With all of the attention that has been focused on the mighty University of Kentucky's historic draft class, it is easy to forget the dominant role played in the NBA by athletes from schools in mid-major conferences. Of the past dozen players who played college ball and have been awarded the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, six played at mid-major programs.
Yet NBA scouts often overlook even the most talented players from mid-major schools, perceiving them as having played against inferior competition and not ready for the pro game. In NBADraft.net's mock draft, only one player from a mid-major school, St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson, is projected to be drafted in the first round.
For several years we have heard of the rise in mid-majors in the NCAA tournament, and next year we may see this rise reflected in the draft class. Though the class will likely be headlined by major program standouts Cody Zeller, Shabazz Muhammad, James McAdoo, and Nerlens Noel, there is also a treasure trove of players from mid-major schools with the talent to compete in the NBA.
Here we take a look at some of the most promising talents currently enrolled at mid-major programs who could hear their names called by David Stern next June.
C.J. Aiken has one of the more compelling stories of any college player in recent memory. He was diagnosed with cancer at seven years old, and went through chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The treatment was successful, and Aiken went on to lead his team to a state championship and was named Pennsylvania Player of the Year.
Aiken had a strong freshman effort at St. Joe's, and showed improvement in his sophomore season, scoring 10.9 points and pulling down 5.1 rebounds per game. Aiken's biggest weakness is evident at first sight: he is downright scrawny. This scrawniness leads him to be too passive in the paint, as evidenced by his averaging only 2.4 free throw attempts per game in each of his first two college seasons.
If Aiken is able to bulk up, and if that added bulk leads to more aggression near the hoop, he will almost certainly become an elite prospect, capable of moving into the lottery. If not, it's hard to imagine him surviving long in the NBA.
Anytime there's a 7-foot center in the college game, pro scouts take notice. When that 7-foot center averages 13.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game in his sophomore season, a lot of pro scouts will take notice.
Brown wasn't always the recipient of the attention of scouts. Up until the summer before his senior year of high school, Brown had yet to receive a single scholarship offer. But after impressive performances in a few AAU tournaments during that summer, Brown finally got the attention of college coaches.
Brown needs to add weight to his frame if he hopes to withstand the pro game, and he needs to be more aggressive on the offensive end. Where Brown truly shines is on the defensive end. He has already set his school's all-time blocks record, and was ninth nationally in blocks per game last season.
Brown is still a work in progress, but if he continues to improve at the rate he has developed at thus far, he could end up being a first round pick, and perhaps even a lottery pick.
Los Angeles native Deonte Burton was ranked as the 43rd best shooting guard in his recruiting class by ESPN.com, but after two strong years playing for the Wolfpack, he has risen to the very top of his class.
Burton's freshman campaign in Reno saw him average 13.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 1.3 steals per game, with a field goal percentage of .422. Burton improved slightly in every category except field goal percentage in his sophomore year, and added muscle to his thin frame.
Burton is a talented scorer with an aggressive inside game, but he is still very much a pass-first guard, averaging just over 10 field goal attempts per game so far in his career.
Burton will have to continue his progress this coming season if he hopes to declare for the 2013 draft, but he clearly has the potential to be an NBA-caliber point guard.
Jamaal Franklin considered declaring for the 2012 NBA Draft before deciding to return to San Diego State for his junior season, so it's hard to imagine that he won't declare for next year's draft if he continues to develop at the rate he has over the past two years.
Franklin didn't see a lot of time in his freshman year, logging only 8.1 minutes per game and averaging 2.9 points, and played only sparingly in the team's NCAA tournament run. But when Franklin moved into a starting role last year, he became one of the most exciting players in the nation. He scored 17.4 points per game and averaged 7.9 rebounds, an impressive statistic for a 6'5" guard. He was the top scorer in the Mountain West Conference and was fourth in rebounding. For his efforts, Franklin was named an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press and Mountain West Player of the Year.
When Franklin was given a chance to shine on the national stage in the second round of the NCAA tournament against North Carolina State, Franklin led all players with 23 points while also bringing down 8 rebounds.
Of all NBA hopefuls currently enrolled at mid-major schools, Franklin is perhaps the closest to being ready to compete in the NBA. Franklin will need to prove that he's a well-rounded player capable of competing against elite competition if he wants to move solidly into the first round of the draft. The Aztecs play a number of top-ranked schools next season, including Baylor, Arizona, UNLV, and Cal, which will give Franklin the opportunity to further prove that he can match up against top college players. Leading the Aztecs to another NCAA tournament run also wouldn't hurt his chances.
Elias Harris was a youth basketball standout in Germany, earning him a scholarship to Gonzaga. The 6'7" small forward has been remarkably consistent in his three years at the school, averaging between 12 and 15 points, 6 and 8.5 rebounds, and 1.1 and 1.3 assists per game each year.
Had Harris declared for the draft after his freshman season, he might have been a late first round pick based on his potential. But because he has not progressed much as a college player, there is a belief that we have seen the player that Elias Harris will become. He'll be 23 years old at the start of the season, adding to the perception that he's reached his ceiling.
In his senior year, Harris will have to show that he is still growing as a player and that he's worth drafting as a project. He can best do this by being more aggressive at the basket, allowing him to draw more fouls. While he's very good at the three point line, his free throw shooting also needs to show serious improvement. Improving in both of these categories could push his scoring average up to near 20 points per game, which would make it much easier to imagine Harris in the NBA.
Harris has had the potential to be an NBA draft pick for three years. He now has one year to turn that potential into reality.
At 5'11" and 160 pounds, Carl Jones knew he would have to do a lot to convince scouts that he can compete at the NBA level. After a promising freshman campaign in which he averaged 9.6 points in 19.8 minutes per game, Jones became the team's everyday point guard. He responded by averaging 17.0 points per game in each of the last two seasons.
Jones is an above-average playmaker, and can be quite aggressive in the paint despite his size. He's also a good, though not great, outside shooter, and would benefit from increasing his assists. He's also capable of having explosive games—four times last season he topped 25 points, including a 38 point effort against Seton Hall. He also had one of his best games in the first round of the NIT Tournament against Northern Iowa, scoring 24 points and going 8 for 17 from the field.
If Jones' senior campaign resembles his sophomore and junior efforts, he should find himself selected somewhere late in the second round. If he raises his game consistently to the level he has occasionally demonstrated, he could find himself selected quite a bit higher.
Two years ago, Mike Moser was on few scouts' radars. Though he had been a top-100 recruit coming out of high school, Moser was averaging only 4.7 minutes per game at UCLA, taking only twenty shots all season.
Frustrated by his lack of playing time, Moser transferred to UNLV, and after redshirting the 2010-2011 season, Moser had a standout year in 2011-2012. He saw his playing time shoot to 31.4 minutes per game, and he averaged 10.5 rebounds and 14.0 points per game. Moser looked good in his first half dozen games, but it was his monster performance against No. 1 ranked North Carolina that really turned heads: 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. Not content with this, Moser dropped a career high 34 points against UCSB four days later.
Moser considered leaving UNLV after last season to declare for the draft, where he likely would have been a late second round pick, but he announced in April that he would return to Las Vegas for his junior year. Moser is out to prove that he is a first round talent. Another season like last year should do the trick.
The recent success by the Memphis Tigers, much of which has been officially stricken from the record book, has led Memphis to announce that it will leave Conference USA for the Big East in 2013. This will do little to change how NBA scouts view Memphis—they have viewed the school as a de facto major program for several years.
The Tiger that NBA scouts are currently focusing on is Memphis native Adonis Thomas. The 6'6" small forward was off to a promising start last year in his freshman season before an ankle injury sidelined him for 15 games. In the games he did play, Thomas averaged 8.8 points and 3.2 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game.
Thomas is thought to be a potential lottery pick, and while he certainly possesses the potential, he will have to show quite a bit of improvement and remain healthy in his sophomore season. He was outstanding from three-point range last year, making 40.5% of his attempts. Yet Thomas seemed to shrink against strong opponents. In the three games the Tigers played against ranked opponents, Thomas scored five points against Michigan, nine against Georgetown, and nine against Louisville. He also wasn't a presence in the tournament, scoring only six points in 15 minutes against Saint Louis.
Thomas was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school, and his position at the top of scouts' wish lists is largely due to his pre-college performance. Thomas has all the tools necessary to put together a stellar sophomore campaign, and if he does, it is easy to picture him as a lottery pick.