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Stay or Go: Big East Underclassmen and the NBA Draft

With more than a handful of underclassmen declaring for June's NBA draft, who can we expect to return to school before the May 25 cut-off date?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In the admittedly short history of the "new" Big East, the summer has been relatively quiet in regards to its players and the NBA Draft. Through the two drafts since the conference's inaugural season in 2014, just four Big East players have been drafted, all but one of whom were taken in the second round. Last season, the first Big East player taken off the board was Villanova's Darrun Hilliard, whose draft stock hovered around the late second round before the Detroit Pistons selected him with the 38th pick, and St. John's' Sir'Dominic Pointer, selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 53 before spending all of last season in the NBA D-League.

Things were a little bit more hectic the year prior, when Creighton's Doug McDermott won just about every conceivable Player of the Year award possible before climbing up draft boards to the No. 11 pick by the Chicago Bulls. Xavier's Semaj Christon was also selected with the 55th pick by the Miami Heat in the 2014 draft before being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but outside of the circus around McDermott, the Big East's players are generally known more for their college heroics than their success at the next level.

While the conference has seen undrafted players like Bryce Cotton and JaKarr Sampson find roles in the league (Sampson scores extra points for surviving nearly two seasons in Sam Hinkie's Philadelphia house of horrors before landing with the Nuggets late in the 2015-16 season), four of the aforementioned group of six all entered the draft after completing all four years of their NCAA eligibility. Only Christon and Sampson declared as underclassmen (overall, the term "underclassmen" gets thrown around pretty loosely, but for these purposes, I'm just including anyone with at least one more year of eligibility in this group), and for the most part, one of the conference's defining traits has been the ways its stars have stuck around until they've finished all four years.

However, thanks to a recent rule change by the NCAA, this offseason has been much different. If it seems like you're seeing more underclassmen declare for the draft than ever, you're right. In past years, players entering the draft early had until just before April's signing day to decide whether to return to school, but under the new rule change, early entrants now have until May 25 to make their final decision. The previous rule was much more convenient for coaches trying to build their rosters heading into the summer since they knew who would be returning before high school signing day, but it often left players choosing their draft fate before getting a chance to test the NBA evaluation waters.

Under the new rule, invited players are allowed to attend the NBA combine, which ran last week from Wednesday, May 11, until Sunday, May 15, and participate in one team workout before the dropout deadline on the 25th. Those ten days will be absolutely crucial for early entrants, giving them the chance to get real feedback from NBA teams on their draft stock and make their decision from there. It's a far more player-friendly policy, and barring unforeseen circumstances, there really isn't a downside to going through the process if you're a collegiate player looking to feel out your NBA potential.

As a result, you're seeing way more underclassmen declare for the draft than ever, foregoing the decision to hire an agent (which automatically forfeits your remaining collegiate eligibility) until May 25 if they instead decide to return to school. In all, 117 underclassmen declared for the draft following the end of the season, including nine from the Big East. Because of the new rule, it's tough to really gauge who actually intends to enter the draft and who is just feeling things out, so for this exercise, we'll group the nine Big East early entrants into one of four groups: Definitely Leaving, Glass Half Empty (most likely leaving), Glass Half Full (most likely returning) and Definitely Returning. Let's look two weeks ahead into the crystal ball...

*Note: All DraftExpress and ESPN rankings are as of Sunday, May 15, the conclusion of the NBA combine.

Definitely Leaving

Kris Dunn, PG (Providence)

We'll start with an easy one here. Dunn, whose stock had soared all the way up to the lottery last year, surprised most people (myself included) by coming back to Providence for the 2015-16 season, but in the end, it's tough to fault a move that earned him his second Big East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honor, a consensus spot on the All-American second team and the No. 4 spot on the DraftExpress big board for this upcoming draft. While Dunn had one year of eligibility remaining at Providence, it didn't take much to piece together his declaration before the season even ended, and his hiring of an agent all but confirmed his intentions. He's one of the most special players the conference has seen in years, and while point guard depth across the league may cause him to slide a few spots on draft day, it'd be a legitimate shock to see him fall out of this year's top ten.

Henry Ellenson, PF (Marquette)

Ellenson is something of a rarity for the Big East, the conference's first blink-and-you-miss-it one and done prospect. It's certainly not uncommon for players at the top of their high school class to make the jump to the league after one season of college, and after a dominant freshman season (17.0 PPG, 9.9 RPG) led to an ultimately disappointing overall season for the Golden Eagles, Ellenson's decision wasn't going to be very tough this summer either. A beautiful fit for the modern NBA, Ellenson's fluidity, handles and smooth shooting stroke are rare for a guy his size (6'10", 231 lbs.), and if he lands in the right system he's probably strong enough to survive early on while bulking up over the course of the season. Also deciding to hire an agent, Ellenson's draft stock has been kind of spread out so far (DraftExpress recently slid him down to No. 13, ESPN's Chad Ford ranks him No. 7), but there's a very good chance the conference sees two guys taken in the top ten in June.

Jalen Reynolds, PF (Xavier)

At 23 years old, Reynolds is a lot older than most of the other underclassmen in this draft class, which is most likely the main cause of his jump to the league even without the draft stock that would usually accompany a decision like this. Reynolds made his decision official by hiring an agent in mid-April, and while it's unlikely that he'll land anywhere on draft day, he should at least get a look in the NBA Summer League before jumping overseas (depending on how things play out, of course). He's a bruiser with an interesting interior game, which will most definitely earn Reynolds a shot somewhere professionally.

Glass Half Empty

Ben Bentil, SF/PF (Providence)

This is where things start to get a little bit more tricky. Bentil exploded on to the scene as a sophomore for the Friars, winning the Big East's individual scoring title while finishing as one of the conference's top five statistical rebounders. Unlike Dunn, who played a large role in creating quality looks for Bentil all season, the 6'9" forward's draft status had been a bit harder to pin down before last week's NBA combine. Now considered one of the week's big winners (he's listed as DraftExpress' No. 45 prospect, but has also been listed in the 25-35 range depending on who you read), Bentil seems to have further solidified his status as a late first/early second round prospect, reportedly catching the eyes of more than a few teams looking for athletic, stretchy big men. He's yet to hire an agent, which leaves his status a bit up in the air, but it's starting to seem like the scales are tipping a bit more toward him making the jump to the professional level. As of now, I'd say he's probably the most likely of the Big East guys who haven't hired agents to stay in the draft pool.

Isaiah Whitehead, SG (Seton Hall)

Also a participant in last week's combine activities, Whitehead's stock propelled a bit higher after a strong finish to the season culminated in a Big East tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. The sophomore guard even entered the Big East Player of the Year conversation down the stretch thanks to some springy athleticism and soft shooting touch from behind the three-point line. Electing not to hire an agent, Whitehead left the door open for a return to Seton Hall next season, but his participation in last week's combine showed that he is seriously considering sticking in the draft for good. Based on feedback from the combine, "there are some NBA teams who do like him...unfortunately, there are just as many who don't consider him a serious draft prospect at this stage, which could put him in a precarious position on draft night if things don't fall his way," according to DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz. Just based on the current momentum of things, there's reason to suspect he'll end up declaring after all (he's the No. 58 prospect on the DraftExpress Big Board), but he'd be a huge proponent of returning for one more year. You've got to think that if Bentil goes, Whitehead is right there for the Big East's Player of the Year favorite for next season, and potentially its best NBA prospect this time next year.

Glass Half Full

Josh Hart, SG (Villanova)

While the combine can be a huge asset to players on the fringe, it can also be a good indicator for guys that the timing may not be right just yet. Hart, fresh off of a National Championship and a fantastic junior season, looks to be joining the latter group, disappointing a bit last week based off of scouting feedback to the DraftExpress crew. The talent is definitely there, especially at the college level, but Hart's average athleticism and still-improving three-point shot leave him a bit limited for now in how he can make significant contributions to an NBA offense. Ranked No. 73 on the DraftExpress Big Board, the junior guard looks like he'll need one more year to keep developing, and since he hasn't hired an agent yet, I'd be surprised if he doesn't drop out of the draft in the next few days. Much like his former teammate Darrun Hilliard, a big senior year should have him right back in the draft conversation next summer.

Trevon Bluiett, SG (Xavier)

I'm keeping Bluiett in this group for now just because he hasn't made anything official, but considering that he didn't get invited to the combine and isn't even on the DraftExpress Top 100 prospects list for this draft, he's about as close to staying in school as anyone on this list. For now, it just doesn't appear that teams think he's serious about testing the waters, so he's most likely just feeling out the process for the summer of 2017. As a young guy who improved a ton over the course of his sophomore year and has the look of a raw NBA prospect, there really isn't any downside to him taking a workout before deciding to stick around at Xavier. I'd expect an official announcement in the next few days.

Definitely Returning

Kris Jenkins, SF/PF (Villanova)

Our final group makes things nice and easy, too, already announcing their intentions to return for another year of school. Jenkins may have jumped into the public eye after his buzzer-beating hero shot that clinched Villanova's national title, but when he declared alongside Hart for the draft, the move really didn't make a ton of sense. Jenkins is a nice college player who got better and better as the season wore on, but he doesn't really scream NBA prospect at this point, with below-average size and athleticism for his position. This isn't to say he won't have a shot after a strong season next year, but Jenkins made his intentions clear early on to just take a workout, feel things out and head back to school.

Maurice Watson, Jr., PG (Creighton)

Watson withdrew his name from the draft in early May after failing to receive an invite to the draft combine, making his return to Creighton official for next season. His original declaration was a bit of a head-scratcher, as the junior guard is listed at just 5'10" and didn't generate much NBA fanfare in his breakout season last year with the Bluejays. Smaller guards like Kentucky's Tyler Ulis, who some consider to be a lottery pick prospect this summer, provides a little more hope for a player like Watson, but it's important to remember that this is the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. He's a terrific athlete, which certainly helps, but it's going to take a lot next year for him to jump into the draft conversation. For now, we're just fine having him back along with three other starters for next year's Creighton campaign.

The draft's official dropout deadline is Wednesday, May 25. We'll have more updates throughout the next ten days as things fall into place, and give us a follow at @becb_sbn on the Twittersphere for all the latest Big East draft news.