism and the ability to score the basketball.
A transfer from Clemson, Prosper has been a key member for each of Marquette’s NCAA Tournament teams over the course of the last two seasons and saw a major jump in production from his sophomore to junior year. Prosper averaged 12.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game last season, while also showing that he has the ability to shoot the three at a 33.9 percent rate. While that might not sound like anything crazy, Prosper did improve that percentage from 31 percent as a sophomore, and I do believe that shot will get better within time.
With many teams like Duke, Kansas and others already receiving a ton of hype entering next season, Marquette should be a team also right there in the Top 5 to kick off 2023-2024. Prosper coming back to school would only enhance that, as the Golden Eagles will look to get back to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, after a really tough draw and loss to Michigan State in the Round of 32 this past season.
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Oscar Tshiebwe, Chris Livingston and Antonio Reeves (Kentucky)
After winning the 2022 National Player of the Year, Tshiebwe returned to school for an encore, and it didn’t disappoint. Oscar had another dominant season for Kentucky, which included leading the country in rebounds per game with 13.7, and also finished second in the SEC in scoring at 16.5 points per game.
If Tshiebwe were to return, he’d join the likes of the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in college basketball next year, and you can't put a price on the impact that his experience, in addition to his production, could have on that young team.
That's the positive of course, but it's also worth acknowledging Tshiebwe can be a liability at times on the defensive end - that's one of the main reasons why he isn't a surefire NBA Draft prospect despite the gaudy numbers.
Regardless of these concerns, adding Tshiebwe back into the fold would be a massive victory for John Calipari and this is one of the most important NBA Draft Decisions to track going forward.
Another player worth monitoring here is potential sophomore-to-be Chris Livingston. The 6'6 forward has NBA-level athleticism, and had a run late that showed what his upside can be. Early reports are that he wants to stay in the draft, but its questionable whether he'll be drafted at all. Should he return to Kentucky, he like the two players listed here with him, would add some much-needed veteran experience to next year's roster. There's also a reasonable belief he could play himself into first round contention with a big sophomore season.
Then there's Reeves, and for a Kentucky team that really struggled with consistency at times during the 2023 season, Reeves was one of the few guys Kentucky was able to rely on most nights, especially during SEC Conference play. He opened up SEC play with five consecutive games scoring in double digits, and ended the regular season with an incredible 37-point performance at Arkansas. It was one of the best performances we've seen all season.
With Kentucky looking to get back to their first second weekend since 2019 and first Final Four since 2015, these two decisions will be vital. Having the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the country is obviously a positive, however it has been proven over and over again that experience is a big key in having success in today’s version of college basketball. Especially with this freshman class being labeled as not particularly being on par compared to our normal expectations. These two decisions will be key for Kentucky entering next season.
It's worth noting that Reeves was not invited to this week's a combine, something which makes it more likely he returns to school for another season.
Norchad Omier (MIami)
There weren’t many more impactful transfers in all of college basketball than Omier, who came to Miami after winning the 2022 Sun Belt Player of the Year Award at Arkansas State. The Bluefields, Nicaragua native was vital for the Hurricanes during their run to the Final Four, as Omier was the primary big man and leading rebounder for Miami at only 6’7. He played much bigger than his height however, averaging 13.1 points per game and 10 rebounds per game, which was third in the ACC.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, there were some concerns about the status of Omier, after he left Miami’s ACC Tournament semi final game against Duke early with an ankle injury. Omier put all those concerns aside immediately, with 12 points and 12 rebounds in Miami’s comeback victory over Drake to really get their run to the Final 4 started. Over the course of the next four games, Omier collected a combined 46 rebounds, boosting his NCAA Tournament average to 11.6 rebounds per game. There is no doubt that toughness would be helpful in an NBA locker room, and Omier’s decision could be what determines the perception of Miami heading into next season.
Despite losing Isaiah Wong, Miami could see a scenario with both Omier and Nigel Pack returning, alongside Florida State transfer Matthew Cleveland and guys like Bensley Joseph and Wooga Poplar who are also ready to make an impact as upperclassmen.
With Omier back, Miami would be ranked in the Top 15 if not higher to open next season and right behind Duke in terms of contenders in the ACC.
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Zach Edey (Purdue)
Edey is the reigning National Player of the Year, fresh off a season for the ages at Purdue. The 7’4” center led the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding in 2023 and has the option of returning to school for one more go around. The thing that makes this decision even more intriguing is that he isn't a surefire NBA Draft prospect, as his perimeter defense is a clear weakness. You can also argue however, that Edey’s 7’4” size and rebounding ability is always going to be something that can translate in the league.
Whether Edey comes back or not, will be a massive domino for a Purdue program that is desperate to break through in the NCAA Tournament. The Boilers are set to return their four other starters alongside Edey, including the freshman backcourt duo of Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. Both of these guys really delivered, considering the position they were put in as an all freshman backcourt. This is despite the fact that they hit a little bit of a midseason wall and clearly weren’t ready for the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament.
With Edey back, Purdue should open up the season as a top 5 team once again, yet the only thing in the mind of Boilers fans will be a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Without Edey, there is a good chance this Purdue team would open up the season outside the Top 25. That’s how big of a division is about to be made, from the 7’4” big man from Toronto.
Andre Jackson and Tristen Newton (UConn)
The Huskies should be in a very good position entering next season after cutting down the nets, despite what happens with Jackson and Newton here. UConn will bring back big man Donavan Clingan, who will be poised for a breakout in a much bigger role, plus the addition of Top-10 Recruit Stephon Castle and the return of Alex Caraban.
Jackson and Newton returning to school however, would make the Huskies a clear-cut Top 5 team if not better. There'd even be an argument to put them at No. 1 ahead of Duke.
In terms of what they bring to the table, Jackson was very important to UConn’s national championship run as a great defender, passer and a guy that was always just in the right place at the right time on the floor. Jackson’s ability to initiate offense and find the open man for UConn was special and there is definitely a place in the NBA for him.
What makes Jackson unique, is that his one specific weakness, is glaring - and that's his three-point shooting. He shot just 28 percent from three last season, and this will be something he needs to improve on. Should Jackson enter the NBA Draft, he would likely be an early second round pick this season. With that being said, next year’s high school recruiting class being weaker than usual, Jackson could move up draft boards next year with another great season at UConn.
Newton is a little bit more of a fringe NBA player, but also would have a major impact for the Huskies next season if he decided to come back. The East Carolina transfer played his best basketball at the most ideal time for the Huskies last season, averaging 9.5 points and 5.1 assists during UConn’s march to the national title. Newton was also the Huskies leading scorer in their national title game victory over San Diego State with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists.
A dynamic scorer with over 1400 career points, Newton was the best player on the floor for the Huskies in their most important game of the season.
Others worth monitoring:
Lamont Butler and Jaedon Ledee (San Diego State)
Jordan Walsh and Devo Davis (Arkansas)
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