For NBA draft prospects, deciding whether to come back to school is never an easy process, especially for players who are assured of lottery status. Yet there are a few guys who seem to be set on doing just that. While this is great for college basketball fans, the schools these players attend and their coaches, there is risk involved that has to be accounted for. Going back to school is by no means a guarantee that a player's stock will rise, or even stay the same.
Kyle Singler is just the latest of dozens of examples where players don't have the kind of season they were hoping for in their last year of school, and consequently, see their stock drop in NBA circles. So in the cases of Jared Sullinger, John Henson and Harrison Barnes, what does each have to do to maintain his lottery status, or better yet, get into the top 5 next year? (One caveat here: Barnes hasn't yet declared his intentions and could end up opting to make the jump to the NBA. And both Sullinger and Henson still have time to change their minds and enter the draft.)
Of the three guys scouted here, Sullinger has the easiest road to navigate his way back to top-5 status next year, because he does not have to get any better on the court. His numbers, even if they stay the same, are good enough to convince GMs he can be a scorer/rebounder at the next level. Between his startling double-double numbers and what we see when we watch him in person, no one doubts his NBA-level talent.
But he does have to focus on something that is extremely important, and it comes with its own set of challenges. Simply put, he needs to get a better body. Being overweight and a bit soft (in terms of muscle tone, not a lack of toughness) is cute for a talented freshman who is living on his own for the first time and had just a few weeks between high school graduation and the start of the fall semester.
If he looks like this next year, however, teams will have a legitimate concern that he either has an eating problem or a cardio one. Both are bad news for a guy many people think can be the No. 1 pick this year or next. It does not affect his play much now, as his second jump is still more explosive than the first jumps of many thinner players. It's a big part of who he is and why he's so special. But 82 games and 100-plus practices for a rookie is an awful lot of wear and tear on a body that is carrying around too much weight.
Combined with every GM's fear -- that they end up drafting the next Tractor Traylor -- the reality is Sullinger needs to eliminate the question of his work ethic and dedication to greatness by slimming down, or his draft stock will surely plummet no matter how well he plays next season.
If this was the NBA, Henson would seem a shoo-in for the Most Improved Award. He literally doubled up his scoring, rebounding and blocked shot numbers from his freshman season while anchoring one of America's best and most improved teams. I've written in this space that he's a top-5 talent in this draft, as NBA teams thirst for rebounders and shot-blockers, and he is both.
Going back to school in some ways means he has to press the reset button, because if he does not continue to develop, NBA execs will question if he's approaching his ceiling rather than still on the upswing like he is now. Everyone thinks he needs to gain strength to help his status, though I rank that very low on his "needs" list. Unless he's monumentally lazy, which no one describes him as, he can't help but get stronger once he's in the NBA.
What he does need to do, though, is get better at something. Anything. His free throw shooting is abysmal, below 45 percent two straight years. His pick-and-pop jumper is weak too, with an inconsistent and relatively faulty mechanic. Progress in either area would help. Improving his back-to-the-basket game, including either a more improved go-to move (his hook) or a counter spin/turnaround jumper would work too. The key is that scouts/execs have to be able to see and measure some development, and if they can, he's in the running for a top-3 slot next year.
I ended up liking Barnes' upside more than just about any other player's in this draft by season's end. He scored 16 or more points in the Tar Heels' last 11 games (nine were wins), 20 or better in five of them, and had the 40-point outburst on 17 shots in a tight win over Clemson, while adding eight rebounds.
But it wasn't just the points that impressed me, it was his assertiveness. In fact, Barnes wasn't very efficient in many of those games, but great players often have to crawl before they walk. And that has to be focus No. 1 for Barnes -- building on his assertive play in March and becoming more efficient in the process.
Few NBA players need to be able to create their own shot to be drafted, but if Barnes wants to be a top-4 selection, which is certainly possible, looking like a No. 1 or 2 scoring option going forward is necessary. That's where efficiency must come in, as just being a gunner is not enough. The two areas he needs to improve upon in that category are getting more free throws and making a higher percentage of his 3-pointers. It's that simple.
Learning how to use his big body like a sledgehammer on drives or early post-ups will translate into more fouls drawn, which will help him project as a legit scorer in the NBA. He made 31 of his last 82 3-pointers, good for 37 percent, a nice number for sure. If he can just keep it there or raise it some, he's golden. But if it falls to 32 percent or worse, then it will be fair for scouts to question his overall shooting talent. And for a player who is not an elite level athlete, that can be problematic in his attempts to get into the talk for the top spot.