The Oregon men's basketball season sits in a precarious situation. In a sport where not one player that's good enough to make millions in the NBA wants to play for free in college, the Ducks, like other programs, are continually fighting to build a national title contender before their best players move on to get paid.
Oregon's men's basketball season ended sooner than it had hoped but also much later than anyone could have expected once the Pac-12 Conference season began without Bol Bol, lost for the season with a foot injury. The team's run to the Pac-12 tournament championship and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, where last Thursday it fell to No. 1-seed Virginia, was accomplished with a roster that consisted of just two seniors (Paul White and Ehab Amin) and enough talented underclassmen to at least contemplate a deeper run next season.
However, that likely won't be possible without the return of freshman Louis King, who following the team's loss to Virginia he is undecided about his future. King is the key to it all. With him, the Ducks would have the look of a Final Four contender. With out him, it's difficult to believe that the Ducks will make another strong run.
Now let's return to a world where both Pritchard and Wooten do return. In this world, a team led by this duo would be quite formidable. Plus, they would be surrounded by a ton of budding talent. Guard Victor Bailey Jr., who will become a junior, is going to bust out next season. The former four-star recruit shot .39 percent from three-point range last season and should only improve his all-around game.
The 2018 recruiting class was led by five-star gems, King and Bol Bol, who will be a first-round pick in June, but also featured three four-star recruits. Guard Will Richardson, forward Miles Norris and center Francis Okoro certainly flashed great potential this season.
Then Oregon has its incoming class led by five-star forward C.J. Walker, and four-star recruits; guard Christopher Duarte, forward Chandler Lawson and center Isaac Johnson.
On paper, that's at least six recent four-star recruits, a five-star talent in Walker, Payton and Wooten hit the hardwood with next season. Not bad. But it's not good enough to make a Final Four run given the extreme youth.
What that group needs is King to get them over the top. King, after Bol Bol went down with a foot injury, was easily UO's most talented player on the court. He initially struggled after missing seven games with a torn meniscus. He shot 21 of 64 (32.8 percent) over his first seven games before finding his grove. He finished at 43.8 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from three while ranking second on the team in scoring (13.5), only behind Bol Bol (21.1) and second in rebounds (5.5), also behind his fallen teammate (9.6).
King would be the team's centerpiece. The star other teams fear. The player that could make everyone around him better by his sheer presence, especially the incoming freshmen. He is a fluid, graceful, 6-foot-9 athlete capable of getting his own shot, penetrating and dropping threes in the faces of defenders. What's not to love?
King would be this team's Dillon Brooks, who led the Ducks to the 2017 Final Four.
That's a big "if." King is a sure thing.
Imagine, if you will, this season's Ducks team with Troy Brown as the centerpiece.
Brown entered the NBA after his freshman season and went to the Washington Wizards at No. 16. Had he remained at Oregon, he could have helped the Ducks maybe win the Pac-12 regular season even without Bol Bol.
The reality is that most Final Four teams are led by either future NBA players with some seasoning, and/or battle-tested upperclassmen that play the game at such a mentally high level that younger, more talented teams can't compete.
Look at Duke. It features two players in Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett that could go one-two in this year's NBA Draft yet that team didn't go as far as the Ducks did in 2017 with not one first-round pick. The Blue Devils, before losing to Michigan State in the Elite Eight, barely got by Central Florida (77-76) and Virginia Tech (75-73).
What the Ducks did have in 2017 were three future second-round picks in Brooks, Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey, that had been around a couple of years and were running with a senior in Chris Boucher that is now with the Atlanta Hawks after going undrafted following a knee injury. That combination of talent and experience led the Ducks to the Final Four.
King, as an experience sophomore with NBA potential, would be deadly, much like Brooks two years ago as a junior. Brown would have been the same but he left early. The comparison of King to Brown in terms of potential impact as sophomores is real but the comparison between the two as NBA prospects is murky.NBADraft.net does not list King in its two-round mock draft and neither does HoopsHype.com.
That all could change if King were to workout well at the NBA combine, and online mock drafts don't necessarily reflect what NFL scouts are thinking. But as of now, King doesn't appear to be a lock to get drafted.
For Oregon's sake, it should hope that King decides to return and attempt to play his way into becoming a potential first-round pick in 2020, rather than chase the dream too soon and end up toiling in the G League. With Dana Altman coaching, the team buying into playing elite defense, a glut of young talent and the likely return of Pritchard and Wooten, Mr. King could be set up for a glorious sophomore season.
Without him, Oregon will still be good next season. There is no denying that. But the Ducks won't have a legitimate chance of reaching the Final Four without the return of its King.