Jaylen Nowell, KZ Okpala highlight early departures for Pac-12 basketball

Oregon’s Payton Pritchard heading back to school as draft deadline passes

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Washington’s Jaylen Nowell, left, will stay in the NBA draft.

The Colorado men’s basketball team no longer will have to be concerned with slowing Washington’s Jaylen Nowell, Stanford’s KZ Okpala, or Arizona’s Brandon Randolph — all of whom officially are going pro.

However, next year Payton Pritchard from Oregon and CJ Elleby from Washington State will remain fixtures in the Buffaloes’ defensive game-planning in the Pac-12 Conference.

The deadline for underclassmen to remain in the NBA draft or return to school passed on Wednesday, and while the deadline technically didn’t arrive until 10 p.m. MT, most of the key figures still on the fence within the Pac-12 had announced their decisions by late Wednesday afternoon.

Nowell was the Player of the Year in the Pac-12 while leading the Huskies to the regular-season conference crown and the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He started all 36 games for the Huskies and averaged 16.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. Nowell shot .502 overall from the floor and posted a .440 mark on 3-pointers. projects Nowell as a mid-second round pick. Washington would have been the clear favorite in 2019-20 had Nowell returned, yet the Huskies still will be formidable with an incoming freshman class set to include five-star prospects Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels.

Randolph also made his departure from Arizona official, though it was expected. Randolph led the Wildcats in scoring at 12.4 points per game but shot just .384 from the floor. Okpala, a projected mid-first round selection, was a first-team All-Pac-12 performer for Stanford last season, averaging 16.8 points and 5.7 rebounds.

More pertinent to coach Tad Boyle’s CU Buffs is who is returning to the Pac-12, and Pritchard’s return to Oregon will be a huge boost to an Oregon team already losing underclassmen Louis King and Kenny Wooten from its Sweet 16 squad.

Pritchard, who will be a senior next year, was a driving force behind the Ducks’ run to the Pac-12 tournament title, averaging 16 points as Oregon became just the second team of the Pac-12 era — following the 2012 Buffs — to win four games in four days to claim the tournament championship. Pritchard also posted 22 assists against just four turnovers in those four games.

Ezra Shaw / Getty Images
Oregon’s Payton Pritchard takes a shot over Wisconsin’s Brevin Pritzl on Friday.

Elleby’s return to WSU will give first-year coach Kyle Smith a budding start to build around as he attempts to revive the Cougars’ program. As a freshman last season Elleby averaged 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds but, like Pritchard, wasn’t projected to get selected in the two-round NBA draft.

On the heels of Tres Tinkle’s announcement late last week that he would return to Oregon State for his senior year, teammate Ethan Thompson did the same on Wednesday, opting to return to OSU for his junior season after averaging 13.7 points and a team-leading 3.9 assists last season. Utah’s Donnie Tillman, also a fringe NBA draft prospect, will return to the Utes.

Prior to Wednesday a number of now-former Pac-12 stars had announced their intentions to remain in the NBA draft pool, a list that includes the UCLA trio of Kris Wilkes, Moses Brown, and Jaylen Hands; Arizona State’s Luguentz Dort; Oregon’s Bol Bol, whose lone season in Eugene was limited to nine games due to a foot injury; and USC freshman Kevin Porter Jr.

Though not a Pac-12 prospect but one who could be a problem for the Buffs, Dayton’s Obi Toppin also announced he would return to the Flyers after an impressive freshman season in which he averaged 14.4 points and 5.6 rebounds with a stellar .666 field goal percentage. Toppin went 9-for-12 with 21 points and six rebounds in Dayton’s first-round NIT loss at CU, and the teams will square off in a rematch Dec. 21 at the United Center in Chicago.