Back for more: SEC boasts standout set of returnees

By: Bob Holt
Published: Friday, July 6, 2018
Daniel Gafford goes in for a dunk during a game against Missouri on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Daniel Gafford goes in for a dunk during a game against Missouri on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas Razorbacks forward Daniel Gafford wasn't among the SEC players who withdrew from the NBA Draft this year.

Even though Gafford was projected as a first-round pick, he chose to return to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and Razorbacks Coach Mike Anderson for his sophomore season without even testing the waters.

THEY’RE BAAAACK

The SEC is returning several players who either declared for the NBA Draft and then withdrew and returned to college, or in the case of Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford didn’t enter the draft despite being projected as a first-round pick.

Here are some of the top returnees:

PLAYER;TEAM;STATS

Bryce Brown;Auburn;15.9 ppg, hit 107-280 3-pointers

Terence Davis; Ole Miss; 13.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg

Daniel Gafford;Arkansas;11.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.2 bpg

Jared Harper;Auburn;13.2 ppg, 5.3 apg

Aric Holman; Mississippi State;10.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg

Jalen Hudson;Florida;15.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg

John Petty;Alabama; 10.8 ppg

Jontay Porter;Missouri;9.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg

Admiral Schofield, Tennessee; 13.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg

Chris Silva; South Carolina;14.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg

P.J. Washington;Kentucky;10.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg

Tremont Waters;LSU;15.9 ppg, 6.0 apg, 2.0 spg

Quinndary Weatherspoon; Mississippi State; 14.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg

NOTE Kentucky forward Reid Travis, a graduate transfer, averaged 19.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg at Stanford last season

"I consider Mike Anderson one of my best friends, but I didn't like the sales, pitch -- or whatever happened with the rationale for Gafford coming back to Arkansas," Alabama Coach Avery Johnson said. "I sure would have liked to see him go in the NBA Draft so I wouldn't have to deal with him this year and watch all of his exploits on the court."

Johnson, who coached in the NBA with the Mavericks and Nets, presumably was joking about being upset Gafford is back in the SEC.

But maybe not considering Gafford's skillset in a 6-11 body.

"I see him as a first-round pick next year without a shadow of a doubt," Johnson said during the SEC coaches' summer teleconference. "He plays the right way. He's long, he's athletic, he's an emerging offensive player. He has a great presence on defense."

Gafford averaged 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots in 22.6 minutes per game last season.

"He's a bonafide first-round pick," South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said. "He got so much better from his senior year in high school to the end of his freshman year in college. He's an exciting kid to root for, because you see the joy, the energy, the enthusiasm that he plays with.

"Now, as an opposing coach, it's not fun to sit there and watch him play. But I root for kids like him."

Along with Gafford's decision to return to Arkansas, several SEC teams had players who declared for the draft, but didn't sign with an agent to retain their eligibility and then chose to withdraw their names and return to college.

Among the returnees:

• Auburn guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper and forward Austin Wiley

• Kentucky forward P.J. Washington and new Wildcats forward Reid Travis, a graduate transfer from Stanford

• Missouri forward Jontay Porter

• LSU point guard Tremont Waters

• Florida guard Jalen Hudson

• Mississippi State guards and brothers Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon and center Aric Holman

• South Carolina forward Chris Silva

• Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield

• Ole Miss guard Terence Davis

Not a bad group to add to Gafford.

"That would be a very good pro team," Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said. "A very fun team to coach."

Brown, Harper, Silva, Schofield and Quinndary Weatherspoon were voted to the coaches' All-SEC teams and Gafford, Porter, Waters and Nick Weatherspoon made the All-Freshman team.

"There's some unbelievably good players who probably would be playing on an NBA summer league team if they had stayed in the draft," Martin said. "Instead they're going to be playing college basketball in the SEC."

Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew -- who played six seasons in the NBA with the Rockets, Bulls and Hornets -- said the return of so many experienced players with pro aspirations is an indication of the SEC's strength.

"I think it speaks volumes to the programs they're in, that they're happy where they are and they feel they're getting better and they're going to be in a better place a year from now than where they are right now," Drew said. "I also think it's a great compliment to the league, because they know the league's going to be even better and they're going to be play against draft picks on a nightly basis here."

Auburn guard Mustapha Heron, who averaged a team-high 16.4 points, transferred to St. John's to be closer to his ailing mother, who lives in Connecticut, but Brown and Harper's return gives the Tigers an experienced backcourt.

Wiley, 6-11, wasn't eligible last season as the NCAA investigated his recruitment, but he has been cleared to play for Auburn this season.

"It's very important for our program," Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said of Brown, Harper and Wiley returning for the Tigers. "But it was great for those kids to be able to go through that [pre-draft] process and get worked out and evaluated.

"I thought we got really good feedback. Not every player is going to listen to what he's being told. Our kids I think did. I commend the NBA for their lines of communication, the scouts, the coaching staffs.

"As much as it's a business, I really do think they want the kids to make the best decisions. And they give accurate information."

Hudson led Florida in scoring as a junior last season when he averaged 15.5 points after transferring from Virginia Tech and redshirting.

"Like a lot of guys in this league, I'm sure Jalen heard the same thing [from NBA scouts sand coaches] as he did from his current coaching staff," Gators Coach Mike White said. "But I think it hits home a little bit more with these young people when the information's coming from the highest level, the NBA.

"The fact that he's got to become a better defender and a better rebounder. He's got to play with some more edge.

"Jalen is very talented and very intelligent. He understands he's got to be able to dig a little bit deeper and play with a little more intensity, be a little bit more consistent."

Waters, 5-11, averaged 15.9 points, 6.0 assists and 2.0 steals as a freshman last season to help revive LSU.

"I think the experience for him was awesome, because he's a mature kid," LSU Coach Will Wade said of Waters declaring for the draft. "So he's able to look at the feedback and look at the information he got non-emotionally, and say, 'Hey, this is good. This is true. This is where I need to go to work.'

"The No. 1 thing he's worked on is his body. He's bigger, he's stronger, he's got more girth to him. I think that was some of his main feedback, was get your body in as good a shape and as strong as you can possibly get it.

"He has attacked it in the weight room, in conditioning, but especially with his nutrition and how he eats every day. He's very regimented about what he eats and how he eats. How he sleeps.

"All the little things, I think he understands what difference-makers those are. He's really helped some of our younger guys with that, too."

Ten SEC players with college experience are listed among Sports Illustrated's top 60 prospects for the 2019 NBA Draft, led by Gafford at No. 8, Porter at No. 15 and Washington at No. 19.

Other returning SEC players on the list include Alabama's Herbert Jones at No. 29, Holman at No. 47; Schofield at No. 49, Alabama's John Petty at No. 51, Travis at No. 55 and Hudson at No. 60.

"Last year the league was the best I've ever seen it top to bottom," said Pearl, who is going into his fourth season at Auburn after coaching six seasons at Tennessee. "There just truly wasn't a night off.

"When I was at Tennessee, we had a couple of games every year where if we just didn't beat ourselves, we'd win. That is absolutely not the case anymore."

Kentucky Coach John Calipari has seven McDonald's High School All-Americans on his roster, including Washington and Travis.

The other McDonald's All-Americans for the Wildcats are returners Quade Green and Nick Richards and freshmen E.J. Montgomery, Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson.

"John likes this team, and he likes them in June," Pearl said. "That's scary for the rest of us. Usually he doesn't start liking them until March."

Eight SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament last season.

"We're not just a football conference anymore," Johnson said. "We're really serious about basketball."

White said considering the SEC's balance, it made a case for being the nation's top basketball conference a year ago.

"We were in the conversation for sure," White said. "I think with the continued development of a lot of these programs and the added experience with a lot of guys returning that potentially could have taken off and become professionals, it makes an even stronger argument for the SEC moving forward as the best league in the country."

Sports on 07/06/2018

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