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Jaron Blossomgame is Defying the Odds

Jaron Blossomgame talks to Basketball Insiders about overcoming his leg injury, his development and preparing for the NBA.

Cody Taylor

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If you would have told forward Jaron Blossomgame before he arrived at Clemson that he’d eventually have a chance to make school history one day, he probably wouldn’t have believed it.

Blossomgame recently became one of seven players in Clemson basketball history to record at least 1,400 points and 700 rebounds in a career. By doing so, he joined the likes of Trevor Booker, Dale Davis and Horace Grant among others to accomplish that feat.

Prior to joining the Clemson basketball program, Blossomgame suffered a gruesome leg injury that forced him to redshirt during his freshman year. It’s the same injury that Indiana Pacers forward Paul George and former Louisville guard Kevin Ware suffered. The compound fracture that Blossomgame suffered would end up sidelining him for the next eight months.

As he was nearing the end of his rehab, he found out that he would actually need a second surgery after it was discovered that his leg didn’t heal properly. He underwent the second surgery in June of that year and wouldn’t return to the court until September. By this time, he was already behind the curve after not being able to practice with his teammates over the summer and was at a clear disadvantage heading into his first collegiate season.

After suffering such a horrific injury, most would consider just having the ability to play basketball again a blessing. However, Blossomgame is very confident in his abilities and wasn’t satisfied with just returning to the court. He averaged 4.9 points and five rebounds in 33 games during his freshman year, but he knew he could do more.

“Personally, a lot of people told me I had a good year my freshman year,” Blossomgame told Basketball Insiders. “I’m a very confident person. I believe in myself, but I didn’t believe I had a good freshman year. It just drove me to work even harder and be able to believe in myself and go out there and do what I can because I know I’m a capable a lot more.”

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Athletes across all levels of play are some of the most confident people you’ll meet. In order to perform at a high level, these players must have confidence in themselves to reach that level of play to be great at what they do. At just 23 years old, Blossomgame has some of the strongest confidence you’ll find in a college player.

He brings up things like a person’s drive or using his athleticism to outwork his opponents. So, when he notices NBA scouts or team executives sitting in the stands evaluating his game, he doesn’t let it faze him.

Being sidelined for nearly a year gave Blossomgame a newfound appreciation for the game. Having to sit out for so long allowed him to see what life would be like without the game. When he resumed basketball activities, he had a new level of respect and knew he had to take full advantage of his opportunity at Clemson. It’s why if you see Blossomgame on game day, he’s a completely different person.

“I’m not laughing around [on game day], I’m very serious from start to finish,” Blossomgame said. “I’m a very serious person on game day. I believe in my abilities. I believe we’re going to win. I believe I’m going to play well every night. I’m just a confident person. I believe in all of the preparation we put in here at Clemson.”

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As it turns out, Blossomgame was spot-on with his assessment that he was capable of playing better than he did during his freshman year. In each of his next two seasons at Clemson, he posted improvements in several key statistical areas. His scoring climbed to 13.1 points per game and his rebounding numbers jumped up to 8.2 per game during his sophomore campaign.

It was his junior year that he really established himself as one of the country’s top players. He was named the ACC’s Most Improved Player after averaging 18.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 blocks per game last season. Perhaps the biggest improvement came in his shooting.

“I think my shooting numbers alone were pretty impressive,” Blossomgame said. “I shot 44 percent from three, 79 percent from the free-throw line and I averaged 18 points. As a sophomore, I only averaged 13 points a game and shot 29 percent from three. That jump offensively, being able to stretch the floor as the four man in Clemson’s offense surprised a lot of people. It showed all the work I put in during the offseason.”

In addition to earning the Most Improved Player award, Blossomgame was also a member of the All-ACC First Team that featured some impressive names. He joined Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Brice Johnson (North Carolina), Anthony Barber (N.C. State) and Grayson Allen (Duke) as First Team members.

Following his junior season, Blossomgame took advantage of a new rule that allowed underclassmen to enter their name for NBA Draft consideration and still maintain their college eligibility. Players last year had 10 days following the NBA Combine to withdraw their names and keep their college eligibility. Blossomgame entered his name into the pool of players but ultimately decided to return for his senior season at Clemson.

With the feedback from the Combine fresh in his mind, Blossomgame went to work this past summer. While some players take parts of the summer off, he worked on all facets of his game. He took part in the Nike Skills Academy and Adidas Nations in Los Angeles where he emerged as one of the top performers among some of the nation’s top prospects. After participating in those two camps and the Combine, Blossomgame will be well prepared for the draft process this year.

“The Combine was really fun for me last year,” Blossomgame said. “I was a little nervous going into it but I interviewed well with the teams I interviewed for. I had a strong showing in the five-on-five. It was a really positive experience for me. This year I’m just going to take it day by day. I’m looking forward to the Combine again, the interview process, the drills on the court and all the testing stuff that goes into it. I think having that last year, being able to go to the Combine working out for teams will definitely help me moving forward.”

Blossomgame has picked up this season right where he left off last year. He’s averaging 18.4 points, six rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.2 blocks in 17 games. His 18.4 points rank sixth in the ACC and he was named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list, which is the award given to the nation’s best basketball players.

Blossomgame has been primarily used at power forward this season at Clemson. Standing at 6’7, 225 pounds, he says he’ll be able to play more on the perimeter at the next level. He’s proven to be a physical player that has excellent strength and athleticism. His 41-inch vertical jump at the Combine was the eighth-highest among all participants.

Both of those skills were on display this past weekend against No. 19 Virginia. On one sequence, Blossomgame blocked a shot on one end and then came down and got great positioning on the defender in the post. The shot into the post was a bit off but he was able to out-muscle two players to get the ball, gather his feet and convert the layup.

“I think I have a unique game,” Blossomgame said. “I can play both ends of the floor. I think I’m very versatile and I pose a mismatch on offense being able to be my height and use my quickness and speed to take bigger guys off of the dribble. We switch ball screens on defense 1-4 so I think I’m a very versatile player.

“I’m very athletic and I’m very strong for my position. I got good size and my body will definitely translate [to the NBA]. I think my rebounding will be able to translate also. I’m a pretty good rebounder for my size and position and being a good defender and also being able to be versatile enough on offense to play the three and four.”

Blossomgame is currently playing some of his best basketball of the season. He’s turned in four consecutive games scoring at least 20 points and is shooting 47 percent from the floor during that stretch. Perhaps even more impressive during this current stretch is three out of those four games were against ranked opponents in North Carolina, Notre Dame and Virginia. He seems to always be at his best when facing the best teams in the conference.

“I believe I’m one of the best players in college basketball,” Blossomgame said. “Nobody can tell me any different. My preparation, my work ethic and my drive to be successful in this sport has really given me a lot of confidence of being able to go out there and produce at the highest level. It’s something that I’ve achieved and very proud of myself for working hard for it.”

As he attempts to lead his Tigers through the ACC this season, it seems very likely he’ll have a place in the NBA next season. In DraftExpress’ latest mock draft, Blossomgame is projected to be taken at No. 26. Of course, those rankings will continue to change over the course of the next several months.

With so many stacked teams in the ACC, Blossomgame will have plenty of opportunities to improve his draft stock as the season progresses. Given his track record against some of the best teams in the conference, don’t be surprised to hear his name mentioned along with the other top prospects in the country.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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Report: NCAA Announce New College Basketball Policies

Basketball Insiders

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The NCAA adopted a sweeping series of policy and rules changes Wednesday that it hopes will clean up college basketball, which has been engulfed by an FBI investigation and other corruption over the past two years.

Among the significant changes that were adopted by the NCAA’s board of governors and Division I board of directors are allowing elite high school basketball recruits and college players to be represented by agents who are certified by the NCAA; allowing eligible underclassmen to enter the NBA draft and return to school if undrafted; introducing more rigorous certification requirements for summer amateur basketball events; and imposing longer postseason bans, suspensions and increased recruiting restrictions for coaches who break rules.

“These changes will promote integrity in the game, strengthen accountability and prioritize the interest of student-athletes over every other factor,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “We remain committed to promoting fairness in college sports and creating an environment that will champion the success of student-athletes.”

Source: Mark Schlabach of ESPN

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NBA

NBA Daily: Junior Robinson: “Size Doesn’t Matter”

Junior Robinson talked to Basketball Insiders about the Pro Basketball Combine, his athletic family tree and that killer on-court fearlessness.

Ben Nadeau

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At just 5-foot-5, Junior Robinson is easily one of the shortest players to go through the draft process in some time. But after four successful seasons at Mount Saint Mary’s, Robinson refuses to let his height define him as he reaches for the next level in his ever-evolving basketball journey.

In May, Robinson was invited to the Pro Basketball Combine, an opportunity for the collegiate star to prove himself on a big stage ahead of the NBA Draft. But even with a solid showing in both the testing and scrimmage stages of the audition, Robinson is expected to go undrafted this month. Still, there remain plenty of avenues — starting with summer leagues and two-way contracts — for Robinson to head down.

For now, however, he’s happy for the chance to compete and prove himself one more time.

“It was fun, I’ve had a great time so far, I’m here to have fun as well as try to make a name for myself — as the rest of these guys are,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “I think I played well, I didn’t make a lot of shots, as many as I wanted to, but, at the end of the day, I think I did well.”

Robinson, who led the Mountaineers to 18 wins in 2017-18, has undergone the type of transformation front offices specifically scout for. After averaging 8.2 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman, Robinson grew into his game, role and responsibilities. He would finish his collegiate career pulling down 22 points and 4.8 assists per game instead, a scoring tally that was good for 16th-best in all of Division-I. For somebody that often faced defenders more than a foot taller than him, shooting 44.6 percent from the field — and a workable 38.8 from three-point land — this year is a testament to Robinson’s willingness to adapt and survive.

“I had to find different ways to do different things, I’m not jumping over guys like 6-foot-9 — so I had to find a way to score around, over, or, you know what I’m sayin’,” Robinson said. “I had to do a lot of things to just improve my game inside, outside, ball handling, everything had to improve in order for me to be where I am today.”

Today, although accomplished, the odds are still stacked against Robinson. To date, only Earl Boykins and Muggsy Bogues have reached the NBA at 5-foot-5 or smaller. Bogues averaged 7.7 points and 7.6 assists over 14 NBA seasons, while Boykins himself enjoyed 13 — but those are two of the greatest exceptions, not the rule. Currently, the league’s shortest players are Kay Felder, who only played two games in 2017-18, and Isaiah Thomas, both standing at 5-foot-9. Of course, Thomas, a more recent success story, was the No. 60 overall pick in 2011 and has parlayed that opportunity into two All-Star appearances and a top-five MVP finish last season.

But when he was asked what exactly he’s looking to prove these days, Robinson’s answer was compelling.

“That size doesn’t matter. I mean, as long as you have heart and you’re willing to compete and give it your all every day — what’s height got to do with it?” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “All my life, I’ve been told I’m too small, I’m too short or that I’m not gonna be able to play with bigger guys. At some point, that phrase and all those have to go away, you just have to be a basketball player.

“And that’s what I try to prove — that I’m just a basketball player like the rest of these guys.”

Over his four seasons in Maryland, Robinson collected a handful of impressive individual outings — but perhaps none more so than the show he put on against Loyola back in early December. During a slim five-point victory, Robinson logged 39 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals on 4-for-7 from long-range. No matter your size, that’s an achievement worth acknowledging — and Robinson made a habit of putting in big performances like that all season. When Robinson scored above his season average (22), the Mountaineers were 11-4, a mark that accounted for 61 percent of the university’s wins last year.

Where Robinson went, so did Mount St. Mary’s.

Watching Robinson, even from afar, is a treat. There’s certainly something to be said for the league’s hulking, mammoth rim-rattlers, but Robinson’s craftiness and clever play can be just as enthralling. Utilizing pump-fakes, feints, floaters and his reckless abandon, Robinson frequently excelled at creating scoring chances out of very little. Any NBA franchise that gives Robinson an extended look this summer will find a hard-working, determined scorer — traits he credits to his uber-athletic family tree.

“My parents are pretty athletic,” Robinson said. “My mom played at Elon and went overseas and played in Germany. My dad was really athletic, he could do any type of dunk at like 5-foot-4. It’s in my genes as well, it’s also a competitive thing — I wanna be the best I can be. I wanna be just as good as these guys or be on that pedestal. For me to be able to come in here and play with them, it’s great for me.”

For now, nobody is quite sure what the future holds for Robinson, but he’ll likely get his shot to go headlong at looming seven-footers soon enough. His fearlessness has been a staple for Robinson since he arrived at Mount St. Mary’s in 2014 — get knocked down, get right back up. As he tells it now, Robinson knew he had to be unshakable to make the next level, slowly honing those killer instincts and shifty offensive moves. What we’re left with now, effectively, is a very talented 22-year-old scorer that spent last season as a legitimate Division-I force to be reckoned with.

But to him, Robinson’s unparalleled fearlessness is all just another day at the office.

“I think was I was nine, I went up and a kid knocked me over and I realized: It’s not going to kill me, so why not?”

And the rest is history.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Egor Koulechov: Three Schools, Five Years, One NBA Dream

At the Pro Basketball Combine, Egor Koulechov talked about his overseas journey, his extensive collegiate history and what it was like leaving home to chase a dream.

Ben Nadeau

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“Do you want the beginning, or do you want the condensed version from when I got to the states?”

When Egor Koulechov was asked to describe his worldwide basketball journey at May’s Pro Basketball Combine, he laughed before responding. After all, it’s a story he’s told a hundred times before — so what’s one more? In pursuit of reaching the summit of his NBA dream, Koulechov grew up grinding overseas before attending three stateside colleges in five years.

While he’s facing an uphill battle from here, Koulechov refuses to give up on it just yet.

As Koulechov, 23, recounts it now — albeit in an abridged, rapid-fire version — he lived in Volgograd, Russia until the age of six, then his family moved to a Neve Ur, a kibbutz in northern Israel. At 14, Koulechov relocated from home and played for two separate academy clubs, Maccabi Rishon LeZion and Wingate, as he progressively fell further and further in love with the game. Subsequently, Koulechov told his parents he wanted to play basketball in the United States, so he packed up and stayed with a host family alone for the following two years.

“I remember when I was sitting on that plane when I left my parents, that’s when it kind of hit me,” Koulechov told Basketball Insiders. “I’m not going to see my parents every day anymore, I’m not going to be home, I’m going to have to take care of myself. . .

“It’s just been an incredible journey, to be honest, I’ve met so many people, but it’s such a big adjustment, I remember, at 16, I struggled with it for a little bit.”

From there, Koulechov enrolled at Arizona State, where he averaged just 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14 minutes per game as a freshman. Smartly, the Israeli-Russian transferred to Rice University, sat out a season in accordance with NCAA rules and then took a massive step forward. In his second season at Rice, Koulechov pulled down 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 47.4 percent from three-point range. All of sudden, he was back on the map.

“Then, last year at Rice, I had a decision to make, whether I wanted to go pro or would I want to do a grad year,” Koulechov said. “I was kind of in between and decided to give this thing one last go-around to stay in the States and give myself the best shot of making my dreams come true — that’s why I went to Florida for one year.”

This past spring, Koulechov wrapped up a graduate transfer season at the University of Florida, where the 6-foot-5 guard tallied 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds over 30.6 minutes per game. He started in all 34 games for the tournament-bound Gators, using his innate playmaking abilities and solid shooting marks to take advantage of smaller defenders. During Florida’s first-round victory over St. Bonaventure, Koulechov took in a team-high 20 points along with six rebounds — all season long, he was the team’s most consistent contributor. Although it wasn’t enough to get Koulechov to the NBA Draft Combine, he was more than happy to compete in the Pro Basketball Combine instead.

“It was awesome, honestly, I haven’t done workouts like that in front of teams, I haven’t had any NBA workouts, I have some lined up later — but this was good, this was a good experience,” Koulechov said. “It’s honestly a little nerve-wracking at first, when you kind of have all those people watching you there shoot, kind of a little tense, but once you start getting used to it and getting in the flow, it’s kind of easier.”

More likely than not, Koulechov will go undrafted later this month — but with private workouts, multiple summer leagues and two-way contracts ahead of him, he’ll get plenty of chances to prove he belongs. Even as he works from behind the eight ball, the modern league thrives on three-point shooting, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that Koulechov, a career 39.5 percent marksman in college, could certainly catch on with the right franchise.

But his capable combine performance helped him exhibit far more than just his long-range abilities.

“Toughness, shooting, rebounding, defense, all those things — the 3-and-D thing that’s been going around a lot,” Koulechov said. “That’s kind of what I try to portray and show those guys, but it’s just how I play. It’s not like I try really hard, it’s kind of coming natural.”

Of course, it hasn’t been an easy road for the overseas dreamer — but it’s only served to make him even stronger. Unlike most NBA prospects, Koulechov was never a highly sought-after high school prospect, nor was he chased by five or six elite collegiate programs either. And yet, he still sacrificed everything to come stateside and compete for an opportunity. Now, he stands closer than ever to the big leagues, but he almost didn’t make it here.

During that challenging season at Arizona State in 2013-14, Koulechov couldn’t stop the doubts from sneaking in.

“[I felt like giving up] many times, many times,” Koulechov told Basketball Insiders. “But after my freshman year, I was kind of like: ‘Wow, why do I need this?’ Why when I could just go back home, play pro and make decent money? But I like to think of myself as mentally tough, and I know a lot of Israeli players who came through college and came for one year and then they left — everybody leaves after one year.

“I kind of wanted to be tougher than that. I didn’t want to be just another guy that tried it and went back to the same old thing, so that’s what I really wanted to get out of it.”

He’s not wrong either, and the current list of Israeli-born NBA players is a short one. Outside of the Indiana Pacers’ T.J. Leaf — born in Tel Aviv — and Omri Casspi, who was cut by the Golden State Warriors in early April, Israeli representation remains low. Koulechov’s passion for his hometown has motivated him through years of ups and downs — but following that stellar second season at Rice, he knew he had to keep reaching for his decade-long goal.

“If I did go back to Israel, I’d have to do military service, so this right now is me trying to make it to the NBA so I can represent Israel and give them another player,” Koulechov said. “That’s my dream, that’s always been my dream since I started playing basketball at 13. So that’s why I stayed here for another year.

“I could’ve been playing pro after one year of college or even before that — but this has always been my dream so I’m just trying to give it my best shot.”

After recapping his lifelong journey up until this point — a path that took him to three countries and three colleges before the age of 22 — Koulechov paused, smiled and said: “That’s the condensed version.”

And if Egor Koulechov has his way, his story is far from over.

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