Coming into the 2011 season, Oklahoma State SF Le'Bryan Nash (Rivals No. 6 overall) and Texas PG Myck Kabongo (Rivals No. 26) were two of the most well-regarded freshmen in the country. But while many of their fellow McDonald's All-Americans went to NBA factories where they've been surrounded by elite talent, they joined rebuilding programs in the Big 12.
As a result, they had to face the burden of high expectations, as well as the brunt of the other team's scouting report alone. Kabongo's Texas team lost three players (Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton and Cory Joseph) to the 2011 NBA Draft and returned only three scholarship players, while Keiton Page and Markel Brown are the only players from Oklahoma State's top 10 last year still on the team in March.
Neither Kabongo nor Nash was particularly impressive to start the season, but they've both rebounded in Big 12 play as their teams' jury-rigged rotations began to coalesce. Now they are faced with an incredibly difficult decision: cash in on their recruiting pedigree and potential to be late first-round picks or stay another year in school for a chance to be a lottery pick in 2013.
Kabongo, an extremely athletic 6'1, 170-pound point guard with a 6'7 wingspan, is averaging 10.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists as a freshman. As a prospect, he's the most well-rounded PG in the country, a lightning-quick true point with long arms and an improving outside shot.
However, he still commits far too many turnovers (3.1 a game) and needs to improve his offensive efficiency from the floor (42 percent this season). Realistically, he's at least one year away from being a reliable NBA contributor.
Most college basketball analysts would say it's a no-brainer for him to come back to school, but that's easy to say when you aren't the one looking at a guaranteed $3-4 million and a potential lifetime of financial security. There's no predicting the future: after an inconsistent freshman year at Memphis, Dajuan Wagner was selected No. 6 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft. Two years later, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, effectively ending his basketball career.
Even if a player avoids the injury bug, there's no guarantee NBA scouts won't fall out of love with his game the longer he stays in school. An underclassman with holes in his game is a a half-full cup with untapped potential; an upperclassman with holes in his game is a half-empty cup who may not be able to make the transition to the next level.
As a freshman, Nash, a powerfully built 6'7, 230-pound small forward, is all upside, averaging 13.3 points, five rebounds and 1.5 assists a game. He's got the broad shoulders of a football player to go with the quickness and shot-creating ability of a much smaller player.
However, he's an extremely inconsistent shooter (39.4 percent from the field, 23.5 percent from long-range) with a terrible 0.58 assist to turnover ratio. And while most college freshman resemble Kabongo in that they need to add 10-15 pounds of muscle, Nash has the opposite problem. He's the half-brother of former Oklahoma State point guard Byron Eaton, a two-sport high school star from Dallas whose weight ballooned in his four years in Stillwater, effectively ending his chances of making the NBA.
If he returns to school, he'll be expected to have an All-American type season while leading the Cowboys back to the NCAA tournament. But if his game plateaus, his career arc could resemble Gonzaga's Elias Harris, a 6'7 combo forward who received first-round talk after a strong freshman season, but will probably go into his senior season in 2012 as a borderline second-round draft pick.
Both Kabongo and Nash have the potential to be drafted much higher if they return to school, but choosing to turn down millions of dollars is never easy.
Kim English, Missouri
6'6 senior shooting guard
- Shot creation: Excellent 6'6 shooter who has thrived playing off the ball and taken advantage of the dribble-penetration of Missouri's deep pool of guards. Averaging 13.9 points on 49.8 percent shooting as a senior.
- Defense: Playing as a small-ball power forward this season, should be able to defend all three perimeter positions in the NBA with good foot-speed and length at 6'6. Career average of 1.1 steals.
- Outside shot: Shooting percentages have risen dramatically as his ball-handling responsibilities have diminished under Frank Haith: shooting 44.8 percent from beyond the arc this year.
- Passing: Not comfortable creating own shot off the dribble or being a playmaker. Career averages of 1.4 assists and 1.7 turnovers.
- Rebounding: Has size and athleticism to play in the paint, averaging 4.3 rebounds a game this season.
- Best case: Elite perimeter defender who can knock down threes at a high rate -- Raja Bell.
- Worst case: Replacement-level shooting guard who can carve out a career as a defensive specialist -- DeShawn Stevenson.
Phil Pressey, Missouri
5'10 sophomore point guard
- Shot creation: Son of Paul Pressey, the NBA's first point-forward and younger brother of Missouri guard Matt. An elite ball-handler with a lightning-quick first step who can get into the lane at will in college. Averaging 9.9 points a game as a sophomore, needs to improve 41 percent shooting percentage.
- Defense: Has quickness to really attack opponent's dribble and is averaging 2.1 steals a game this year, but sub-6'0 size will always be a red flag at the next level.
- Outside shot: Three-point shooting percentage has slipped from 36 percent as a freshman to 31 percent this season. At his size, he can't afford to be an inconsistent shooter in the NBA.
- Passing: One of the best pure point guards in the country. Averaging 6.1 assists and 2.5 turnovers a game this season, his dribble-penetration is spark plug for the Tigers' exciting full-court offense.
- Rebounding: Athleticism and basketball IQ allows him to be a factor on the boards. He averages 3.4 a game this year, despite his size.
- Best case: An undersized PG whose athletic ability and skill level makes up for lack of stature -- DJ Augustin.
- Worst case: Ball-handling ability and first step gives him opportunity to make an NBA roster -- JJ Barea.
Marcus Denmon, Missouri
6'3 senior guard
- Shot creation: Like English, Denmon has thrived in more of an off-the-ball role due to Pressey's emergence. Averaging 18.0 points a game on a very efficient 47 percent shooting from the floor as a senior.
- Defense: Excellent athlete at 6'3 who has the quickness to attack an opponent's dribble, with a career average of 1.3 steals in four years in Columbia. However, lack of height means he'll be forced to play primarily as a PG at the next level.
- Outside shot: Excellent shooter with a quick release, shooting 41.1 percent from the three-point line and 88.8 percent from the free throw line this season.
- Passing: A decent playmaker who averages 2.2 assists and 1.2 turnovers this year, but has never displayed the ability to be Missouri's primary ball-handler.
- Rebounding: Athletic ability allows him to be a factor on the glass with an average of 5.3 rebounds a game this year.
- Best case: 6'3+ guard who can defend point guards and shoot but can't run a team -- Toney Douglas.
- Worst case: A "1.5": too short to be a two-guard and not comfortable running the point -- Bracey Wright.
J'Covan Brown, Texas
6'1 junior guard
- Shot creation: Extremely creative dribbler with a lightning-quick release who can get his shot off against much bigger and more athletic players. Rick Barnes has given him the green-light to shoot: averaging 19.2 points a game on 41.7 percent shooting as a junior.
- Defense: Sub-par athlete who uses long arms and basketball IQ to hold his own defensively in college. Lulls on the defensive end are his biggest red flag about possible transition to the next level.
- Outside shot: Pure shooter who knows how to run off screens and rise instantly from the perimeter. Shooting 38.1 percent from the three-point line and 85.2 percent from the free throw line.
- Passing: Has gradually assumed a bigger role as a playmaker in first three years in Austin. This year, averaging 3.1 assists and 2.6 turnovers a game.
- Rebounding: Unafraid to mix it up on the interior despite being only 6'1, averaging 3.1 rebounds a game this year.
- Best case: Explosive 6'1 scorer who can play both back-court positions offensively -- Jannero Pargo.
- Worst case: Shot-creating ability can't overcome lack of size or complete floor game -- Jacob Pullen.
Ricardo Ratliffe, Missouri
6'8 senior power forward
- Shot creation: Has a rudimentary low-post game, but is far more effective finishing in the lane off the dribble-penetration of the Tigers' guards. Averaging 13.9 points a game on a completely preposterous 71 percent shooting from the floor.
- Defense: Solid athlete with a strong base and a long wingspan, but will need to prove ability to either defend power forwards on the perimeter or centers in the paint to stick at the next level.
- Outside shot: Rarely ventures outside of the paint offensively, but touch in the lane and 70 percent free throw percentage indicates ability to develop a consistent 15-20 foot jumper.
- Passing: Missouri doesn't put him in position to make plays for others offensively. Averaging 0.6 assists and 1.6 turnovers a game as a senior.
- Rebounding: Excellent rebounder who gets 7.2 boards in only 25 minutes a game this season.
- Best case: Undersized big man who uses toughness and finishing ability to earn a spot in the NBA -- Craig Smith.
- Worst case: A "4.5" without a defensive position destined for a career overseas -- Alexander Johnson.
Myck Kabongo (Texas) and LeBryan Nash (Oklahoma State) -- See above.
Markel Brown, Oklahoma State -- Extremely explosive 6'3 sophomore combo guard who can finish way above the rim. Needs to refine his game, but has raw tools to be an All-Big 12 performer: averaging 10.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a sophomore.
Michael Cobbins, Oklahoma State -- At 6'8 and 220 pounds, another long and athletic forward, Travis Ford is developing. Role has expanded as freshman season has progressed, averaging 5.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game this year.
Michael Dixon, Missouri -- 6'1, 185-pound junior combo guard who has been somewhat overshadowed by prolific scorers in the starting lineup ahead of him. However, he is the second-best playmaker on the Tigers' roster, averaging 13.3 points a game on 48 percent shooting with 3.2 assists and 1.5 turnovers coming off the bench.
Brian Williams, Oklahoma State -- Long and athletic 6'5, 205-pound freshman wing who often receives the toughest perimeter assignment. Needs to improve perimeter shooting (only 27 percent this year) as career progresses.
Sheldon McClellan, Texas -- 6'4, 200-pound freshman shooting guard whose shown a knack for scoring as primary weapon off the Longhorns bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 3.4 rebounds a game this season, but will need to improve perimeter shooting and playmaking ability to play in the NBA.
Laurence Bowers, Missouri -- The exact piece the Tigers need to win a national title, he unfortunately went down with a season-ending knee injury in October. Long-armed defensive terror at 6'8, 210 pounds who could defend all three frontcourt positions at the college level, but will need to improve perimeter jumper in final season in Columbia.
Philip Jurick, Oklahoma State -- 6'11, 270-pound junior college transfer with excellent size and athleticism for a center. Has an offensive game that could charitably be described as "a work in progress," but any player his size who can block 1.8 shots a game in only 18 minutes is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Jonathan Holmes, Texas -- 6'7, 240-pound freshman forward with a decent amount of athleticism who has displayed ability to hit perimeter jumpers. Almost certain to spend four seasons in Austin, but has an intriguing combination of size, skill and athletic abiltiy that may give him a shot to stick at the next level.