About a week from now, as the college basketball season comes to a close in Glendale, a flood of “Way-Too-Early” Top 25 picks for 2016-17 will start popping up all over the internet.
And, especially for the Arizona Wildcats, they really will be Way Too Early.
The Wildcats are scheduled to have arguably the nation’s No. 1 high school player next season, center DeAndre Ayton, but their 2016-17 roster and potential rotation really won’t start shaping up until May.
While UA will likely fall into the eventual preseason Top 25 at some place, how the Wildcats look next season will be determined largely by what happens in the next two months during UA’s annual “roster transition” season.
Here are some of the questions ahead:
1. Who’s leaving early?
While UA will lose only one senior, Kadeem Allen, the Wildcats are expected to lose at least two players to professional basketball this spring — likely Lauri Markkanen and Kobi Simmons, while Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins appear to be considering it.
None of the four would comment on their futures after UA’s season-ending loss to Xavier on Thursday, but some indications have already surfaced.
Markkanen may have arrived at UA with a plan of staying for two years, but his status as a near-certain Top 10 pick means he has strong incentive to leave. Players taken in the Top 10 are guaranteed at least $4.5 million (plus endorsement deals) over two years under the NBA’s rookie salary scale, and a player in that category who gets hurt or fails to improve when returning to school may never see that kind of money again.
Draft Express pegs Markkanen as the No. 8 pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves, who happened to be Markkanen’s favorite team as a youth (though lottery pick positions have not yet been set).
Simmons is a curious case because his playing time and production dropped off rapidly in the last month of the season, and Draft Express noted “he’s looked highly dejected and clearly not on the same page with the coaching staff.” But his size, athleticism and shooting ability still make him an intriguing prospect for an NBA team willing to stash him in the D-League and see what happens.
“NBA scouts like Simmons’ talent level but have major concerns about his intangibles, especially considering how much development he still needs in terms of his skill-level and basketball IQ,” Draft Express president Jonathan Givony wrote last week. “He’s likely to declare for the draft, and will benefit from the advent of the two-way contract (between NBA and D-League), which will allow him to make some decent money while the team that picks him evaluates if he can get his act together in the D-League.”
After opting to come back for his sophomore season last spring, Trier was considered a near-certain NBA departure this year but his 19-game suspension and subsequent half-season of play may have changed that thinking. Givony says he believes Trier will leave if he’s considered a first-round pick, and since Trier is not projected that way as of now by Draft Express, Trier was moved from its 2017 to its 2018 mock draft (at No. 36, in the high second round).
Alkins is listed not far below Trier in Draft Express’ 2018 mock, at No. 46, and he’s the No. 70 overall NBA prospect on the list of ESPN analyst Chad Ford. Those projections suggest he’ll need time in the D-League if he opts to leave UA early this spring.
“Alkins is already built like an NBA veteran, and his game is slowly coming around as well,” ESPN posted on Thursday. “When he’s hitting shots, rebounding and defending, Arizona is tough to beat. He just needs more consistency.”
Because junior center Dusan Ristic is a skilled 7-footer with a European passport, he always has the option of leaving for pro ball in Europe, as Ukrainian big man Kyryl Natyazhko did after his junior year. But he is expected to return for his senior season, as fellow Serbian Ivan Radenovic did in 2006-07.
2. Who’s transferring?
Since Simmons appears much more likely to turn pro than transfer — five-star prospects rarely want to sit out a redshirt year anymore — this question may not be valid this year.
The last two players to make conventional transfers from Arizona were freshman guard Justin Simon (to St. John’s last spring) and freshman forward Craig Victor (to LSU in December 2014). Junior wing Elliott Pitts also transferred to a junior college near his Northern California home last summer after he was suspended from UA for sexual misconduct.
Because Arizona’s bench was thin for much of this season, the Wildcats really don’t have anybody else besides Simmons in the disgruntled-end-of-the-bench category who might consider transferring. Center Chance Comanche is at the turning point of his career as a sophomore, and will have stiff competition again for playing time next season, but averaged nearly 20 minutes this season and improved across the board.
3. Who else will sign?
Arizona already has four signees for the recruiting class of 2017 — Ayton, point guard Alex Barcello of Tempe, shooting guard Brandon Randolph of New York and forward Ira Lee of Los Angeles — giving them the maximum 13 players on paper for next season. A potential 14th player, forward Ray Smith, will likely move over to a scholarship that will not count against the max because of his career-ending knee injuries.
But UA coach Sean Miller has said he hopes to add a player or two this spring, likely because he’ll lose at least two players early.
UA’s biggest remaining 2017 targets appear to be Delaware point guard Trevon Duval, Michigan wing Brian Bowen and San Diego center Brandon McCoy.
All three of those five-star targets will be joining Ayton in the McDonalds All-American game on Wednesday in Chicago — with McCoy and Bowen playing with Ayton on the West team, and Duval on the East team.
Miller could also tap into the four-year transfer market, as he has done regularly each spring, getting Ryan Anderson, Dylan Smith, Talbott Denny, Mark Tollefsen and T.J. McConnell (plus juco transfer Kadeem Allen) in recent years.
Two possibilities so far are players Miller targeted out of high school: Duke transfer Chase Jeter, who is seeking a new program closer to his Las Vegas home, and Washington signee Daejon Davis, a guard from Seattle who asked out of his letter-of-intent after Lorenzo Romar was fired.
4. Will any assistant coaches leave?
Two of Miller’s assistant coaches are well-respected former head coaches — Joe Pasternack and Mark Phelps — while longtime Miller aide Book Richardson is an exceptionally well-connected and well-liked recruiter, especially in the East.
Pasternack, who has helped Miller land high-profile talents such as Lauri Markkanen and several Oakland Soldiers travel-ball prospects — had his name floating around Cal’s recent vacancy before assistant Wyking Jones was promoted to replace Cuonzo Martin.
So far, though, the biggest movement in the job market has been by ex-UA assistants: Archie Miller (a UA assistant from 2009-11), left Dayton to become Indiana’s head coach, while Ball State coach James Whitford (at Arizona from 2009-13) has been linked to the Duquesne opening and also mentioned as Arch’s possible replacement at Dayton.
5. What will the starting lineup Be?
Unless UA lands Duval, Parker Jackson-Cartwright will likely get the point guard job all to himself next season, while Ristic could find himself paired with Ayton in a big frontcourt just like he was with Markkanen this season (and with Comanche as a super-sub). But filling in the wing spots, until the decisions of Trier, Alkins and Simmons are finalized, makes the rest of it just a guess.
Really, it’s just Way Too Early to tell.