New NBA mock draft is out (and a closer look at Isaiah Jackson’s stay-or-go decision)

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Ben Roberts
·5 min read
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The latest, post-NCAA Tournament mock draft released by ESPN on Thursday morning brings good news for Isaiah Jackson and bad news for Kentucky basketball fans holding out hope that the talented freshman might return to Lexington.

ESPN now projects Jackson as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, placing him in lottery range with a few spots to spare.

Jackson has declared for the draft while leaving open the option to return to Kentucky for another season. The 6-foot-10 forward and his family are seeking information that would place him in lottery range. If the feedback he receives from NBA teams suggests he won’t go in that range — the first 14 picks of the draft — then he could be back with the Wildcats for a sophomore year.

If ESPN’s new mock draft is any indication, Jackson will indeed be gone.

The “lottery range” line is a somewhat arbitrary marker, but there are notable differences in the NBA rookie salary scale as the picks go later in the first round.

This year, the No. 14 pick in the draft is set to earn $6,085,200 over the next two seasons, with a team option for a third season at a salary of $3,265,400. The 20th pick in this year’s draft will earn $4,543,400 with a team option for a third season at a salary at $2,437,900.

So, the difference in a mere six picks could also be a difference of nearly $2.5 million in salary over the next three seasons.

If Jackson were to return to school, the obvious goal would be to raise his NBA stock for the 2022 draft. The No. 14 pick in that draft is set to earn about $6.3 million over the first two seasons with a team option on a third season for $3.3 million. Moving up the scale five spots, the No. 9 pick in the 2022 draft is set to earn right around $8 million over the first two seasons with a third-year team option of $4.3 million.

And, if you’re really bullish on Jackson’s potential to return to school and raise his stock for the 2022 draft … next year’s No. 1 overall pick will earn $17.7 million over his first two seasons and $9.5 million on a team option for year three. (A combined $27.2 million).

Bottom line: if Jackson gets even the slightest assurance that he will be a lottery pick this year, expect him to move on to the draft. It has seemed like a long shot that he would return ever since he announced his intentions to seek NBA feedback, and ESPN’s latest projections show that, at the very least, he’s in the thick of the lottery discussion. It’s difficult to see him coming back to Kentucky, even if there’s a chance he could drop a few spots out of lottery range.

And if Jackson doesn’t return to UK, the Cats should still be loaded in the frontcourt next season. Midseason transfer Oscar Tshiebwe will be eligible to play, and star recruit Daimion Collins — a 6-10 forward with a similar skill set as Jackson’s — is expected to be John Calipari’s next big freshman star. UK should also have returning frontcourt players Lance Ware and Jacob Toppin, along with incoming combo forward Bryce Hopkins, as well as the possible return of Keion Brooks.

Jackson is Kentucky’s only expected NBA Draft pick who has yet to make a final decision on his basketball future.

Fellow freshman Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke are both all-in on this year’s draft, though neither player — despite being projected as lottery picks before the season — is now in the first-round range of ESPN’s mock draft.

Boston is the No. 35 pick on ESPN’s list. Clarke isn’t represented at all in the mock draft, though ESPN does have him at No. 71 overall on its rundown of the Top 100 prospects for the 2021 NBA Draft. That puts him 11 spots outside of the second round, though it would be a surprise if some team doesn’t take a chance on Clarke’s potential in the later stages of draft night.

Brooks has not indicated whether or not he will return to UK for next season, but he is not on ESPN’s Top 100 list, and he is not expected to be drafted this year.

Along with Brooks’ decision, Kentucky fans will want to keep an eye on Minnesota point guard Marcus Carr, who is exploring his NBA Draft options while leaving the option open to return to college. If he does come back to school, he’ll transfer to a new program, and Kentucky — still in search of veteran point guard help for next season — is expected to be a possible landing spot.

Carr is No. 93 overall on ESPN’s latest Top 100 list.

The NBA Combine is set for June 21-27, and the NCAA has set a withdrawal date of July 7, so any players wishing to return to school and play college basketball next season will need to have a decision by 11:59 that night.

The 2021 NBA Draft is scheduled for July 29.

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