All-Stars Curry, Lillard and George Show Rise of Mid-Major Stars in NBA

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All-Stars Curry, Lillard and George Show Rise of Mid-Major Stars in NBA
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The 2014 NBA All-Star weekend was filled with players who proved that defense is still alive in the NBA. Ha, just kidding. But it was filled with players like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Paul George whose journeys to the NBA showed the growth and evolution of the Association through the rise of mid-major stars.

Many of the players participating in the All-Star game came from major colleges. All-Star MVP Kyrie Irving is from Duke (if you count 11 games as playing for the Blue Devils) and Kevin Durant is from Texas.

But three of the NBA's finest came from mid-major colleges, reaching NBA stardom without attending a major Division I school.

Stephen Curry, who in his fifth season was voted an All-Star for the first time, entered the draft in 2009, one year before he was set to graduate from small Southern Conference school, Davidson College.  The North Carolina school has an undergraduate enrollment of less than 2,000. Compare that to John Wall's alma mater. Kentucky's undergraduate enrollment: 29,000.

That's almost 15 times bigger.

Curry's first All-Star weekend wasn't as special as anticipated. He was eliminated after the first round of the three-point contest with 16 points, and he wasn't the All-Star game MVP. But, he did earn a double-double during the game with 12 points and 11 assists as a starter for the Western Conference.

Oh, and he crossed up Dwayne Wade and LeBron James with a wrap-around, between-the-legs move, seen below.

Pretty good for a guy whose former college couldn't fill a quarter of Cameron Indoor Stadium if every student attended.

Like Curry, George became an All-Star for the first time this year, doing so out of a mid-major college, Fresno State. A member of the Mountain West Conference, Fresno State is much larger than Davidson with 19,719 undergraduate students. But the school has little basketball pedigree, winning just two games in NCAA tournament history.

Much like Curry, George gained national attention in last season's playoffs, when he and the Indiana Pacers took the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

George knows his All-Star status is special. Quoting a conversation with ESPN's Sage Stelle and Tim Legler on SportsCenter, C. Cooper of SB Nation wrote that this was George's reaction to his All-Star selection.

I was excited. I am not going to lie. It was an overwhelming feeling to get to this where I am at right now. A lot of guys come into the league with fans and a nice little fanbase, and I came in with nothing so it is great to be where I am at right now. I was ecstatic.

George was a starter for the East, helping the team to a gaudy 163-155 win. He also participated in the odd Dunk Contest, winning his battle against Harrison Barnes with a between-the-legs, 360 slam, seen below. 

Lillard, last season’s unanimous NBA Rookie of the Year, played three years at Weber State. The Big Sky Conference school is larger than Fresno State and Davidson combined.

But the Big Sky is hardly an illustrious league.

In 2012, the Big Sky signed a contract with Direct TV/ROOT Sports that would televise up to 12 men’s basketball games during the season. Compare that to the ACC, which in the same year signed a contract with ESPN for 30 additional televised men’s basketball games, as reported by Michael Hiestand of USA Today.

Despite his modest roots, Lillard made history in becoming the first player to participate in five events during All-Star weekend. 

Historically, the NBA has been dominated by players from the seven major conferences: Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, American, SEC, ACC and Big East.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Two former mid-major stars Lillard and Curry high-five during the All-Star game

According to SB Nation's Mike Rutherford, between 1987 and 2012, Duke and North Carolina, both members of the ACC, had the most lottery picks from the past 25 years: Duke with 16 and UNC with 14. Arizona, a member of the Pac-12, had the most players drafted with 34 with Duke and UCLA, another Pac-12 member, following with 32.

Combine the number of top 20 draft picks the seven major conferences produced between 1989 and 2008, you get an astonishing 271, according to Roland Beech of 82games.com, a significant number considering how many players came to the NBA directly out of high school or from overseas. 

Major conferences produce most of the draftees, but what about producing successful NBA players?

The major conferences lead there too.

There have been 63 NBA All-Star games, in which 375 NBA players with at least some college experience have played. Of those 375 players, 263 were from a major conference school.

That's 70 percent.  

That’s what makes players like Lillard, Curry and George special. They are changing the way players rise to stardom in the NBA. They give hope to guys who don't play at schools with a "fanbase." They also make college basketball more interesting, possibly drawing great talents to smaller schools.

It's not uncommon to see a player in the NBA from a mid-major college: Kawhi Leonard from San Diego State, Paul Millsap from Louisiana Tech and Kenneth Faried from Morehead State. Their numbers are growing and the NBA is changing. 

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