Our position-by-position look at the top NBA prospects returning to school next season concludes with the centers. There should be a bumper crop of behemoths in the college game in 2015, who will look to make their mark in a sport traditionally dominate by guards. Last season, Kentucky turned that logic on its head, riding a wave of NBA talent in their frontcourt all the way to the NCAA championship game, despite very inconsistent play from their perimeter players.
Next season will be no different, as John Calipari will have more size upfront than a lot of NBA teams. It’s not just Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein, both of whom would have been first-round picks in 2014. Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee, while natural PF’s, could all play C for most college teams. For Calipari, the trickiest part will be finding shots and touches for all his big men. Either way, Lexington will once again be a prime destination for NBA scouts.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky - Cauley-Stein was one of the more surprising decisions to return to school, given that he could have been a Top 15 pick and he is returning to a logjam in the Kentucky frontcourt next season. I’ve always thought he had a higher ceiling than Nerlens Noel - neither guy is all that skilled on offense, but Cauley-Stein is just as athletic and he’s much bigger (7’0 240). He can switch on the pick-and-roll and lock up guards already. If he develops a post game or a 15-foot jumper this off-season, watch out.
Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga - Karnowski hasn’t gotten a ton of publicity at Gonzaga - he backed up Kelly Olynyk as a freshman and played second fiddle to Sam Dower as a sophomore. However, despite their wealth of talent upfront, the Zags decided to run their offense through a bunch of 6’1 guards instead of the 7’0 300 monster at C. Karnowski is a massive human being with an incredible amount of skill for a guy his size. He averaged 10 points a game on 59% shooting - he needs more than 7 shots a game.
Dakari Johnson, Kentucky - Johnson is kind of the converse of Cauley-Stein. They both have the size to be NBA C’s, but while Cauley-Stein doesn’t have a ton of skill, Johnson doesn’t have a lot of athleticism. At 7’0 260, he has good touch around the rim and a decent post game, but he’s not very agile and his interior defense leaves a lot to be desired. If Johnson can cut some weight off his frame, return to school in better shape and improve as a rebounder and shot-blocker, he will be a lottery pick.
AJ Hammons, Purdue - Progress has been slow for Hammons, whose been stuck on rebuilding teams in his first two seasons in Purdue. Nevertheless, the physical tools are there - at 7’0 250, Hammons is solidly built and can move well for a player his size. He averaged 11 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks a game on 51% shooting as a sophomore. If he can improve those numbers as a junior and get Purdue back in the NCAA Tournament discussion, he will be a first-round pick next year.
Mamadou N’Diaye, UC-Irvine - I didn’t really know what to make of him until I saw him in person, when UC-Irvine played SMU in the NIT. I came away pretty impressed. He’s way more athletic and way more skilled than you would expect a 7’6 300 guy to be. If he was only 7’0, he would still be an NBA prospect. At 7’6, he changes the geometry of the game just by standing in front of the rim. He’s not the most compelling basketball player at this stage in his career, but neither was Roy Hibbert as a freshman.
Other names to watch:
Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona), Joel James (UNC), Nnanna Egwu (Illinois), Nephawe Tshdizivili (New Mexico State)