They’ll Make Good Pros, But Nobody Knows
Collegiate players flying under the radar
By Adam Hoff
The NBA draft has become extremely predictable in recent years. First, teams look for the best big man available. Then they seek high school seniors that could be the next KG or Kobe or LeBron. Next are the international players. Then college freshmen that could have gone in the draft the previous year. The “ones that got away.” Finally, they look at everybody else.
There are plenty of college juniors and seniors that are much better now than whey they arrived on their respective college campuses, yet their draft stock is at an all time low. These are players that have contributed greatly to successful programs and have revealed themselves to be winners, leaders, and people of character … yet many would have been better off throwing their hat in the ring back when they merely possessed “potential.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the approach employed by NBA GM’s everywhere. Most high school stars are working out quite well and the international crop has been producing some great players (Darko excepted, of course). However, even if the system is largely successful, there are still experienced college players that get overlooked, only to emerge as NBA studs. Players like Tayshaun Prince (college star with the wrong build) slide down draft boards everywhere, only to become integral parts of winning teams. The hard part for NBA execs is figuring out which college greybeards are going to translate their game to the next level and which are going to wind up like Mateen Cleaves. Here are nine college “sleepers” of the past and the current college player that bear the closest resemblance – making them worth a special look when their names go up on the board, whenever that may be.
The Next Brad Miller. Miller is the epitome of the overlooked college star. Many would assume that he developed his feathery touch, exceptional passing skill, and physical toughness in Sacramento, or at least in the NBA. After all, if he brought all that to the table at 6’11” in college he would have been a surefire lottery pick, right? Wrong. Miller averaged 17 and 9 while shooting 63% his senior year at Purdue and while battling in a very strong Big 10 conference, yet he went undrafted and had to go play in Italy for the 1998-1999 season. He was then signed by the Hornets, shipped to the Bulls, dumped off on the Pacers (in the now infamous Miller and Artest for Jalen Rose deal), and then dealt to the Kings after he “suddenly developed” (also known as “finally got some playing time”) in Indiana and become too expensive for them to sign. Now he’s the #13 rated player in fantasy basketball and one of the top centers in the game. Not bad.
So who’s “got next” as the WBNA would say? I’m tabbing Jared Homan of Iowa State. The senior has a similar build (6’10” and 255) and shares the same intensity and toughness that Miller displays inside. In fact, he might be even tougher at this stage of his career. If I’m being honest, Miller was prone to long stretches of passive play during his time as a Boilermaker – something that Homan doesn’t seem to fall victim to. He also has a nice stroke from the free throw line and can be equally effective operating on the low block or in the high post. His numbers (13.1/7.7 with 1.8 blocks) aren’t quite as impressive as Miller’s senior year numbers, but Homan isn’t given as many looks either as the Cyclone offense is designed for their guards to slash to the basket. His ability to stay out of foul trouble and avoid turnovers will make him a very solid role player in his early years in the league (provided he gets the chance) and allow him to evolve into a legit NBA starter.
Honorable Mention: Paul Davis, Michigan State (not tough enough yet).
The Next Marquis Daniels. Watch a Dallas Mavericks game sometime and try to understand how the former Auburn Tigers star managed to go undrafted. It’s unfathomable, particularly when you factor in that Daniels had a nice NCAA Tourney run to showcase his talent. Less than a year after hearing 58 names other than his own called on draft night, Daniels was racking up triple-doubles in relief of an injured Steve Nash and outplaying everyone on the floor in the Mavs-Kings first round series. And since he was undrafted, he wasn’t locked into a deal – allowing him to snag Dallas’ $36 million exception. Not a bad turnaround. It all begs the question: who is poised to replicate the feat?
My pick here is Pepperdine junior guard Alex Acker. I’ll admit to a bias since he plays for my alma mater and I worked there as recently as last year. And it’s not entirely clear when he will declare for the draft and that he would go undrafted at any point, so the comparison isn’t perfect. What I can safely say is that he will be woefully underrated. He’s not quite as tall as Daniels, but his game is nearly a mirror image, only with more range on his jumper. Acker has terrific handles, good speed and athleticism, and a great feel for the game. Most of what he does is pure instinct. This season he has played all three perimeter positions and is averaging 16/6/4 while shooting 45% from the field, 42% from three, and 87% from the line … numbers that are nearly identical to those Daniels put up during his senior season (with much better shooting percentages). Scouts are starting to become aware of Acker and the word is that Phoenix really likes him. We’ll see what happens, but if the “mid major” tag causes him to slide, he could wind up making a lot of people pay, just like his Dallas clone.
The Next Gilbert Arenas. This is a lot to ask of anybody. Arenas was overshadowed by more hyped players (anyone remember Jason Gardner?) at Arizona but still managed to average 15.8 ppg and over two steals per contest during his two year run as a Wildcat. Once he reached the NBA, it became very apparent that NBA teams everywhere blew it when they let him slip to the second round of the 2001 draft. (It’s ironic that it was the inept Warriors that actually nabbed him … although they negated that nice move by letting him get away in free agency.) And because he was a second round selection, Gilbert Grape was able to sign a huge deal with the Wizards after only his second season in the league. Now he’s one of the most unstoppable players in the league and an NBA All-Star.
There may not be another Gilbert Arenas, because it’s unlikely that GM’s will let another early-entrant with that combo of talent and speed slip past them again, but there is one underclassman out there that could drop to the second round only to become an All-Star down the road. Therefore, my pick as the next Arenas is another Cyclone, Iowa State’s Curtis Stinson. He’s 6’3” and 215 pounds with an explosive first step, a sweet midrange game, and absolutely no fear. He doesn’t have Arenas’ three point range, but hopefully that will come with time. Stinson is already 22 so it’s likely he’ll leave after his sophomore year, before he gives his stock sufficient time to rise. He’s more like a poor man’s Dwayne Wade than Arenas, but he could be one of those early second rounders that blows up at the next level.
The Next Carlos Boozer. Hard to find anyone with a last name that rivals his, but there just might be an underrated power forward out there capable of going for 15 and 10 and stabbing his NBA team in the back.
For the next Boozer look no further than his alma mater, Duke, where Sheldon Williams is doing a perfect reenactment. People find him to be a bit mechanical on offense, but he’s a tireless rebounder and a much better shot blocker than Boozer ever was or ever will be. Williams is currently having a huge season (16 points, 11 boards, and nearly 4 blocks a game), so perhaps the secret is out.
Honorable Mention: Ike Diogu, Arizona State.
The Next Michael Redd. Teams stayed away from Redd because his numbers had dropped a bit over the course of his career at Ohio State and because they felt he was too one-dimensional. Turns out they were right, but now that one dimension is about to get a max deal on the free agent market. Guys that can shoot (and get off shots) and still hold their own on the defensive end can pretty much name their price in the NBA these days.
There are actually a lot of players with numbers similar to Redd’s Buckeye stats, but the difference is that even when his percentages didn’t wow anybody, basketball fans and experts alike new this guy was a pure shooter. The best Redd replica in the college game today probably resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where Crimson Tide junior Kennedy Winston has perfected his three-point stroke. Not only is his size (6’6”) and ball-handling ability eerily reminiscent of Redd, but his 17.7 points and 5.3 boards per game are nearly identical to Redd’s numbers during his junior year. Even more impressive is the fact that Winston is shooting 47% from the floor and a scalding 46% from the three point line despite taking very difficult shots, a large percentage of which are coming off the dribble. He’s got the same quick release and ability to pull up in traffic as Redd and he’s even better at catching and shooting at this stage in his career. Look for this guy to be signing a huge extension sometime around 2009.
The Next Bobby Simmons. Simmons was one of those guys that played hard and had an impact on pretty much every college game he played in. He hit the glass, played good fundamental and team-oriented basketball, and already had an NBA-ready body by his freshman year of college. So naturally, despite going for 17 and 9 his final year at DePaul, he was bypassed in the first round of the 2001 draft. Now he’s finally getting his chance to shine in Los Angeles and is one of the breakout players of the 2004-2005 season.
If you are looking for another “tweener” that hits the glass with reckless abandon, look no further than Ryan Gomes of Providence. The 6’7” forward is putting up 20 and 7 a night and has a much better deep jumper than Simmons did (or even does today). The same questions surround Gomes that shadowed the former Demon: can he cover shooting guards and small forwards out on the perimeter? Can he be as effective on the glass at the pro label? We know how things turned out for Simmons and there’s no reason Gomes can’t have the same kind of success. Someone is going to get a heck of a player in the second round if the draft experts turn out to be right in their projections.
The Next Josh Howard. This is close to cheating, because Howard was technically a first round pick, but this is the second Mavericks swingman on the list, and like Daniels, he is worth far more than anyone expected (in this case the #28 overall pick). Howard rebounds like crazy, plays tremendous defense, gives Dallas athleticism at small forward, and has a better offensive game than anyone realized. He was never completely healthy at Wake Forrest, so despite being the ACC player of the year in 2002-2003, there were questions about his ability to play on the perimeter in the NBA. Those questions were put to rest about two weeks into his rookie season.
To find another Howard, just go right up Tobacco Road to NC State, where Julius Hodge is watching his draft stock plummet. The Wolfpack has had a disappointing year and the reigning ACC player of the year is suffering from the fallout. His numbers are still good and he still plays like an NBA player, but he’s being projected to fall to the bottom of the first round. If that happens, someone is going to get a stud small forward, possibly even better than Howard.
The Next Rafer Alston. Disclaimer: this replica comes without the mood swings and the legendary stint on the And-1 Street Ball tour. Alston was a second round pick that took the long way to get to the league, but he has become one of the most explosive point guards in the game (in more ways than one). He can take almost anyone off the dribble with his ball handling and speed and he’s got tremendous instincts on both ends of the court. He was actually even more effective in Miami as a sparkplug off the bench – hitting threes in transition, getting in passing lanes, and speeding up the pace of the game. Sounds a lot like …
Dee Brown of Illinois. People don’t talk about Brown much in terms of NBA potential, because he doesn’t really fit the pure point guard prototype. Yet his speed and shooting ability mirror that of Alston and he’s got a great attitude and team-oriented style that makes you think of super sub Darrel Armstrong. He’ll slip because he’s not 6’4” and he doesn’t play like a traditional point, but someone is going to get an explosive sixth man in the image of Armstrong (late 90’s), Troy Hudson (circa 2003), and Alston (last year). Who knows, he may even follow in Skip to My Lou’s footsteps and turn that energizer bunny routine into a six-year, $46 million contract.
Bonus Category. I don’t know who to compare him to, but another guy that will be wildly underrated is Marcus Williams of UConn. The best comparison I could come up with is Delonte West of Boston, but while they share a style that is steeped in strong fundamentals, Williams is the much better pure passer of the two. Williams is perhaps the most improved player in college hoops and is averaging over 8 assists a game while shooting over 42% from behind the arc. He’s one of the big reasons I’ve tabbed UConn for a return trip to the Final Four and I’m convinced that he could be the starting point guard on at least six NBA teams … right now. He’s a fabulous ballhandler, natural leader, and a fearless late-game player. His lefthanded floater in the lane is reminiscent of Jalen Rose from the Fab Five days and he seems to hit every big three the Huskies need. It’s hard to believe that this is the same guy that blew that layup against UMass at the beginning of the year. Some guys are just leaders and winners and pure basketball players and Marcus Williams is one of them. Whenever he winds up going pro, he’ll get shuffled down the deck for guys that can jump higher and that possess “upside” but this is the guy that will wind up playing point guard for an NBA champ someday. I couldn’t be higher on him.
Have an underrated college player in mind? If you’ve got somebody tabbed that you just know will be overlooked on their respective draft night despite solid NBA potential, send in your suggestions to email@example.com. I’ll be sure to steal your ideas and take credit for them later.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America.