How NBA draft deadline decisions affect UK, Calipari and the rest of college basketball

It lasted long into Wednesday night — and then carried over to Thursday afternoon — but the most-anticipated NBA draft decision in Kentucky basketball circles leading up to this year’s deadline finally ended up going the way the Wildcats wanted.

Not only will Jaxson Robinson return to college, but he’s already committed to UK.

The 6-foot-7 guard from Ada, Oklahoma, was BYU’s leading scorer this past season under head coach Mark Pope, who left Provo last month to take over the Wildcats’ program.

Robinson removed his name from NBA consideration ahead of the 11:59 p.m. draft deadline Wednesday night, though that decision was not confirmed until early Thursday afternoon, more than 12 hours after the deadline had passed. Along with that confirmation, Robinson told ESPN that he has committed to play for Kentucky next season, pushing Pope’s first UK roster to 12 scholarship players.

The 21-year-old averaged 14.2 points per game at BYU in 2023-24 and will have one season of NCAA eligibility remaining. ESPN ranks him as the No. 17 transfer in the country, and his commitment is likely to vault Kentucky onto national top-25 lists in the coming days.

Robinson was far from the only big name to reveal his future plans.

While some who were still in the draft pool at the beginning of the week — such as Kentucky transfer commitments Koby Brea, Lamont Butler, Andrew Carr and Amari Williams — were foregone conclusions to return to college, and others — like Bronny James — were clearly going to stay in the draft, several players were truly undecided heading into deadline day.

Here’s a look at the biggest decisions in the final hours leading up to the draft deadline.

Jaxson Robinson averaged 14.2 points per game and made 81 3-pointers for the BYU Cougars during the 2023-24 season.
Jaxson Robinson averaged 14.2 points per game and made 81 3-pointers for the BYU Cougars during the 2023-24 season.

Ugonna Onyenso stays in school

The final uncommitted scholarship player from the Calipari era at Kentucky remains uncommitted.

Ugonna Onyenso, who said he was focused fully on the NBA draft process shortly after the end of the 2023-24 season, decided on Wednesday to remove his name from consideration and will return for a third year of college basketball.

Onyenso, who won’t turn 20 years old until September, played sparingly in his first season at Kentucky and — after a late start to the 2023-24 campaign due to a summer injury — emerged as UK’s starting center by the end of his sophomore year. He ended up with 14 starts in 24 appearances, averaging 3.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 18.6 minutes per game.

His offensive numbers don’t jump off the page, but his defensive ability will make him a coveted target out of the transfer portal, as well as a tantalizing draft prospect next year. ESPN ranked him as the No. 68 overall player for this year’s draft before he decided to stay in school.

Onyenso is not expected to return to Kentucky, and he’s also considered unlikely to rejoin Calipari in Fayetteville next season. Several schools have been mentioned as possible landing spots for the 7-footer — including Louisville — and his recruitment is far from settled now that he’s officially out of the draft.

Kentucky sophomore Ugonna Onyenso takes a photo with the student section after recording 10 blocks against Mississippi on Feb. 13 at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky sophomore Ugonna Onyenso takes a photo with the student section after recording 10 blocks against Mississippi on Feb. 13 at Rupp Arena.

Wooga Poplar still an option?

Miami’s Wooga Poplar removed his name from the NBA draft Wednesday, and Kentucky has been on his recruiting radar for the past several weeks.

Poplar — a 6-5 guard from Philadelphia — averaged 13.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game for the Hurricanes this past season, shooting 38.1% from 3-point range and 86.5% on free throws during his two years as a starter for Miami.

He has been expected to take a visit to Kentucky, though it’s unclear how Robinson’s commitment will affect his status, and there will be plenty of competition in his recruitment. Oregon is scheduled to host Poplar for a visit next week, hometown Villanova looms as a potential favorite, and other schools will no doubt jump into the mix for one of the top remaining players in the portal.

247Sports ranks Poplar as the No. 17 transfer in the country, and he’s No. 18 on ESPN’s list, one spot behind Robinson.

Mark Sears is back at Alabama

Already the likely preseason favorite to win the SEC next season, Alabama got a whole lot better Wednesday.

Mark Sears — the leading scorer for the Tide’s first Final Four team this past season — announced on deadline day that he would return to Tuscaloosa for his fifth and final year of NCAA eligibility.

Sears, who was projected by some national outlets as a second-round pick in next month’s NBA draft, averaged 21.5 points per game (ranking 11th nationally) and shot 43.6% from 3-point range for Alabama, his second season there after spending his first two years in college basketball at Ohio.

Sears’ return will vault Alabama into the conversation for the No. 1 ranking nationally, with coach Nate Oats’ roster featuring other key returnees — Grant Nelson and Latrell Wrightsell Jr. had previously said they would be back, and freshman forward Jarin Stevenson also pulled out of the draft Wednesday night — plus the country’s No. 2 recruiting class and a strong group of transfer portal additions.

CBS Sports bumped Alabama to No. 2 nationally (behind only Kansas) in its updated Top 25 on Wednesday night.

Sears is likely to be the preseason SEC player of the year.

Elsewhere in the league, Ole Miss leading scorer Matthew Murrell announced Wednesday that he will return to the Rebels for a fifth and final season. Chris Beard’s squad will be among 10 or so SEC teams with realistic NCAA Tournament expectations heading into the 2024-25 campaign.

Alabama guard Mark Sears and coach Nate Oats will look to put the Crimson Tide back in the Final Four next season.
Alabama guard Mark Sears and coach Nate Oats will look to put the Crimson Tide back in the Final Four next season.

John Calipari keeps top transfer

In one particular case, no news was good news for John Calipari and the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Johnell Davis — the top transfer for Calipari’s first season in Fayetteville — had been the subject of intense speculation behind the scenes in recent days that he might actually remain in the NBA draft and not play for Calipari after all.

That won’t be the case.

Davis, who helped lead Florida Atlantic on an improbable Final Four run in 2023 and starred for the Owls this past season, will indeed head to Arkansas for his final year of college basketball. The 6-4 guard averaged 18.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, shooting 41.4% from 3-point range at FAU last season.

Both ESPN and 247Sports ranked Davis as the No. 3 overall transfer in the country this offseason, and he’s the favorite to lead Arkansas in scoring under Calipari in 2024-25.

The Razorbacks’ roster currently sits at eight scholarship players, and Calipari could add at least one more big name to the mix this spring.

Coleman Hawkins returns to college

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the NIL explosion in college basketball will be Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins, who decided Wednesday night to return for a fifth season and is expected to get a seven-figure promise wherever he lands next.

Hawkins averaged 12.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game in his fourth year with the Illini, and his deadline-day decision was among the most-anticipated in college basketball. ESPN ranks him as the No. 11 overall player in the portal, making him the top available player on that list.

Arkansas will be considered one of the teams to beat — and possibly the favorite — to land Hawkins, who could slot into a frontcourt with Tennessee transfer Jonas Aidoo and former Kentucky player Zvonimir Ivisic as John Calipari enters year one with the Razorbacks.

Such a scenario could make Arkansas a top-15 team nationally to start the 2024-25 season, though there will be plenty of suitors for Hawkins’ services in the coming days.

Jaylen Wells off the board

In a blow to teams still looking for some serious scoring punch out of the transfer portal, Washington State forward Jaylen Wells opted to keep his name in the NBA draft Wednesday.

Wells — a 6-8 junior — had been mentioned as a possible Kentucky target shortly after Mark Pope became head coach of the Wildcats, though that buzz had settled down in recent weeks. Texas Tech was viewed as the favorite had Wells opted to return to college, but such a scenario would have likely set off a frenzy of interest in his recruitment. Instead, he’s off to the draft, limiting the pool of available instant-impact players even further.

ESPN ranked him as the No. 16 transfer in the portal.

UConn gets more good news

Another already-stacked roster that got even better Wednesday? The UConn Huskies.

Coach Dan Hurley and the two-time defending NCAA champions learned on NBA draft deadline day that Alex Karaban — the No. 3 scorer, No. 3 rebounder and No. 2 3-point shooter for the Huskies in 2023-24 — will be back in Storrs for his third season. Karaban has been a starter for each of UConn’s two national title seasons and is projected to be Hurley’s top player in the quest for a three-peat in 2025.

He averaged 13.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game this past season and has made 147 3-pointers at a 38.9% rate during his two years in college. Karaban returns to a roster that was already ranked No. 7 by ESPN without him, and the Huskies are likely to begin their latest NCAA title defense ranked in the top five nationally. ESPN had Karaban as the No. 36 prospect in this year’s draft.

Elsewhere in college basketball …

All-American guard Caleb Love announced that he will return to Arizona for another year, potentially placing the Wildcats in the top 10 nationally as they enter their first season in the Big 12.

As expected, Kansas freshman Johnny Furphy opted to stay in the NBA draft, where he’s projected as a first-round pick. The Jayhawks were already widely ranked as the No. 1 team in the country on preseason lists, and that was with the expectation that Furphy would be gone.

Hunter Sallis, a former five-star recruit who was highly coveted by Kentucky before spending two underwhelming years at Gonzaga and then emerging as a star at Wake Forest this past season, withdrew from the draft and will return to the Demon Deacons.

Florida State wing Jamir Watkins withdrew from the NBA draft just ahead of Wednesday night’s deadline and will be one of the most coveted transfers in the portal. The 6-7 junior spent his first two seasons at VCU and averaged 15.6 points per game for the Seminoles in 2023-24. 247Sports ranks him as the No. 10 transfer in the country.

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