Today, we will be looking at the best returning players in College Basketball this season. Last year, we had surprises like Robert Williams and Miles Bridges who decided to return to college even though they would’ve easily been considered lottery picks in their specific draft. This year, we didn’t have those kind of surprise returns, but we did happen to have a bunch of highly talented players who elected to return to college for at least one more year.
Rankings for returning players are very subjective. Some of the players in the others to note section, we just didn’t see nearly enough to want to include, like Dedric Lawson who had to sit out last season. We are sure that we have not included players that a lot of you would include, so we want to hear from you after you read through this and give us some names we should watch for this year.
Let’s get started:
Others to note left off the list:
Tremont Waters, Jordan Caroline, Temple Gibbs, Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell Jr., Lagerald Vick, Dedric Lawson, Charlie Moore, Kris Wilkes, Myles Stephens, Bruno Fernando, Grant Williams, Lindell Wiggington, Oshae Brissett, Myles Powell
25. Jaylen Hands – G, UCLA
Jaylen Hands is the first person on our list as we countdown the 25 best returning college basketball players this year. His stats will not stand out to you, but there were definitely instances last year where he showed flashes of that potential that made him an intriguing freshman.
Jaylen Hands averaged under 10 points per game on 40% shooting from the field last year, but will have a much heavier workload this season with Aaron Holiday now in the NBA. Look for Hands to take a giant step forward and be one of the premier guards in college basketball this season.
24. Mike Daum – F, South Dakota State
Well, this is a name that just continues to be put up year after year in these type of rankings. Mike Daum had another high scoring season where he averaged over 20 points per game, but again, it ended in a first round exit in the tournament. We could confidently say that Daum’s numbers 2 years ago were a product of his weak conference given his very sub-par performance against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament, but last year was a different story.
Daum actually looked very good shooting the ball against Ohio State in the Tournament last year. He went for 27 points and hit a bunch of three balls. While his FG% noticeably dropped last year, his ability to look much better against a team from a Power 5 conference makes us think that Mike Daum is in store for an even better final year with South Dakota State.
23. Nick Ward – F, Michigan State
Nick Ward is one of the best paint scorers in the NCAA, without a doubt. Last year, Ward had a very impressive 75.8 FG% at the rim. With Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. now gone to the NBA, Nick Ward is going to have to help even more in the paint.
What we are interested to see is if Nick Ward will try to extend his shot to beyond the 3-point line. He has some of the best footwork you’ll see from someone of his size and if he can become more of a threat from outside the paint, watch out for Nick Ward to have an unbelievable season.
22. Seth Towns – F, Harvard
Here’s an interesting choice. A bunch of our writers including, but not limited to, Alex Fischbein, Martin Soaries, and BJ Boyer, were able to see a bunch of Ivy League action last season and each one of them unanimously named Seth Towns as the best Ivy League player. The one thing that we all agreed on though:
He hasn’t even come close to figuring it all out yet.
Seth Towns is super talented and has all of the intangibles to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft…seriously. But, he simply just hasn’t put it all together yet. He has a very smooth shot, can take you off the dribble, and just makes it all look so easy offensively. His defense is another question though that we will be monitoring this season.
21. Cody Martin – F, Nevada
Cody Martin actually might be the better NBA prospect out of the Martin twins. He’s more of a do it all type player whereas Caleb is the premier scorer for Nevada. It takes a lot of effort to watch a Nevada game and evaluate the Martin twins because it is very common for you to not really know which one you are watching. Once you start watching them more though, you can tell the differences in their games.
Cody is a play-maker and not a scorer. His averages of 14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and above 1.5 steals and blocks is super impressive from this previous season. As mentioned, his downside is his inability to score the ball at will, but that’s why his brother is the perfect compliment to his game. Look for Cody to take an even bigger step this season as he has surely worked on that 3-point shot this off-season.
20. Charles Matthews – G, Michigan
We are very excited that Charles Matthews decided to stay another year at Michigan. Matthews would’ve most likely been a draft pick had he stayed in the draft, but now he gets to work on his craft even more. He made a gigantic leap from his freshman to sophomore year for the Wolverines, mostly due to his increase in minutes.
Still, he looked very impressive throughout the season and especially late during the NCAA Tournament (excluding the championship game against Villanova) where he scored 17 or more points in 4 of the games. There’s the potential for him to be a solid two-way guard at the next level, but he’ll have to continue to make plays like this if that’s going to happen.
19. Kellan Grady – F, Davidson
Kellan Grady is the lone player we have from the Atlantic 10 ranked, but he has every reason to be here. Last year, as a freshman, he put up some gaudy numbers. Grady was the first freshman in the Atlantic 10 to put up 550 points and 70 three pointers in a season since 2000.
With four major contributors no longer on Davidson, Grady is in line for a massive sophomore season. He’ll likely have more point guard responsibilities next season. If he takes on more of a role as a play-maker, that could do big things for his chances of being drafted next year. Our very own Alec Walt, one of our writers and host of the Schmidt Talking podcast, had this to say about Kellan Grady:
I think Kellan Grady is a star. There’s not much he can’t do offensively. He’s smooth around the rim, can change his pace when attacking the basket with ease, and is lights out from behind the perimeter. He’s the perfect Bob McKillop guard.
18. Jon Elmore – G, Marshall
Last year, Jon Elmore made 98 three-pointers, which was tied for 30th in the nation. That is 37 more than he made his freshman year. Now, that he’s heading into his final season at Marshall, we fully expect him to make an even bigger jump in that number.
Elmore isn’t the quickest or most skilled player on the court most of the time, but he for sure can hit any shot once he heats up. We are looking for Elmore to get that 3-point percentage closer to 40% this year and for him to continue to make plays like this as he becomes a bigger household name:
17. Markus Howard – G, Marquette
Speaking of household names, Markus Howard became one last year after putting up 52 points in the game against Providence. Howard is one of those guys who will either be red hot from deep or just ice cold and you instantly know at the start of the game which player you’ll see. Last year, he had 6 games where he scored over 30 points while also having 11 games scoring 13 or less points.
With that being said, we see Howard making a big jump in the consistency department this year for Marquette. He also needs to continue to look to be a play-maker. His season high of 7 assists is just not going to cut it for a team that needs someone to distribute. The one thing we are sure of for Markus Howard though is that he will continue to go into his bag and get you a bucket when needed.
16. Jontay Porter – F, Missouri
Jontay made one of the more surprising decisions to return to college given the fact that he most likely would’ve been a late 1st round pick. While his numbers from last season do not really stand out, he was one of only five players in college basketball to record 40 3-pointers and 55 blocks last season.
We are interested to see if Jontay will be thrown into the starting lineup full time as he only started all of 7 games last season. Expect Porter to only look better this year and be a key factor to getting Missouri back to the NCAA Tournament.
15. De’Andre Hunter – G, Virginia
We just got done saying how Jontay Porter was a surprise return to college basketball, but he pales in comparison to the shock that we received from De’Andre Hunter deciding to come back. Hunter would’ve easily been a 1st round pick in last year’s draft and maybe even a lottery pick. His main reason most definitely had to be related to his unfortunate injury that he had late in the season which led to Virginia’s embarrassing loss to UMBC.
Last year, De’Andre Hunter was the ACC Sixth Man of the Year and was a consistent force off the bench for the Cavaliers. He’s not too flashy of a player, but does his job. But, we truly believe that he’s going to show out this year and prove to be one of the best players in all of college basketball.
There’s some unfinished business for De’Andre Hunter…
14. Daniel Gafford – F, Arkansas
It shouldn’t shock you that we’ve grouped a bunch of high caliber draft talents together on this list. That’s just what happens when you are blind-folded when you make the rankings…No, but in all seriousness, Daniel Gafford is another highly talented big from last season who surprisingly decided to stay another year at Arkansas. He’s the best returning prospect this season alongside De’Andre Hunter and should only improve his stock this season.
Last season, Gafford had 14 games with 3+ blocks. That was good to have him tied for 16th in the nation which is extremely impressive considering he was a freshman and only had 2 games all year where he played over 30 minutes. He’s an absolute menace around the rim and should easily be considered one of the two best rim protectors in the nation coming into this season. We just don’t think the SEC is fully ready for year 2 from Daniel Gafford..
13. Kyle Guy – G, Virginia
Here’s another Virginia player in our top 15, that really should not come as any surprise. They all want another chance after how last season ended. Kyle Guy is a small two-guard who is lethal from three-point range. We are not sure if he’ll be able to translate well to the NBA once the time comes if he doesn’t bulk up, but he is a perfect piece in Tony Bennett’s offense right now.
Kyle Guy was one of the only UVA guys to actually show up in the loss to UMBC. We are not sure if that loss will have any affect on him going into this season, but we hope not as Virginia is one of the only teams that might be equipped enough to at least slow down the obvious ACC powerhouse in Duke.
12. PJ Washington – F, Kentucky
PJ Washington is a dynamic forward who tries about as hard as anyone we’ve ever seen on the defensive end and on the boards. He’s the kind of do-it all forward that all coaches love having on their team. We are very interested to see how Coach Calipari decides to use PJ and new and extremely talented transfer Reid Travis on the floor at the same time.
Washington’s main problem has been his shooting, particularly from deep. Around the rim while he doesn’t have a phenomenal touch, he looks a lot more comfortable. That is no doubt the reason he elected to return to Kentucky for his sophomore season as he tries to lead them back to the promised land.
11. Shamorie Ponds – G, St. John’s
This ranking may be a little disrespectful to the ultra talented guard Shamorie Ponds who is coming off quite a year. For Ponds, he just continues to be surrounded by disrespect as, for some reason, he was not even invited to the NBA Draft Combine. We should all remember how he took down Duke and Villanova in back to back games last year that captivated the country.
Last season, Ponds averaged over 21 points, 4.5 assists, and 5 rebounds per game. Jon Elmore was the only other player in the NCAA to put up those numbers and 2 years ago, Markelle Fultz was the only one to do it. Ponds showed us the clutch gene time and time again last season and we fully expect to see more of that for St.John’s once again.
10. Ethan Happ – F, Wisconsin
Now, we begin the countdown of the top 10. Coming in at number 10 is a player that should need no introduction, Ethan Happ. Happ has been one of the best players in the Big Ten since he came to Wisconsin three years ago. We were extremely excited to see Happ play last year and he did not disappoint. This season, we are even more excited to see his progression.
The hope for us is that Happ continues to extend that shot to beyond the three-point line. He’s so incredibly skilled around the rim and can be one of the best bigs in the country if he continues to expand his game. When you aren’t one of the more athletic players on the floor, you need to be smart and crafty. That is exactly what Ethan Happ is.
9. Admiral Schofield – F, Tennessee
Many who will be reading this article will wonder why we included Admiral Schofield instead of his teammate Grant Williams. We actually think Williams took a little step backwards in his progression last season, while Schofield took a gigantic step forward. This is more of us commending Admiral than shooting down Grant Williams, who is a terrific player in his own right.
Admiral Schofield can literally do it all on the floor. We are hoping to see him use his athleticism more defensively to help protect the rim. You wouldn’t think he was a good three-point shooter given his size, but that’s exactly what he is. If the zombie apocalypse started tomorrow, we are not sure if there is anyone else we’d want by our side for intimidation. Look at this man, if he was taking the ball straight at you down the lane would you get in his way or run back home and watch re-runs of Friends in the fetal position like most of us would?
8. Bennie Boatwright – F, USC
We’ve been waiting for Bennie Boatwright to put it all together and have a terrific season. The problem for him is that he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He looked very impressive after his sophomore season which led us to believe that he’d be leaving for the NBA. Rather, he decided to return and try to give us a full showcase. Instead, we saw a worse Boatwright who, again, couldn’t stay healthy. Now, it’s his last chance and he’ll have to show us something his senior season to warrant him 1st round draft status.
With all of that being said, there is still no denying Bennie Boatwright’s ability. He’s a 6’10 forward who can handle the ball and shoot it very effectively from deep.
Now, the question that remains is: ‘Will he stay healthy?’. If he can do that and shows defensive improvement, he’ll be much better than the eighth best returning college player this season.
7. Luke Maye – F, UNC
Luke Maye has a tall task ahead of him. He’s lost his trusty lead guard in Joel Berry and now has to take on the task of lead scorer. The addition of young freshman guard Coby White will certainly help heal the loss of Berry, but this team’s success will largely depend on Maye’s ability to be a consistent force offensively.
Maye shot over 43% from deep last season on 3.1 attempts per game. We are hoping to see that number of attempts get up closer to 5 or 6 per game while hoping to maintain that percentage around 40. If he can do that, he’ll have UNC competing with many of the other ACC teams trying to take down Duke.
6. D’Marcus Simonds – G, Georgia State
There’s so much to say about D’Marcus Simonds. He’s super athletic, can take you off the dribble, has a serviceable jump shot, and play some very solid D in the zone. Now, his defense and jump shot are going to both need improvement to be able to translate to the NBA once he eventually makes it there, but that doesn’t matter right now as both are more than good enough for the college level. Yes, his three point percentage was below 30%, but that’s not his game. He is a slasher and one who can finish at the rim with either hand emphatically.
You might think we’ve jumped the gun a bit to have Simonds as high as 6th on our list, but trust us when we tell you that he has the talent to be number one on this list. Simonds’s main problem is his turnover rate. His TOV% of 15.4 is something that we need to see drop in his junior campaign. If it does, we’ll be hearing the name D’Marcus Simonds plenty throughout this college season.
5. Ky Bowman – G, Boston College
Ky Bowman may very well be the most underrated guard in the nation. Boston College ran their offense through Ky and Jerome Robinson last year. That was their team and they needed both of them to completely be on their games for BC to have a chance. Now that Jerome is in LA with the Clippers, this team is Ky’s for the taking.
Ky Bowman’s ability to shoot off the dribble and make the right decision is what makes us really love his game. Even if he doesn’t make the right call with a pass, he’s almost always the first one back on defense ready to make up for his mistake. He’s so skilled and should easily be considered one of the best floor generals in the ACC.
4. Tyus Battle – F, Syracuse
At number four on our countdown we have Cuse’s Tyus Battle. Many might consider this a little high for Battle, but considering how much better he got as the season went on, it was hard for us to not rate him this high. He continued to be the go to guy for Syracuse down the stretch of games and would very often hit clutch shots like this one:
Tyus Battle is not a player that team’s feel comfortable with on the wing. He can take you off the dribble or hit a shot in your face with just a little separation. Last season, for the Orange, Battle was a scorer, and that was it. They didn’t necessarily need him to be the play-maker for the team, but they’ll definitely ask more from him this year. Battle and Brissett are going to be a very fun tandem to watch at the Carrier Dome.
3. Sagaba Konate – F, West Virginia
Sagaba Konate is about 4 inches shorter than Daniel Gafford, but we could argue is an even better rim protector. Konate’s offense isn’t anything to get excited about, but his defense on the other hand? Well, just watch:
Konate is so fun to watch on the defensive end. Last year he averaged 3.2 blocks per game. Again, he’s no where close to some of these other guys’s height, but just goes up intelligently. Like we said, Konate doesn’t have much of an offensive game, but if he can improve on that end, expect arguably the best defensive player in the nation to start getting more recognition for his abilities.
2. Caleb Martin – F, Nevada
Last year was a season full of highlights for Caleb Martin. In his first season at Nevada, he averaged right around 19 points per game while shooting over 40% from deep. He led Nevada to a historic run in the NCAA Tournament until they were unfortunately taken down by Loyola-Chicago. As we had said earlier, while his brother Cody might be the better NBA prospect, Caleb is the guy Nevada relies on and someone who will officially become a household name this year.
Caleb’s main problem is his inability to be efficient. He’ll have games where he’ll shoot like 7-10 from deep, but then games where he’ll shoot 0-10. That’s just the type of player he is. But, don’t get it twisted: Caleb Martin is a baller. He can score with the best of them in the nation and will only look better this season as Nevada will be ranked one of the top teams in the country, without a doubt.
1. Carsen Edwards – G, Purdue
And finally, we come down to the best returning player in college basketball this season, Carsen Edwards. This should really come as no surprise as Carsen was just so good last season. He is so intelligent in passing lanes and would make plays like this quite often:
Honestly, we could probably just sit here and watch Carsen Edwards highlights all day. He’s that enjoyable of a player to watch. He improved in literally every statistical category while even turning over the ball less. With his brother now gone to the NBA, it’s Carsen Edwards’s team. His coach has such high praise for him and knows to let Carsen be himself out there.
He’s about to take the nation by storm and if you aren’t on the Carsen Edwards train, it’s time to get on.