Last week, Troy forward Jordon Varnado hit a game-winning jump shot over Eastern Illinois. Not only did the sophomore step up when his team needed him the most, he made his presence felt all evening by filling the box score to the tune of 22 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two assists.
Shortly after the win, Varnado spoke with Basketball Insiders and was nonchalant. He didn’t exhibit any excitement about his monster performance or clutch shot. Coaches often tell players to “act like you’ve been there before” after an impressive win or play. Varnado has that down.
Varnado is one of the best kept secrets in college basketball, but the word will be out soon. He’s simply playing too well to continue flying under the radar.
He’s currently averaging 15.7 points, seven rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game for the Trojans. He has been incredibly efficient as well, shooting a 50 percent from the field (on 13.3 attempts per game) and 42.9 percent from three-point range (on 2.3 attempts per game).
Varnado is a 6’6 forward who can play inside and out. When asked which NBA players he watches and models his game after, Varnado doesn’t hesitate: “Draymond Green and Paul Millsap.” He studies those players because of their versatility, physical strength, ability to cause mismatches and the fact that they’re similar in size to him.
“My versatility is an advantage, no doubt,” Varnado said. “I can cause mismatches because I can go both inside and out. I take the bigger guy outside of the paint; if it’s a smaller guy, I can go right at him or shoot a jump shot. Offensive rebounding is a big part of my game; I like to crash the boards, make hustle plays, stuff like that.”
Another player with NBA experience has influenced him much more than Green or Millsap ever could, though. That’s because Jordon’s brother, Jarvis Varnado, was a second-round pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Jarvis is the NCAA’s Division I all-time leading shot blocker, recording 564 rejections during his collegiate career at Mississippi State. Only two college players in history have recorded 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 blocks in their career: Jarvis Varnado and David Robinson.
Jarvis is currently playing in Italy, but he had NBA stints with the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, he has a championship ring because he was on the 2013 Heat team that defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
For Jordon, growing up with Jarvis helped him improve drastically as a player. Very few people can say that they spent their childhood honing their basketball skills against one of the best defenders in NCAA history. Jordon learned how to score in a variety of ways, leading to the versatile offensive arsenal we see today. It also increased his confidence. After all, he started to think, “If I can score on Jarvis, I can score on just about anyone.”
“It was great,” Jordon said. “Every day was a battle, ‘cause me and him used to go at it. We were very competitive. It was always a battle.”
Jarvis has been a huge asset for Jordon off the court as well, especially when it came time to pick a college and now that he is starting to get some NBA buzz. A big reason Jordon landed at Troy is because their head coach, Phil Cunningham, has ties to the family; he was an assistant coach at Mississippi State when Jarvis played there, and everyone in Jordon’s life felt that Coach Cunningham would do a great job developing him and preparing him for the next level.
Also, watching his brother’s career play out has given him an idea of what to expect each step of the way as he goes through his own process. Most players don’t have that luxury, and Jordon doesn’t take it for granted.
“It’s helped me out a lot because going into college, I knew what it would take to be a great player,” Varnado said “I knew the work ethic I had to have to succeed, what I need to do to make it to the next level.”
Varnado may not have a ton of buzz surrounding him now, but that’s sure to change if he continues playing at such a high level. Either way, Jordon will be in his own bubble and concentrated on the team’s success rather than his own.
“I haven’t realized it,” he said when asked if he’s getting more recognition lately. “I just tend to keep to myself, just focus on the task at hand and try to help my team win every game that we can.”
As if Varnado didn’t have enough motivation, he uses his lack of high school offers as an additional chip on his shoulder. He’s determined to make a statement to the teams that passed on him.
“A lot of teams were looking at me in high school, but they never offered me,” Varnado said, sounding annoyed. “They were just ‘interested’ in me in high school.
“So every time I go out on the court, whoever I play against, I just remember in my mind that they could’ve picked me and they didn’t. I just try to go dominate them.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Pulling Out Of The Draft Isn’t A Simple Decision
Making the decision to pull out of the NBA Draft isn’t an easy one, as there are a lot of factors that go into that decision.
The Big Decision
The NCAA deadline for NBA Draft hopefuls to return to college was 12 pm EST Wednesday night, and roughly 70 players that had declared for the 2018 NBA Draft have announced their intention to return to school.
It is important to note that the NBA’s deadlines are not currently aligned with the NCAA deadlines, so an official list of players that have withdrawn won’t be issued by the NBA until after the deadline.
On the surface, for many of these players, the decision to return for one more season of college experience might seem easy. However, it’s actually a hard decision for a number of reasons, beyond just the notion of getting drafted.
It is not at all uncommon for a college team’s priorities to change from season to season. The role a player played last season may not be the same in the upcoming year. Coaches change, new players come into the program. Philosophies change.
Every player has to weigh whether the environment changes of a team will help or hurt their chances to improve, especially for the non-degree seeking players that are simply leveraging college for a chance to be a professional.
A player’s returning role becomes even more relevant for the players at huge recruiting schools like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, where a new crop of blue-chip recruits are coming on campus every season.
Will You Get Better?
Another factor draft prospects have to consider is this: will returning help them get better? On the surface that seems like an easy answer, but it might not be.
Some players have exhausted the coaching and training available to them at the college level. Some players need more gym time or more specialized training. Unfortunately, there are limitations imposed at the NCAA level on how much time coaches can spend with players, and if the team’s priorities are changing, will a returning player be the priority for the coaching staff that maybe they were last season?
Even if a player goes undrafted and ends up in the NBA’s G-League, they’ll have the chance to focus solely on improving as a player, and that’s a factor some players must weigh.
There is also the question of eligibility. In the case of South Carolina’s Brian Bowen, who got caught up in the on-going payment of player scandal at Louisville, He was advised that he would not be eligible to play next season as a result of the implication. And while he may go undrafted in the NBA Draft, he was not going to be eligible to play, making it an easier decision.
Unfortunately, for a number of players, their goals are strictly to get to the NBA, and they may or may not have taken the required coursework to remain eligible if they were to return.
Equally, some players find that the grind of the college athlete world isn’t worth it for them personally and they opt to stay in the draft class even if they may not get drafted.
More Than Just The Draft
It’s easy to think about declaring for the draft as a singular opportunity. However, the draft is simply one doorway into professional basketball.
After the draft, teams clamor for the chance to scoop up talented undrafted players and try to get them into their programs. This starts with Summer League invites.
Equally, it’s not at all uncommon for NBA teams to start making partial guaranteed commitments or even two-way contract commitments to secure a player they may have liked in the process but were unwilling to invest a draft pick into.
The appeal of the new two-way contracts for undrafted players is real. Even more so with the G-League increasing its base compensation for all players, making a two-way contract worth a maximum of $385,000 next season.
With 60 two-way contracts available to NBA teams, most fringe level draft prospects are seeing potentially sixty more professional jobs, making the draft pool more than just the sixty-first and second-round selections; and that is before you factor in the ten true roster spots per team in the G-League.
On the surface its easy to make pulling out of a draft class about the draft alone, but it’s a much bigger decision that a player must make. Especially when you consider that historically, most players that have “tested the waters” usually don’t improve their draft stock too dramatically the following year.
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