If there are any lessons to be learned from this week’s NBA Draft it’s that if you’re a college player with designs on being a 1st-round pick, you’re better off leaving school a year too early than waiting until it’s too late.

The numbers bear that out.

Of the 22 US college players taken in the opening round of this year’s draft Wednesday, 10 had just finished their freshman seasons while 3 others were sophomores. Only 2 upperclassmen – Purdue center Zach Edey and Providence guard Devin Carter – made it into the top 14 lottery picks.

That’s something to keep in mind when looking ahead to the prospects of ACC players in next year’s draft.

Because while there’s plenty of talent returning in the conference, led by UNC’s 2024 Player of the Year RJ Davis, those with the best chance of becoming 1st-rounders in 2025 are players who have yet to appear in their first college game.

It’s a group that includes the potential top overall pick and several others who could go among the top 10, including these names to remember:

Cooper Flagg, wing, Duke

Flagg isn’t generating the same kind of hype that surrounded another Blue Devils prodigy of recent vintage. But there’s a chance he could match Zion Williamson in at least one way by joining him as a No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

The 6-9 combination of size, athleticism, shooting ability, basketball IQ and defensive intensity is universally considered the top-ranked prospect in the incoming freshman class. He’s already an elite prospect with a well-rounded skill set and an edge to his game (which makes him a perfect fit for Duke). But he’s also still growing physically and figuratively and still has an even higher ceiling.

The highest-rated prospect ever from Maine, Flagg’s resume includes his home state’s Gatorade Player of the Year award as a freshman and national Naismith Player of the Year recognition as a senior after transferring to Montverde Academy in Orlando in 2022. On Friday, he became the only college player named to the USA Basketball Select team that will help prepare Team USA for next month’s Olympics.

Besides his talent, he has one other quality the NBA loves. Youth. Having reclassified from the Class of 2025, he’ll still be only 18 at the time of next year’s draft.

Khaman Maluach, center, Duke

Another young prospect who reclassified to be eligible for the 2025 draft, Maluach is the talented rim protector the Blue Devils lacked last season. At 7-foot-2 tall with a standing reach of 9-8 and a 7-5 wingspan, he’s the talented rim protector the Blue Devils lacked last season.

A product of the NBA Academy Africa mentored by former Duke star and fellow South Senegal native Luol Deng, Malauch is ranked as the nation’s top-ranked center and No. 3 overall prospect by 247Sports. Beyond his defensive prowess, he’s a strong finisher around the rim and has surprising range on his jump shot for a player his size.

Even though he’s still young, Malauch is already front-and-center on the NBA’s radar. He showed off his already polished skill set for representatives of all 30 teams last December at the G League Winter Showcase event in Orlando. He also has extensive international experience, playing for South Sudan’s senior national team. He is the 3rd-youngest player in FIBA World Cup history and later this summer he’ll represent his country in the Paris Olympics.

Jalil Bethea, shooting guard, Miami

A 5-star shooting guard, Bethea is the highest-rated recruit to sign with the Hurricanes. He’s drawn favorable comparisons to Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker because of his size and ability to put the ball in the basket.

He’s a high-volume scorer and shot-maker capable of consistently knocking down 3-pointers both off the catch and the dribble. He’s also got the kind of straight-line speed to blow past his defender and score at the rim. He’ll be even better at playing through contact as he adds muscle and bulk to his 6-4, 170-pound frame.

The Philadelphia native is the 2024 Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year who started for the East team at the McDonald’s All-American Game. He’s already been projected as the No. 4 pick in a 2025 mock draft (with Flagg and Maluch also in the top 3) by ESPN analyst and DraftExpress founder Jonathan Givony.

Ian Jackson, combo guard, North Carolina

Jackson’s statistical contribution to the Tar Heels probably won’t be as impressive as you might expect from a 5-star recruit regarded as one of the top players in his class because of Davis’ return and the expected improvement of sophomore point guard Elliot Cadeau.

He’s an explosive, athletic 2-way guard who is at his best in transition, which should make him a good fit for coach Hubert Davis’ preferred up-tempo style at UNC. He still has work to do in improving the consistency of his jump shot and learning to harness his athletic ability and playing under control.

But that shouldn’t adversely affect the 6-5, 185-pound New Yorker’s draft stock. As recent 1st-round pick Kyshawn George of Miami proves, the NBA puts far more stock in potential and natural ability than college statistics.

And Jackson has both of those important qualities.

Donovan Freeman, power forward, Syracuse

The first major piece of coach Adrian Autry’s rebuilding effort with the Orange, Freeman is a fast-rising 6-10 forward who stood out at the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Nike EYBL Peach Jam because of his athleticism, rebounding and ability to score above the rim.

He is Syracuse’s highest-rated recruit since DaJuan Coleman in 2012.

Freeman is still something of a work in progress when it comes to his shooting range and ball-handling. But his improvement over the past couple of years suggests that he’s a willing learner who will put in the work to hone those skills.

Best of the rest

The most frequently mentioned ACC returners in the “way too early” 2025 draft projections are point guards Tyrese Proctor of Duke and UNC’s Cadeau.

Proctor is an example of a player who would have been better off leaving school after a promising freshman season. Even if he bounces back from an inconsistent, injury-riddled sophomore campaign, he might have a hard time fully regaining his previous draft stock because of the ascent of younger players with better “upside.”

Cadeau is an example of that kind of player, especially if he shows the kind of improvement that can be expected from a youngster who reclassified to start his college career a year early.

Among the other players with the potential to play their way into the 1st-round conversation are Wake Forest guard Hunter Sallis, Duke guard Caleb Foster, Georgia Tech forward Baye Ndongo and incoming 5-star freshmen Isaiah Evans of Duke and Drake Powell of UNC.

There’s also a possibility Davis could get drafted as well, though realistically, the chances of someone burning a precious pick on an undersized 23-year-old shooting guard ranks somewhere between slim and none.