From College Afterthought to NBA Prospect: The Stunning Rise of Luke Kornet

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From College Afterthought to NBA Prospect: The Stunning Rise of Luke Kornet
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

The player with one of the highest ceilings in college basketball was almost a water boy at SMU.

That's hard to fathom as you watch 7'1", 245-pound Luke Kornet swish three-pointers and sky hooks while racking up blocks and assists for Vanderbilt, where the junior is one of three Commodores projected to be chosen in either the 2016 or 2017 NBA draft.

Yet it's true.

In March 2013, Kornet ended his senior season at Liberty Christian School—a private school just outside of Dallas and off the radar of college recruiters—without a single Division I scholarship offer. It wasn't just the power-conference schools that passed on the versatile 17-year-old. Mid-major programs in his own state didn't recruit him, either.

Not North Texas or Stephen F. Austin.

Not UT-Arlington, Rice or Texas-San Antonio.

Just a month before graduation, Kornet's best option was to try to walk on at SMU, where he'd been offered an academic scholarship.

"If they let me play, cool," Kornet remembers thinking. "If not, I'll move on and be the team manager."

His dad had other ideas.

Frustrated as Frank Kornet was over Luke's lack of recruitment, he was convinced his son—who was 6'10" at the time—was worthy of a Division I scholarship. He knew Luke's outside-shooting touch and his ability to handle the ball on the perimeter were rare traits for athletes of his size. And unlike a traditional big man, Luke ran the court more like a small forward than a center.

Photo courtesy of Tracy Kornet
Characterized as "humble and kind to everyone" by his mother, Tracy, Luke Kornet and his father share a hug during Senior Night at Liberty Christian Academy.

Sure, his son was undersized at 180 pounds, but Frank was confident Luke would eventually fill out and gain strength much like he had done nearly 30 years earlier. Frank, who is 6'9", started alongside future Chicago Bulls standout Will Perdue for Vanderbilt's Sweet 16 team in 1988. The next year, as a senior, he earned All-SEC honors and was a second-round NBA draft pick for the Milwaukee Bucks, for whom he played two seasons.

"He was still a young, frail kid," said Frank, who coached Luke's high school team. "But the skill set was there. His upside was huge. I could see it."

The challenge became making other people realize it, too.

In mid-April 2013—nearly two months after Luke's final high school game—Frank placed a call to Shawn Williams, who coached a high-profile AAU squad called Texas Select that featured players such as future NBA lottery pick Myles Turner. Frank informed Williams about his 6'10" son and asked if Luke could join the squad for its upcoming slate of tournaments.

Williams agreed to let Luke go through a tryout, which proved to be merely a formality. Ten minutes into the practice, Frank asked Williams if Luke was talented enough to play Division I basketball.

"Be honest," Frank told the coach. "You're not going to hurt my feelings."

Williams chuckled.   

"At the very least, he's a mid-major player," he said. "And in my opinion he's even better."

The following weekend, Kornet led Texas Select to the title game of the "Real Deal in the Rock" tournament in Little Rock, scoring 17 points in the championship. College scouts weren't allowed to attend the event, but recruiting services were, and after their write-ups ended up on the desks of coaches the following Monday, Kornet and his father could hardly put down their phones.

Tim Miles from Nebraska was the first to call. Arizona reached out too, along with coaches from Oklahoma, Purdue, Kansas State, TCU and scores of others. The moment that generated the most excitement, though, came when his father's alma mater contacted Kornet.

Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings had heard about Kornet's performance in Little Rock from then-assistant Brad Frederick and was a bit surprised he didn't know that an alum with NBA experience had a 6'10" son. Eager to watch Luke in person, Stallings flew to Minnesota for Kornet's second tournament with Texas Select.

Needless to say, he was impressed.

"There are so many colleges in Texas," Stallings said. "I was shocked that none of them had taken a flier on a 6'10" kid who could shoot."

Vanderbilt still had a scholarship available, and Stallings offered it to Kornet, who had scheduled an official visit to Kansas State and was preparing to line up more. That quickly changed.

Kornet and his family had driven through Nashville, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt's campus numerous times during childhood road trips. Luke loved the city and the fact that both of his parents attended the school, whose reputation for academics ranks among the best in the country. Luke was the salutatorian of his senior class and achieved a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT.

"He walked into the living room one night," Frank said, "and was like, ‘Dad, I love Vanderbilt. I've always wanted to go there. I don't see the point of visiting anywhere else.'"

On May 13—one month after his father contacted Texas Select—Vanderbilt announced Kornet had signed a national letter of intent.

"If my dad wouldn't have made that call," Luke said, "there's a good chance I wouldn't be playing college basketball right now."

In some ways it's understandable that it took so long for Kornet to attract the attention of college scouts.

As a toddler, about the only thing more impressive than his size—he weighed 10 pounds, 10 ounces when he was born in Lexington, Kentucky—was Kornet's brain. Whether it was reading, learning big words or solving complex math problems, it was clear at an early age Kornet was at a different level than his peers academically.

That's why his parents chose to start him in school a year early, meaning he was always the youngest kid in his class. The decision didn't cause any problems when it came to Luke's grades, but it caused problems socially.

While his classmates were going through puberty around the ninth and 10th grade, Luke's maturation process was delayed. According to his mother, Tracy, Luke's voice didn't change until he was a senior in high school. And it wasn't until college that he began growing facial hair.

"From the neck up," Frank said, "he looked like a 12-year-old."

One thing that wasn't an issue was Luke's height. He was 6'1" as a freshman in high school, 6'2" as a sophomore, 6'5" as a junior and 6'10" as a senior. Still, even though Luke was growing upward, his body wasn't filling out. His older sister, Nicole, who plays basketball at UCLA, called him a "string bean."

Photo courtesy of Tracy Kornet
Kornet, seen here after being named homecoming king at his high school, grew from 6'1" as a freshman to 6'10" as a senior.

It probably wasn't an accident that Vanderbilt failed to mention Kornet's weight in the press release to announce his signing in 2013.

"It was a real struggle during his adolescence," said Tracy, a television news anchor in Nashville, where the family relocated two years ago. "It was hard for me emotionally to keep him happy and strong. He was growing taller but his body wasn't kicking in. I was genuinely concerned."

Tracy took Luke to various doctors in an attempt to find out what was delaying his puberty. They all assured her he'd be fine, that it simply "takes some kids longer to develop than others."

"That didn't make it any easier emotionally," Tracy said. "Luckily, he was in a great school so he wasn't bullied for it. If he was in a different type of school, things might not have been as pleasant."

Tracy pauses.

"Then again," she said, "Luke has always been very sure of himself."

That trait has proved vital at Vanderbilt, where Kornet was quick to exceed expectations.

Kornet still laughs when he recalls his first pickup game in the summer of 2013 with his new team. Former Commodores stars Jeff Taylor and Lance Goulbourne, who had returned to Nashville to work out for a few weeks, opened the game by dunking on Kornet on back-to-back possessions. A few weeks later Kornet broke his ankle, an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the summer.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Still in need of some additional size, Kornet averaged 2.3 rebounds in 15.4 minutes in his first season at Vanderbilt.

Stallings had hoped to redshirt Kornet, who was still going through puberty and needed desperately to add bulk. But with only eight other scholarship athletes on the roster, the coach didn't have any choice but to play him.

Early in the season, Kornet went up against 6'11", 275-pound Georgia Tech senior Daniel Miller.

"I tried to get position on him," Kornet said, "and I couldn't budge him. I literally couldn't move him at all. I was like, ‘Wow, I've got a lot of work to do here.'"

Similar issues arose when he tried to guard Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes and Kentucky's Julius Randle.

Still, Kornet averaged 15.4 minutes as a freshman and contributed 4.0 points per game. He even started two contests. Kornet was more of an on-court fixture as a sophomore, when he averaged 8.7 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 40 percent (50-of-125) from three-point range.

This year he ranks first on the team in rebounds (7.3) and blocks (3.3) and fourth in scoring (9.5). The Commodores were ranked as high as No. 16 before a recent slide caused them to fall out of the poll completely. One of the reasons for the lull was because Kornet missed five games with a knee injury.

Vanderbilt went 2-3 during that span.

Shortly after his return, Kornet posted a triple-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks against Auburn. On Wednesday he had 10 points, 14 boards and five blocks in a win over Tennessee.

Kornet has grown three inches since arriving at Vanderbilt and now weighs 245 pounds. Nicole said she and Luke used to laugh and roll their eyes when their dad told them stories about how he was the first player in the weight room each morning back in the late '80s, doing his best to get bigger and stronger each day.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
Now measuring at 7'1" and 245 pounds, Kornet has played his way into being a potential first-round draft pick, thanks in part to blocking 3.3 shots per game this season.

"Now all these years later, Luke's in the weight room every morning, too," said Nicole, who is redshirting this season after transferring to UCLA from Oklahoma. "He loves it because he sees what it's done for him. He has a new confidence in himself that he didn't have before."

NBA scouts have noticed.

Kornet, who has a 9'6" standing reach, is pegged as a late first-round or early second-round pick in the 2017 NBA draft. And that projection could improve.

"I'm not sure there's another player like him in all of college basketball," said one scout who watched Kornet in person at the Maui Invitational. "He's like a stretch 5 because he runs the court and handles the ball so well, and he's got such good length. If he can start hitting that three consistently, he'll be a big-time prospect."

Kornet, a computer science major who turned 20 in July, has made just nine of his 39 attempts from beyond the arc this season, but Stallings isn't worried about his shot. He also notes that NBA types are aware of Kornet's ability to score in the paint on a newly developed sky hook that he rarely gets to showcase playing alongside probable lottery pick Damian Jones.

With Jones manning the paint, the bulk of Kornet's time on offense is spent on the perimeter.

"Scouts still know how versatile he is," Stallings said. "They come here to see Damian and leave talking about Luke.

"The most exciting thing is that his best days are still ahead of him. He's going to have the opportunity to play this game for a long, long time."

Just as his father predicted.

"Sometimes I watch him out there and think, ‘My goodness!'" said Frank, who now lives in Nashville with Tracy and attends most every game. "He's playing so well, but he's really going to be fun to watch years from now.

"I'm proud of him—but I'm not surprised. I knew he had this in him. I knew he could do it. He just needed a chance."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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