Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Evaluating Bryce McGowens’ NBA Draft Decision

March 23, 2022

Nebraska freshman phenom Bryce McGowens announced on Monday that he is entering the 2022 NBA Draft, and then proceeded to sign with Jay-Z’s agency to show he’s all in on making the leap to the pros.

Whereas Dalano Banton choosing to remain in the draft last summer came as something of a surprise to Fred Hoiberg and his staff, McGowens being a one-and-done college player was pretty much always the plan.

Almost any time a player chooses to go pro with eligibility remaining, there’s a pretty vocal segment of the team’s fan base that considers it a mistake and thinks the player would have a lot to gain by going back to school for one more year to improve his game and boost his draft stock.

This year’s Big Ten provided plenty of ammunition for those fans as arguably three of the top 10 to 15 players in the country were Big Ten sophomores who had breakout seasons in Iowa’s Keegan Murray, Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey. Murray and Davis are two of the four finalists for the Naismith Award while Ivey joined the other two on the 15-player Wooden Award ballot.

Players boosting their stock with a strong college season is something that happens every year. However, a return to school doesn’t guarantee a player moves up. Looking at the 2021 draft, 19 of the 30 first-round picks were one-and-dones, from the G League or international players. Six more were sophomores, five of which were recruits ranked outside of the top-50 in their class. 

To look at it another way, toss in the five upperclassmen and there were only two 5-star recruits (Tre Mann and Quentin Grimes) who played more than one year of college and still got drafted in the first round. That’s where the comparison between McGowens and the three Big Ten sophomore studs breaks down.

Davis was a 3-star recruit ranked 164th in the 247Sports Composite (4-star, No. 134 by Rivals). He averaged 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds in 24.3 minutes per game as a freshman. Murray was a 3-star ranked 334th in the 247Sports Composite (unranked 3-star by Rivals) who averaged 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds in 18.0 minutes per game. Ivey (not ranked by 247Sports but a 4-star recruit ranked 79th by Rivals) played a larger role than the other two but still only put up 11.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 24.2 minutes per game.

None of those three had the kind of pedigree that McGowens brought to Lincoln as a 4-star recruit ranked 29th in the 247Sports Composite (Rivals had him at No. 30 and a 5-star recruit) who competed in front of NBA scouts at the Iverson Classic. Make no mistake — that pedigree plays a part in how decision-makers view prospects. Those three also didn’t have the same kind of role as freshmen that McGowens did as the No. 1 option for his team averaging 16.8 points and 33.3 minutes per game.

McGowens was third among all true freshman in scoring this season behind only two players who will be in the mix for the No. 1 pick — Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Auburn’s Jabari Smith. There’s far more to basketball than simply scoring average, however, and if McGowens had managed to put up those numbers more efficiently there wouldn’t be much of a debate.

The 6-foot-7 wing shot just 40.3% from the field including 27.4% from 3, and he averaged more turnovers (2.1) than assists (1.4). There is a plenty of room for growth for the young bucket-getter from South Carolina. However, while Nebraska’s lack of other firepower allowed him to post some big point totals as the featured option, poor spacing and shot creation around him also played a big part in his low percentages as he lived on a shot diet with a high degree of difficulty, some by choice but mostly out of necessity.

A prospect that chooses to return to school can either get better, remain the same, get worse or suffer a significant injury, and three of those four results will likely hurt the player’s draft stock. There’s a significant amount of risk involved with a return to school that proponents of it often brush aside or don’t consider at all. 

In order to move up draft boards next year, McGowens would have to improve significantly on his percentages. I think he could, but I can’t say for certain at this point that Nebraska will have a significantly improved roster and if he’s thrust into the same role having to take the same kind of tough shots again, how much improvement could we really expect?

Currently, McGowens seems to fall in the late-first to early-second round range. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has him at No. 30 on his big board, for example. I think as scouts really dive into his tape and take a closer look at the context behind his numbers, he could move up boards.

Considering the kind of role he’ll likely play at the next level, the biggest red flag for McGowens is probably his 3-point percentage. He hit just 40 of his 146 attempts this season, and some of those misses were pretty ugly. However, he shot 39.9% on nearly 700 attempts during his four years of high school at Wren and then Legacy Early College (and the college line was no challenge judging off where he took many of his shots in high school). He also shot 83.1% from the free-throw line on good volume this season, and scouts often look at free-throw percentage as an indicator of true shooting touch.

Furthermore, McGowens shot an even 50% (20-of-40) on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers this season, ranking in the 89th percentile nationally. However, more than half his attempts were guarded (54 attempts) and he shot just 22.2% on those, and he also shot 24.4% on all jumpers off the dribble (78 of them). If he wants to become a big-time scorer at the next level he’s going to have to improve those percentages at some point, but as a freshman those numbers point to the difficult situation he played in this season.

What’s so appealing about McGowens is his creativity offensively, the way he’s able to convert difficult shots at and around the basket using his length, athleticism and touch. He’s shown significant promise in the pick-and-roll and in spot-up situations as well as cutting to the basket. He got to experiment quite a bit and test his limits this season with how often he had the ball in his hands and with how frequently Nebraska needed him to create something out of nothing. He also put on close to 20 pounds in the nine months he’s been on campus, and adding weight in-season is very difficult to do.

Could McGowens improve his stock by returning to Nebraska for a second season? Sure. But there’s plenty of risk involved and he could also improve his stock this year with a strong pre-draft showing.

We’ve mostly covered the basketball side of things here, but there’s a reason college basketball players are called student-athletes: they have to go to class at some point, and that may not be for everybody. Going pro allows them to spend as much time as they want working on their game with little else in the way of distractions or other obligations, and I can see how that would be appealing to a basketball junkie like McGowens.

Ultimately, Bryce has made his decision, and wether it’s the best move or not he’s committed to seeing it through. I’ll certainly be rooting for him throughout the process and I’m looking forward to hearing his name called on June 23.

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