The NBA draft comes next week, and as always, the event will result in the extraction of some young elite talent from college basketball as a fresh crop of unique stars like Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs hear their names called by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. However, there may be a few college players who will actually be able to (legally) raise a glass of champagne for a party.
It’s rare for players with four years of college experience to sneak into the lottery, but there are usually a handful of seniors who end up being called up and gaining influence in the NBA. One of the most recently impacted seniors has shown his game this month, with Suns forward Cam Johnson playing a key role for Phoenix during the NBA Finals in just his second year as a pro after a five-year college career.
Recently, Desmond Bane of the Grizzlies and Payton Pritchard of the Celtics returned to solid rookie seasons this year after playing four seasons of college ball. So who is the four-year-old (or more) college player from this season’s draft class who gets the best NBA career? Our writers weighed in on the topic of this week’s edition of dribble handoff.
Chris Duarte, Oregon
I’m not sure where Duarte will be elected next week – maybe the late lottery, perhs just outside of it, possibly in the 20s. But here’s my prediction: he’s going to be one of the top 10 rookies next season, and yes, he’s going to have the best career of any four-year-old college player from the 2021 NBA Draft. The 6-6 guard was National Junior College Player of the Year before joining Oregon, where he led Dana Altman’s program to back-to-back direct Pac-12 titles. As a senior, Duarte averaged 17.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists, while shooting 53.2% from the field, 42.4% from 3 and 81.0% from the free-throw line. I know some front offices may be bothered by the fact that he’s already 24 years old, which is more than four years older than assumed No. 1 overall choice Cade Cunningham, but I really am not because everything that suggests , is that Duarte is ready to plug-and-play from the jump. If I’m a challenger looking for a piece that can help right away, this is someone I target and hpy to add to my franchise. – Gary Parrish
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
Our Dribble Handoff usually has that we provide four different answers to the current question, but as you will see in this issue, we had to double up. Kispert obviously seems best positioned to have the most successful and long-lasting NBA career of any senior coming into the draft. He improved as a basketball player with each passing season while in Gonzaga – you know, like this kind of thing used to get bigger 25 years ago – and was part of a program that sent a 127-12 record in his time there. His career numbers: 82.4% sniper, 58.5% from 2-point range, 40.8% beyond the arc on a collective 1,399 attempt.
We have plenty of evidence that 6-6 Kispert is good enough to stay in the league as a spot-up shooter. He has the size, the shape, is large from the catch and wants the range. His floor is among the very best of any perspective in this draft, and I expect him to play at least 10 years in the NBA. – Matt Norlander
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
I scanned the list of seniors in the journal and could not prevent repeating Norlander’s response. Kispert is an NBA-ready shooter ready for a long career. He made 43.8% of his 3s two seasons ago at Gonzaga on 178, then backed the outside shooting ability again by making 44% of his 3s on 207 attempts as a senior on a Gonzaga team that lost once all season.
His ability to take a large volume of shots from the outside and turn them into an elite clip makes him one of the most coveted seniors in this draft class, and he is the one I feel most confident projecting to get the best career among peers in his same classification. – Kyle Boone
MJ Walker, Florida State
After a promising second season in the NBA, former four-year-old Florida State Guard Terance Mann looks like a solid building block for the Clippers, but you may not have predicted that result when he was called up 48th overall in 2019. Mann shot only 32.7% from 3-point range for his career at FSU, and although he raised this mark to 39% as a senior, he flew partly under the radar because of the system from which he came.
Florida State rarely produces flashy superstars with flashy stats or over-the-top personalities. Instead, the Seminoles have become one of college basketball’s best programs under Leonard Hamilton by prioritizing defense, congestion, and selflessness on the offensive end. That’s why MJ Walker has residency in the NBA, despite landing at No. 56 most recently. At 6-foot-5, he adapts with Mann both in terms of frame and play.
While his offensive play inside the arc is less effective than Mann’s, Walker shot better from the outside (42.3% in 2020-21) at FSU and has a better wing span. Like Mann, Walker is defensively indoctrinated by Hamilton and has a high floor at that end. Mann has managed to become a solid 3-and-D wing on the next level, and Walker seems to be able to do just as well, if not better. – David Cobb