By Lorenzo Tanos
Once upon a time, college freshmen and sophomores only declared for the NBA Draft as literal "hardship" cases – these were players from mostly poor backgrounds whose NBA potential suggested it would be better for them to support their families through pro ball rather than stay in school. Academic woes were also considered a valid reason for an underclassman to skip his remaining years of eligibility for NBA dollars.
These days, it isn't uncommon to see "one and done" players enter their names in the Draft, even those with mediocre freshman stats. Other times, players would wait another year or two more before declaring as underclassmen. And if you're a senior Draft eligible player nowadays, chances are you're not from a college basketball powerhouse, and if you are, perhaps you've stayed one or two years too many. Yes, the college senior with Draft potential is a dying breed, but there are still several who have a serious chance to be drafted, albeit most likely not as a lottery pick. With that said, here are five incoming seniors who could find themselves among the underclassmen in the first round of next year's NBA Draft. We must warn you, though, this year's pickings seem even slimmer than usual.
Zeke Marshall (C, 7'0"-235, Akron) – He barely missed making my "Put Up or Shut Up" list of disappointing incoming seniors because of his shotblocking. Marshall has been a disappointment as Akron's most touted recruit ever, yet he was still the Zips' leader in scoring, rebounding and blocks in 2011-12. If he develops more of a mean streak and shows more toughness underneath, I don't see why he shouldn't finally live up to expectations as a senior.
Trevor Mbakwe (F, 6'8"-245, Minnesota) – Injuries had shortened Mbakwe's junior season to just seven games, but when he's healthy, he's a great shotblocker and rebounder for his size. He is what commentators think of when they say the word "upside," even if he'll be turning a ripe old 24 next January. He could make a nice pick in the second half of the first round.
C.J. McCollum (G, 6'3"-190, Lehigh) –After briefly considering putting his name in the NBA Draft pool for this year, McCollum wisely decided to return for another year with the Mountain Hawks. He's a terrific rebounder for his size with an impressive wingspan, but his main calling card is as an explosive scorer. He will almost certainly become the highest-drafted player in Lehigh history, and is arguably the best returning senior in the NCAA, regardless of position.
Jeff Withey (C, 7'0"-235, Kansas) – Withey had a breakout junior season after barely seeing any action in his first two years with the Jayhawks, and with Thomas Robinson preparing for his NBA debut, he's automatically the best returning frontcourt player in the lineup. What stands out in his stat line is his free throw shooting – close to 80 percent – and his impressive 3.6 blocks per game in just 25 minutes of action. He's still very raw offensively and does need to bulk up a bit, but stands a very good chance of being drafted in the twenties – or even higher, if he fully takes advantage of Robinson's departure.
Nate Wolters (G, 6'4"-190, South Dakota State) – He has good size for a point guard, he gets to the line, and he's a great scorer. Unfortunately, he's far from the most athletic guard in the college ranks, and that might seriously hurt his chances of getting drafted in the first round. Still, he led the Jackrabbits to a national tourney berth, and has the makings of a sleeper pick regardless of draft order.
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