Dribble Handoff: Picking the best senior college basketball players in the 2021 NBA Draft class

The NBA Draft is coming up next week, and as always, the event will result in the extraction of some elite young talent from college basketball as a fresh crop of one-and-done stars like Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs hear their names called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver. However, there might be a few college players selected who will actually be able to (legally) raise a glass of champagne in celebration.

It’s rare that players with four years of college experience sneak into the lottery, but there are usually a handful of seniors who end up getting drafted and making an impact in the NBA. One of those recent impact seniors has been showcasing his game this month with Suns forward Cam Johnson playing a key role for Phoenix during its run to the NBA Finals in just his second year as a pro after a five-year college career. 

More recently, Desmond Bane of the Grizzlies and Payton Pritchard of the Celtics turned in solid rookie seasons this year after playing four seasons of college ball. So who is the four-year (or more) college player from this season’s draft class who will have the best NBA career? Our writers weighed in on the topic for this week’s edition of the dribble handoff.

Chris Duarte, Oregon

I’m not certain where Duarte will be selected next week — maybe the late lottery, perhaps just outside of that, possibly in the 20s. But here’s my prediction: he’ll be one of the 10 best rookies next season and, yes, he’ll have the best career of any four-year college player from the 2021 NBA Draft. The 6-6 guard was the National Junior College Player of the Year before enrolling at Oregon, where he led Dana Altman’s program to back-to-back outright Pac-12 titles. As a senior, Duarte averaged 17.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 53.2% from the field, 42.4% from 3 and 81.0% from the free throw line. I know some front offices might be bothered by the fact that he’s already 24 years old, which is more than four years older than presumed No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, but I’m genuinely not because all that suggests is that Duarte is ready to plug-and-play from the jump. If I’m a contender looking for a piece who can help immediately, this is somebody I’m targeting and happy to add to my franchise. Gary Parrish

Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

Our Dribble Handoff normally has us providing four different answers for the question at hand, but as you’ll see in this edition, we had to double up. Kispert seems obviously best-positioned to have the most successful and long-lasting NBA career of any senior entering the draft. He improved as a basketball player with each season while at Gonzaga — you know, the way this sort of thing used to happen 25 years ago — and was part of a program that posted a 127-12 record during his time there. His career numbers: 82.4% foul shooter, 58.5% from 2-point range, 40.8% beyond the arc on a collective 1,399 attempts. 

We have ample evidence to suggest that the 6-6 Kispert is good enough to stick in the league as a spot-up shooter. He has the size, the form, is great off the catch and will have the range. His floor is among the very best of any prospect in this draft, and I expect him to play at least 10 years in the NBA. Matt Norlander

Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

I scanned the list of seniors in the draft and couldn’t prevent from echoing Norlander’s response. Kispert’s an NBA-ready shooter primed for a long career. He made 43.8% of his 3s two seasons ago at Gonzaga on 178 then backed up the outside shooting prowess again by making 44% of his 3s on 207 attempts as a senior on a Gonzaga team that lost once all season. 

His ability to take a high volume of outside shots and make them at an elite clip makes him one of the most coveted seniors in this draft class, and he is the one I feel most confident projecting to have the best career among the peers in his same classification. — Kyle Boone

M.J. Walker, Florida State

After a promising second season in the NBA, former four-year Florida State guard Terance Mann looks like a solid building block for the Clippers, but you might not have predicted that outcome when he was drafted 48th overall in 2019. Mann shot just 32.7% from 3-point range for his career at FSU, and although he raised that mark to 39% as a senior, he flew under the radar partially because of the system from which he came.

Florida State rarely produces flashy superstars with gaudy statistics or over-the-top personalities. Instead, the Seminoles have become one of college basketball’s top programs under Leonard Hamilton by prioritizing defense, hustle and unselfishness on the offensive end. That’s why M.J. Walker has staying power in the NBA, despite landing at just No. 56 on the latest CBS Sports NBA Draft Big Board. At 6-foot-5, he aligns with Mann both in terms of frame and game.

While his offensive game inside the arc is less efficient than Mann’s, Walker shot it better from the outside (42.3% in 2020-21) at FSU and has a better wingspan. Like Mann, Walker is defensively indoctrinated by Hamilton and has a high floor on that end. Mann has managed to become a solid 3-and-D wing at the next level, and Walker looks like he could do it just as well, if not better. David Cobb