Don’t believe everything you hear. That’s my advice to the NBA Draft Class of 2015. In this day and age, there’s a lot of chatter about guys being “locks” for certain teams. A lot of that stuff isn’t just coming out of thin air. Teams will literally tell you to your face in the days before the Draft, “If you’re there, we’re taking you.” But the reality is that crazy things can happen when the dominos start falling on Thursday night.
I was sitting in the green room during the 2013 Draft, and I was pretty much chillin’ because I had a couple teams in the Top 10 who said they would take me. But at the same time, it’s kind of a weird situation because you have your entire life packed up in a few suitcases back at the hotel room, and depending on what happens over the course of a few hours, you could be taking those bags on a flight anywhere. Your whole life is genuinely hanging in the balance. So it’s super exciting, but also surreal.
When the Draft started and David Stern walked up to podium, I thought for sure I was going to Sacramento. They had the No. 7 pick, and asked me to fly back to Sac for a second workout to take a closer look. But then when I saw Nerlens Noel slide to Philadelphia, I immediately started seeing the puzzle pieces shift in my head. Sure enough, Sacramento took Ben McLemore at 7. Apparently, he was No. 1 on their Draft board, but they didn’t think he was going to be there. So it’s a good thing I didn’t show up to the draft in a purple suit. Detroit and Minnesota were up next, and my name wasn’t called. Over the course of 15 minutes, you’re envisioning yourself in all these different jerseys and all these different cities.
My phone was blowing up with all kinds of texts but there was only one that I knew was for real — it was from Damian Lillard. It just said, “Uh oh.”
Dame and I had been Internet Friends through Twitter for, like, two years. We were both scorers from small schools, and Dame was leading the country in scoring at Weber State for most of the 2011-2012 season. I was third or fourth. So somehow we connected through a mutual friend. Then, when he got picked by Portland that year, it was really encouraging to me. That’s when I knew I could be a lottery pick coming out of Lehigh. So we would text one another about basketball stuff all throughout my senior year, but we had never met in person up until the NBA Draft Lottery event in New York City. I saw him standing there, and it was super funny because it felt like some online dating thing where you finally meet the person for real. It’s like, “Hey, bro, we’ve been talking for years. Nice to meet you.”
So when he texted me “Uh oh,” I got excited because I knew exactly what he meant. We had been talking about how cool it would be to play together for months. When I was taking my meetings with teams around the country, I posted three cities on my Instagram that I really liked. I didn’t tell anybody what it meant — it was just kind of an inside thing. Portland was one of those cities. Actually, I remember getting to Portland, and being introduced to all kinds of organic food and shopping at New Seasons Market. I was a No. 2 guy at Lehigh. Get home from practice and hit the No. 2 meal at McDonald’s with no pickle. Now, I’m out here eating meals I struggle to pronounce.
The next couple minutes were a blur. David Stern walked up to the podium and announced my name, and I mean, damn. To be able to hug my mom, dad, my brother, GMA, and walk up on that stage and put on the hat, it was really a dream come true.
Now, you have to remember, I’m coming from Lehigh, so I didn’t have some crazy advance. I’m still broke, for real. So that night I just remember enjoying as many free drinks (non-alcoholic, of course) as I possibly could. That’s the crazy thing about the NBA Draft parties — everything is comped! That’s a real savior for the mid-major guys who have all their boys coming to celebrate with them. So I actually have two pieces of advice for NBA Draftees: Don’t believe everything you hear, and be sure to take advantage of the free drinks. New York is expensive.
After that night, everything moves really fast, depending on whether or not your team wants you in town the following day for a press conference. You grab your bags and you’re on a plane to your team. When I got to Portland, and they gave me my jersey and my first pair of real NBA socks with the Jerry West logo, that was crazy. I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about getting those thick-ass NBA socks since I was a little kid. They’re like walking on clouds.
I didn’t have too much time to watch NCAA ball this season but I’ve hit YouTube pretty hard over the last few days to research some of these rookies, and here are a few under-the-radar and or small school guys that I like. (Yes, I’m biased towards guards.)
School: Murray State
Reminds me of: Damon Stoudamire
One of the knocks on Payne is quality of competition. All I can say to that is, look at who just won the NBA MVP. Steph Curry went to Davidson. One of the advantages of going to a small school is that you’re expected to be the man. They have to give you the ball, and there’s more room for error in a situation where you can play your way through mistakes (and no matter how good you are, this is a valuable coping skill at the NBA level). Payne was the guy circled on the scouting report every single night. When you’re coming from a mid-major program, a lot of teams don’t want to schedule you for out-of-conference games if you have an NBA caliber player on your roster, because they essentially have to pay your school for the opportunity to come in and whoop their ass.
I started following Payne after I heard about this smooth lefty who had led Murray State to 25 wins in a row. Yes, he can shoot. But what I like about him is that he’s got a good hesitation move, nice change of speed and a floater, which I think is going to be key for him at 6’2” in the NBA. If I’m Payne, I’m watching a lot of film on Mike Conley, another lefty. Conley can finish with both hands and he has the best righty floater I’ve ever seen for a left-handed guy.
Everything in the NBA is sped up. Lanes close much faster than college. So it’s about having a very balanced skill set as a guard, and Payne has that package of shooting, passing and slashing. He’s also 180, so he’s going to need to put on some pounds, but the facilities and weight rooms in the NBA are going to be so far beyond what he had at Murray State, so I wouldn’t worry about it. You can transform your body pretty quickly with 24/7 nutrition and trainers.
I also like Payne because he wasn’t even ranked by any scouting services in high school. I remember my junior year, before I was getting any hype, I used to tell scouts that I was being recruited by random mid-majors. “Oh yeah, I’m talking to uh … Youngstown State.” I figured they would never actually call and check. And even if they did, the Youngstown State coach might be afraid to get beat to the punch and be like, “Hmm … who’s this McCollum kid? I better check him out.”
You gotta hustle.
School: Georgia State
Reminds me of: Rip Hamilton
Similar to Payne, he’s a lean guy from a small school who can really ball. With Hunter, what I notice is his ability to pull up and hit big-time shots from anywhere on the floor. With what he did to Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, he’s proven that he has the clutch gene. Some of the threes he hit were very, very deep, and off the dribble.
You look at the team who just won the NBA title and you see a bunch of guys who have a very quick release who can shoot from anywhere. The NBA is evolving into a league where you have to be able to get up-and-down, shoot threes and play multiple positions. This is the kind of guy that players want on their team. Hunter is only a 6’5” two-guard, but he has almost a 6’10” wingspan. Quick release + long wingspan = a guy who can contribute right away.
Shooting is the one thing that always translates seamlessly to the NBA level, but I will say that R.J. is going to find that it’s a lot harder to shoot from deep when you’re tired. In college, the line is so close that you can kind of half-heartedly shoot the ball off-balance and fading away. To shoot an NBA three, because the arc of your shot has to be a little higher, you have to be squared up and get your legs into it more, which can be tough in the fourth quarter.
With R.J., it’s not just that he can shoot, he can move, which is why I see some Rip Hamilton in him. He can curl into the lane and finish with the floater, which is essential for an undersized guard. At 180 or 190, you’re not going to be able to get to the hoop and dunk in the NBA. It’s just impossible to take that beating night in, night out. Bigs hate the floater because they can’t contest it — it’s too quick and it’s all about touch. R.J. should watch how Steph Curry has implemented an overhand and underhand floater into his repertoire. I don’t care how many pounds he puts on, R.J. is going to need to pull that out of the bag of tricks when he sees Dwight Howard in the lane.
Reminds me of: DeMarre Carroll
I got some inside info here because I worked out with him last year when I was in L.A. (we use the same trainer, AJ Diggs). He’s a 6’7” small forward with a great wingspan who might be one of the best shooters in the draft (44% from three in his last two seasons). He’s also a senior who went to Stanford, so you know you’re going to get a smart, mature guy in your locker room right away.
He’s a classic three-and-D player. Right now it looks like he’ll be a fringe first rounder, but with the new deal coming in ’16, it’s almost sometimes better to go second round than late first. Second rounders get fewer guaranteed years, which means you can hit the market faster. Of course, we can project all we want, but you never know what’s gonna happen in the NBA with some of these guys. A lot of times, whether a player fits with a team is as big a factor in determining their fate at their skill level. If Brown finds the right spot, I think he’ll stick around in this league a long time. When you have an almost seven-foot wingspan and can guard multiple positions, you’re going to get minutes. The long wingspan combined with good lateral quickness will allow him to sag off screens and still be able to contest shots. (Fighting over screens in the NBA is tough. Remind me to tell you all my horror stories about guarding Lou Williams some day.)
I like his game and his attitude, and I can see him becoming a big X-factor for a winning team on both ends of the floor — similar to DeMarre Carroll in Atlanta. That’s what’s always so interesting about the NBA Draft — all the hype is about the franchise guys at the top, but I can just see Brown going to the Warriors at 30 and everyone kind of ignoring it. But then, in three years, he’ll be making a huge difference guarding a superstar and hitting big spot-up threes in the Finals.
Let’s do a few more quick ones. I haven’t seen as much of these guys.
School: Eastern Washington
Reminds me of: Gary Neal
Tyler led the country in scoring last season, which is always worth a look. Recent NBA players that led the NCAA in scoring include Doug McDermott, Reggie Williams and Steph Curry. One of the things about Harvey that impressed me is that he had a true shooting percentage of over 60 percent, so he’s efficient. He also shot over 40 percent from three. He just has a great scoring sense and can get up shots in a hurry, and catch fire just as quickly. At 6’4”, 180 lbs., I think it’s going to be interesting to see how his game translates to the NBA, but I like what he did in college. He’s definitely someone to keep an eye on during the summer league. His ability to score is something that could translate.
School: Boston College
Reminds me of: Marcus Thornton
Like Tyler, Olivier is a guy who specializes in scoring and could be some instant offense in the NBA. He went to Boston College for three years, and showed improvement every season. He also averaged 19.5 points against tough competition in the ACC. The best way to describe his style of play is smooth. He looks natural out there. He did well at the combine with his ability to create in the pick and rolls, and for that reason as much as anything else I think he’ll stick on someone’s roster.
School: Bowling Green
Reminds me of: Too early to say at this point
I’m throwing this in here as my super sleeper. I saw Richaun work out for the Blazers last week, and came away impressed. He’s a late-blooming, athletic power forward. He started out at a community college when he was a freshman but showed noticeable improvement every year at Bowling Green, and was named the defensive player of the year in the MAC this past season. He had a pretty good PER too.
The thing that will have teams intrigued is his great footwork and timing. He can contest shots very well, but what also caught my eye was his ability to knock down shots. He shot over 40 percent from three last season, but he’s 6’10” so he didn’t take a lot of threes because they needed him in the paint. He’s very skilled, a little raw, but he’s an NBA-level athlete. I think he’s a sleeper guy who can surprise some people.