Wyoming Cowboys forward Larry Nance Jr. enters an infusion center and takes a seat. He is able to walk right in without an appointment – one of the perks of living in Wyoming – and receive his Crohn’s Disease medication. A nurse comes over with a needle, starting an IV in his arm. As she prepares the IV bag containing the medicine, which is called Remicade, he must take Benadryl and Tylenol to ensure that he doesn’t have an allergic reaction to the biologic. After 30 minutes, the nurse attaches the bag of Remicade to his IV and he will remain sitting in his chair for approximately three hours as the medication enters his vein.
A college basketball player must keep his or her body in excellent shape so that they can perform at a high level. For most players, this means doing conditioning drills, lifting weights and eating healthy foods. On top of doing those things, Nance Jr. must also get this IV treatment every seven weeks. Initially, he received the medicine every two weeks, but he’s been able to space out his IV doses lately since his body has responded well to the Remicade.
The 6’8 forward has been extremely productive this season. He has put Wyoming on his back, helping the Cowboys win the Mountain West Tournament to earn the conference’s automatic berth in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. This season, Nance Jr. has led the team in points (16.1), rebounds (7.2) and blocks (1.2), and he’s second in steals (1.2) and field goal percentage (51.3 percent).
But he wasn’t always a dominant, physical specimen. Not too long ago, he was sick, undersized and constantly fatigued. He had no desire to play basketball, because he was in pain and even getting off the couch was exhausting. Then, Nance Jr. was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which changed his life.
For a long time, Nance Jr. wondered what was wrong with him.
He was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school, and had no energy. Not to mention, all of his family members towered over him. He stood at just 6’0 tall and weighed less than 120 lbs. This isn’t short by most standards, but it is in the Nance household. His father, Larry Sr., was 6’10 and played 13 years in the NBA. His sister, Casey, was 6’4 as a freshman in high school.
“I was just really confused,” Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “I was confused why I wasn’t growing more. I just didn’t have any energy, no appetite, no urge to play basketball.”
Later that year, he would be diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which is a chronic illness that is described by doctors as “a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract.” It’s estimated that 700,000 Americans have Crohn’s Disease, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, and it most often affects individuals who are between 15 and 35 years old. It can affect patients in a number of ways, with the most common symptoms being abdominal pain, chronic fatigue, weight loss, fever, internal bleeding and bowel issues. There is no known cure, but patients can go into remission. Sometimes, serious treatment such as a biologic (like Remicade) or surgery is required. Crohn’s Disease isn’t life-threatening, but it can cause issues that are life-threatening if it goes untreated (such as blockages in the intestines).
The best way to describe Crohn’s is that it turns a person’s immune system against their own body. A healthy person’s immune system fights off harmful bacteria such as viruses, while working alongside the beneficial bacteria. A Crohn’s patient’s immune system attacks the good bacteria, meaning the person’s body is essentially fighting itself. This produces inflammation and ulcers that must be treated.
Still, Nance Jr. was relieved to have a diagnosis. Even though he had a chronic illness he’d have to deal with for the rest of his life, at least he finally knew what he was fighting and could put a plan in place.
“When I figured out why I was feeling like this, it was a relief for me because I knew I could start getting treatment,” Nance Jr. said. “I just wanted to start feeling better. My entire sophomore year was just a lot of pain. I mean, my two favorite foods are peanuts and popcorn and, at that time, I didn’t know that was making my stomach hurt. I was eating it, eating it, eating it and they just rocked my world that entire year.”
His doctor prescribed Remicade, and the medication started working almost immediately. With his body no longer having to fight the disease on its own, he quickly caught up to his relatives.
“From my sophomore year to my junior year, I grew about six and a half inches,” Nance Jr. said. “When I first got the Remicade, it was like it kicked my body into overdrive and I just started to catch up on all the growing and stuff that I had missed the past couple years.”
With a growth spurt and renewed energy, he was able to pursue his dream of playing college basketball, which is something he thought he’d never be able to do when he was undersized and fatigued.
“I mean obviously everybody who’s playing basketball growing up has the dream of playing [at a high level], but I dropped that dream really quick around eighth grade because I thought there was just no way,” Nance Jr. said. “I just didn’t have the urge to play it, practice it, nothing. Then, once I got that treatment, it was eye opening and really exciting because I could get my old dream back.
“I started realizing that maybe [the dream was realistic] at the end of my senior year. That’s when I started getting recruited and some guys were starting to talk to me, telling me they were interested. Then I was like, ‘You know what? I think I might be able to do this. I feel pretty good, so let’s go ahead and give it a shot.’”
As a senior at Revere High School in Ohio, Nance Jr. averaged 18.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 2.6 steals and 2.3 assists. He was named Second Team All-Ohio, First Team All-Suburban League and First Team All-District, and led his team to two straight Suburban League Championships. In addition to Wyoming, he was recruited by Michigan, Michigan State, Central Michigan and Ohio. But he decided on the Cowboys and it has worked out for him, as evidenced by his impressive statistics and the team’s success.
Despite his medical issues, he has been able to follow in his father’s large footsteps. Larry Sr. was a three-time All-Star and won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984. Now, Larry Jr. is looking like a star as well and a pro career seems inevitable. He feels his success is so much sweeter given all of the obstacles he’s had to overcome.
“I enjoy it a whole lot more just because I know the other sides of things,” Nance Jr. said. “It’s like you can’t truly appreciate success until you fail, and that’s kind of where I’m at right now. I truly appreciate playing basketball at such a high level because I know what it’s like to struggle and really have a hard time, trying to figure out what is going on.”
Ironically, Nance Jr. describes himself as an energy guy on the court. He studies Chicago Bulls power forward Taj Gibson and, like Gibson, he tries to provide defense and hustle plays when he’s on the court. When asked what it’s like to be an energy guy just years after having zero energy, he can’t help but laugh.
“Wow, that’s even a new one for me,” Larry said. “I’ve never heard that, wow. It really is crazy because that’s what lost me my starting job in high school on a freshman team: lack of energy. Now, that’s my role.”
Larry knows what it’s like to feel horrible and hopeless due to Crohn’s Disease, which is why he wants to be a role model for children with the disease. He recently received some fan mail from a child with Crohn’s and he was ecstatic.
“Honestly, I just called my mom and dad right when I got out of practice because I got a letter from a kid in Pennsylvania who said, ‘I love sports and I keep reading your stories. You’re a huge inspiration to me to keep trying, keep doing my best to play.’ I usually don’t get really excited about fan mail anymore, but that was just really unique and I would take a letter like that over a letter like, ‘I admire your basketball skills’ any day,” Larry said. “That’s just on a different level.
“It’s like how [former NFL player] David Garrard affected me. I looked at him and thought to myself, ‘It’s possible.’ So I kept doing my best and here I am. For me to kind of flip that script and me being that person now is really a dream come true. I want to do a foundation, a charity. To be in that position, it is pretty incredible.”
I was drawn to Larry’s story because I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was 12 years old. I had surgery to remove a large portion of my intestines several years later, and have been in that same chair at an infusion center waiting for a Remicade bag to empty.
Nance Jr. and I bonded immediately when discussing our experiences with the disease. We also found out we had the same childhood hero in Garrard. Like many children with Crohn’s Disease, we looked up to the former NFL quarterback, who played nine seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and was diagnosed with the disease.
Garrard has been an inspiration to many Crohn’s patients. Over the course of his career, he passed for 16,003 yards and 89 touchdowns. In June of 2004, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease after experiencing stomach and chest pain. He had to undergo surgery to remove 12 inches of his intestines and then started Remicade, but he still managed to play in the 2004 NFL season and continue his football career for many years.
Garrard has been a speaker at camps for children with Crohn’s Disease and he runs the David Garrard Foundation, which holds events and raises money for Crohn’s Disease research among other causes. When told that Nance Jr. looked up to him as a child, Garrard was blown away.
“Well, you know what, that’s really cool,” Garrard said of Nance Jr. looking up to him and following in his footsteps. “Actually, when I got diagnosed and realized what the disease is all about and how many people it affected and how many kids are affected, I just knew right then that God blessed me with this disease so that I could try to be an inspiration to people, and I wasn’t afraid to speak out on it. It’s not a very comfortable disease and not something you want to bring up around the dinner table, even though that’s the exact time I would bring it up sometimes. My mission was basically trying to reach the youth and encourage them.
“I would get a lot of letters from kids around the country, saying how much I’ve helped them and that kind of stuff, but to actually see Larry go from being a kid to getting into college to making a name for himself in college and then hearing him say that I was a direct inspiration to him is really what it was all about. If there was just one kid who I could help do that – and maybe it wasn’t sports, maybe it was just being a productive person in their community – those are the stories that make it worth it. To finally have a kid grow up from being a young kid to a college athlete and say that I helped inspire him to continue on, there’s really a special place in my heart for that kind of stuff.”
Returning to action shortly after his surgery was important to Garrard, not only because he wanted to resume his NFL career but because he wanted to send a message to children with Crohn’s Disease.
“I was trying to get myself healthy enough so I could continue to play and just show them that you can beat this disease,” Garrard said. “You don’t have to let this disease keep you down, keep you locked in the house, not wanting to go outside, not wanting to play with your friends. I didn’t want them letting this disease have that kind of power over them.
“I was just not going to stay down very long – I’ve been that way my whole life. I’ve always been an athlete, so there’s nothing that can keep me down and that was just my mindset the whole time. I listened to the doctors, I said, ‘What do I have to do? What’s the best way? The surgery? Okay, let’s go ahead and do it now so I could have time to recover.’ Honestly, I lost a lot of weight, about 40 pounds total, and once I got healthy enough after surgery I just started eating anything and everything, and that’s pretty easy for me to do. I put most of the weight back on plus a little more because I did not stop eating, and I just knew I couldn’t be too skinny out there, trying to run around and getting hit and that kind of stuff. My teammates were encouraging me the whole time. I just stayed focused on what I had to do. I let my body heal in the abdominal area, and once the doctors gave me the okay, I was good to go. … I believe my positive attitude, my faith in God and my teammates and family members around me helped me fight my way back because there was a good culture around me. Then, once I felt like I was strong enough, I wasn’t even thinking about the disease; I was thinking about that 200-pound linebacker that was trying to blitz me.”
When Garrard speaks to children with Crohn’s Disease at places like the Painted Turtle Camp and Camp Oasis, he tries to motivate them. The fact that he played in the NFL – and has been very open about his disease – inspires many children. But still, there’s only so much he can do.
“The kids do love that I play sports, that I play football, but when I get there they honestly don’t care about that; they want someone to help them get a cure for this disease,” Garrard said. “They love that I played sports and all of that, but they are like, ‘Hey that’s pretty cool and everything, but let’s find somebody that can cure us. We don’t want to be sick at home and not able to go to school. We want to be outside running around with our friends. We want to be able to play normal.’ You hear that from all of them and that’s what motivates me, that’s what drives me. It’s that there are 10-year-old kids that have been dealing with this their whole life and they don’t know any different. There’s kids having a hard enough time just being a kid, but then they have to deal with something as serious as this as well.”
Garrard has spent years trying to raise money and awareness for Crohn’s Disease research. As far as his own health goes, though, he’s actually doing very well lately. His doctor recently told him that rather than getting a colonoscopy every year to monitor his Crohn’s Disease as he had been doing, he can start getting them once every three years since he has been doing fine for quite some time.
“I feel great,” Garrard said. “I just want my story to be the same kind of story that everyone else can have, and I hope that I can inspire people. Hopefully Mr. Nance Jr. can do the same and even more.”
Nance Jr. looks up to Garrard and has dreamed of working alongside the quarterback on a Crohn’s charity or foundation. Shortly after being interviewed for this story, Garrard asked for Nance Jr.’s phone number and the two connected. Garrard would love to be a mentor for Nance Jr., who was thrilled to speak to the athlete he looked up to as a kid.
“When I was younger, I looked to see what famous people had Crohn’s and there really wasn’t a whole lot who did at that time,” Nance Jr. said. “Once I found David Garrard, it kind of opened my eyes around my junior and senior year when I was getting pretty good at basketball. I started thinking, ‘This might be possible. I mean, he’s playing a much tougher game than I am and he could still do it.’ So I figured I’d keep pursuing [my dream] and give it a shot.”
The main message that Nance Jr. wants to deliver to children is that Crohn’s Disease shouldn’t control their life or limit them in any way.
“I want them to know there is nothing that you can’t do because of Crohn’s,” Nance Jr. said. “As bad as it might be at one point, your body is going to learn how to live with it, learn how to adapt to it. It’s not going to prevent you from living a happy life.”
Because Nance Jr. is a senior, these NCAA Tournament games will be his final contests as a college basketball player. He hopes that his strong play can lead to him getting drafted by an NBA team, not only so he can live out a dream but also because so he can reach even more people and become a face of Crohn’s Disease, just as Garrard did.
“[Getting drafted] would be a dream come true, and at the same time it would also be, for me, a tremendous victory,” Nance Jr. said. “There were a lot of times when I first got the disease when I was like, ‘Uh oh, can I still play even? Is that possible?’ There were questions and concerns there and to be able to answer those by getting drafted would be a tremendous victory for myself and the entire Crohn’s community.”
On Friday, Nance Jr. will be on college basketball’s biggest stage as Wyoming takes on Northern Iowa in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Regardless of what happens in the Big Dance, Nance Jr. has already won the most important battle of his life and inspired Crohn’s patients everywhere.
For more information on Crohn’s Disease and how you can get involved, visit CCFA.com.
UPDATE: Larry Nance Jr. was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers with the No. 27 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He just completed is rookie year with the Lakers, appearing in 63 contests and averaging 5.5 points and five rebounds in 20.1 minutes per game.
Sources: Jontay Porter Re-Tears Right ACL
Jontay Porter’s NBA stock has taken a turn for the worse.
Porter, the Missouri power forward who missed his sophomore season after tearing ligaments in his right knee during a preseason scrimmage against Southern Illinois, recently re-tore his right ACL while in Denver, multiple sources told The Star. The Missouri basketball team confirmed the injury.
Porter was in Denver rehabbing his first knee injury. Sources told The Star the injury didn’t come directly from rehab but happened while he was on the court working out. It’s unknown if Porter was cleared for activity when he was injured.
NBA Daily: Four Prospects Ready To Rise In NCAA Tournament
Every March brings a collection of mock draft risers ahead of combine season, but there are four names worth your attention this spring, writes Ben Nadeau.
Ah, it’s almost that time of year, folks.
No, not just placing a bet on college basketball or filling out the winning bracket.
With conference tournaments set to wrap up this weekend, and Selection Sunday not far behind, the mental preparations for the big dance have already begun. Each season, like clockwork, a group of players seemingly raise their stock amongst fans ahead of workouts and the combine. Last season, of course, the largest beneficiary of the bright spotlight was Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo. During the NCAA Championship, DiVincenzo torched Michigan for 31 points on 5-for-7 from long range — then once he measured out well, it was all but settled. In a matter of two months, DiVincenzo had gone from a near-lock to return to college to a potential lottery selection.
But as Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler pointed out alongside his most recent mock draft, importantly, it was a combination of everything that vaulted DiVincenzo into the cultural forefront. With much of the collegiate sphere transfixed, rightfully, on Zion Williamson’s return to Duke, plus his renewed efforts with top prospects Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, most of the collective draft class has just slipped on by. So although scouts may have a handle on the NCAA’s very best prospects, there are plenty of other cases worth adding to join to the pre-tournament hype conversation.
Given that March Madness kicks off on Tuesday, there’s no better moment to investigate the portfolios of some potential risers. Again, a stellar showing in the tournament won’t do it alone — but, regardless, these are four players that could do a ton of damage between now and the NBA Draft in June.
Eric Paschall, Villanova
Speaking of DiVincenzo, the Wildcats have sent a handful of players to the NBA over the last three years and senior Eric Paschall appears to be next in line. The 6-foot-8 forward bided his time alongside stars like Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, but the former All-Tournament selectee has bloomed as Villanova’s main man. Over 32 contests, Paschall has averaged 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 three-pointers per game, helming his now-depleted squad to 23 wins.
Although he hasn’t collected the same awards that Brunson did last year, NBA teams tend to love ready-to-contribute Wildcats, no matter their age.
Paschall will be 23 once his rookie year begins in the fall but he’s got big-game confidence and oodles of experience already. On Thursday, Paschall scored 20 points and 10 rebounds to pace No. 25 Villanova past Providence in Big East Tournament play. There are some concerns over his pro-level fit as a power forward, but his massively improved three-point conversion mark will definitely have scouts back on board.
Of note, Paschall was unanimously named to the All-Big East First Team and he’s currently heating up ahead of another deep Villanova run. Paschall’s fantastic put-back helped the Wildcats force overtime against Xavier on Friday, while his clutch three-pointer and subsequent free throws then iced it.
Jaxson Hayes, Texas
Texas’ newest rim-protecting impact player is the 6-foot-11 Jaxson Hayes — a well-executing shot blocker and walking highlight reel… sound familiar? While the comparisons to Jarrett Allen are simply unavoidable at this point, Hayes has been a worthy target alone based on his slow, but steady improvement throughout the 2018-19 campaign. Through 32 games, the freshman has averaged 10.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks on 72.8 percent from the field. Those standout numbers — blocks and field goal percentage — rank as 23rd and second-best in Division I, respectively.
In Hayes’ best performance yet, the big man pulled down 15 points, six rebounds and five blocks during a mid-season victory over rival Oklahoma. Earlier this month, Hayes was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, an honor recently bestowed upon Trae Young, Josh Jackson and Myles Turner. Along with Allen and Turner, Haynes joins Mohamed Bamba as highly-rated former Longhorns with huge professional-level projections — that’s not bad company to keep.
Unfortunately, at 16-16, Texas now faces an uphill battle to even reach the big dance. Much worse, Hayes played just 14 minutes before leaving the game with an injury during their loss to No. 3 Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday. Head coach Shaka Smart said he hoped “it’s not extremely serious” but a status update has not been revealed as of publishing. However, as an athletic leaper and instinctual defender, Hayes remains one of the top long-term projects, injured or not.
And with moments like these, it won’t be long until the country takes notice as well — even if he’s sadly done for the season now.
Tre Jones, Duke
Of the names on this list, Tre Jones’ line is certainly the least jaw-dropping — 8.9 points, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals — but he’s been the fourth mouth to feed behind the Blue Devils’ trio of future top five picks. Still, Jones has been a steadying force for the star-studded side, even seeing a healthy uptick in the three weeks that Williamson was sidelined. During Duke’s slim loss to North Carolina a week ago, Jones chipped in with nine points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals.
With Williamson back in the lineup versus Syracuse on Thursday, Jones dropped 15 points and eight assists — which, long story short, proves the court general is good no matter who is on the floor. While those statistics aren’t enough to push Jones into lottery territory, the 19-year-old point guard has some promising upside for a team with less ball-dominating assets already.
Although head coach Mike Krzyzewski dreams of a sophomore year return, Jones’ laser-sharp distribution and above-average defense will make him a popular name this spring. Jones’ 3.73 assist-to-turnover ratio is third-best in the entire nation and his ability to drop picture-perfect passes to Duke’s sky-walking dunkers has made them appointment viewing all season.
And if you’re feeling some slight déjà vu right now, that’s for good reason. Back in 2014-15, Tyus Jones, Tre’s older brother, was an electric playmaker for a Blue Devils team that won it all. But if you see Tre knocking down important, pressure-laden shots like Tyus once did, don’t be surprised — that clutch gene still runs in the family.
Jaylen Nowell, Washington
This foursome has covered nearly every corner of the scouting conundrum checklist thus far: Hayes? Too raw. Paschall? Too old. Jones? Too underutilized. While those are all things that front offices may eventually look past when drafting those three in June, Jaylen Nowell falls into zero of those buckets.
Nowell is 19 years old, just won Pac-12 Player of the Year and seems poised to lead Washington to their longest tournament run in over a decade. Heading into the postseason, Nowell is leading the Huskies in points (16.5), assists (3.1) and three-point percentage (44.9), while the guard is their runner-up in rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.2) too. Uncoincidentally, Washington’s 25 wins are the most the college has finished with since Isaiah Thomas led them to 26 and the Sweet 16 in 2009-2010.
In 2018-19, Nowell has topped 18 or more on 15 separate occasions, including a massive 26-point, six-rebound effort against the likely No. 1 overall-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs. Nowell is an incredible dribbler and the sophomore has put plenty of talented defenders on skates — but he’s also been largely hidden in a subpar conference this season. Fundamentally strong, Nowell has shot below 40 percent in just five of Washington’s 32 games so far.
Consistent and reliable, he’ll be their go-to star in the NCAA tournament without a doubt. Before long, the rest of the country will recognize him as one too.
Zion Williamson has been deservedly tough to look away from this season — but collegiate basketball’s biggest showstopper has robbed onlookers of some other incredible narratives as well.
Whether that’s the scrappy lead guard throwing alley-oops to Williamson on the daily, a forgotten National Champion or a budding first-rounder on the opposite coastline, March Madness is shaping up to be another worthy runway for takeoff. Unfortunately, Hayes will likely miss out — even in the now-unlikely circumstance that Texas is selected — but his agile, smooth skillset as a near seven-footer will make him a sought-after interview come draft season.
Between now and April — through a mix of their tournament efforts and combine measurements — an elite group of prospects will rise up mock draft boards once again. Who will it be this year?
NBA Daily: Uncovering The Next Rodions Kurucs
The Brooklyn Nets struck gold with second-rounder Rodions Kurucs last year. Which under-the-radar prospect could be the next steal of the draft?
Zion, Zion, Zion.
With a splash of Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett mixed in for good measure, this college basketball season has been all about Duke’s Zion Williamson. The flash card-worthy facts are astonishing — 18 years-old, 6-foot-7, 285 pounds — but his highlight reel moves, both offensively and defensively, have everybody drooling. And although collegiate and professional onlookers alike wait to hear news of a potential Williamson return — or lack thereof — most franchises won’t have a shot at adding the prodigal teenager during draft season. For others, even picking in the lottery isn’t possible and, for a rare few, selecting at all in the first round is entirely off the table — looking at you, for now, Toronto, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver and Dallas.
In those cases, they’ll look for uncut gems and low-profile lottery tickets to take a swing on in picks past No. 30 overall. Recent years have brought renewed plaudits to the second round steal, most notably in regards to Isaiah Thomas’ rise to prominence (No. 60), Malcolm Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year campaign (No. 36) and Nikola Jokić’s MVP-worthy efforts in Denver (No. 41). Still, Thomas was a standout at Washington for three seasons, Brogdon the same over four at Virginia, while Jokić — albeit passed upon by every team in the 2014 NBA Draft at least once — averaged 15.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and earned Adriatic League MVP before he even joined the Nuggets.
Nowadays, there’s Rodions Kurucs. Everybody wants their own Rodions Kurucs.
For those somehow still under a rock, Kurucs has been a welcomed revelation for the Brooklyn Nets in their surprisingly win-laden campaign thus far. The Latvian-born baller was once-hyped as high as a potential lottery selection back in early 2017 before withdrawing from that season’s draft. But as his on-court time waned with Barcelona, his stock dropped so harshly that he would’ve likely gone undrafted just one year later if not for previous scouting by the Nets. Thankfully, the Nets snagged Kurucs at No. 40 overall and expected him to play an entire season with Brooklyn’s G League affiliate on Long Island.
Kurucs, of course, had other plans.
Through an aggressive, fast-paced style of play, Kurucs has been a massive bright spot for the Nets through their first 60 games. After an injury bug hit Brooklyn hard, Kurucs joined the starting lineup and the Nets instantly rattled off 13 wins in their next 18 contests. All in all, he’s averaged 8.8 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.9 minutes per game, including a breakout 24-point performance on 5-for-8 from three-point range against the rival Celtics in January. Those unexpected contributions led Kurucs to a well-deserved spot in All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars competition, where the 21-year-old finished with 10 points, five assists and four rebounds — and, most importantly, looked the part.
As of today, Kurucs has outside odds on reaching the 2018-19 All-Rookie Second Team and the playoff-hopeful Nets look infinitely more athletic and modern game-ready with the forward on the floor. Perhaps in the know about Kurucs from the get-go, the Brooklyn gave him a fully guaranteed four-year contract, with a team option on that final season, shortly after he was drafted. In no uncertain terms, Kurucs is one of the biggest victories of the 2018 class so far. Kurucs was cheap, young and ready to chip in from opening night, a rarity from second-rounders with very little overseas achievements.
Which is all to pose one simple question: Who is the next Rodions Kurucs?
In order to answer that, there are three important pieces of criteria to hit upon before creating such a list of candidates. First and foremost, the player must be a projected second-rounder — if he’s locked into a guaranteed contract, that’s not a draft day steal, that’s a commitment. Building on that, the player must be a relative unknown to some extent. For instance, everybody knew Thomas’ name after he averaged 16.8 points and 6.1 assists, led the Huskies to the Pac-10 tournament championship and then the NCAA’s bracket-busting second-round back in 2010-11.
Ultimately, Thomas slipped to No. 60 because of concerns over his height — not because he was under-scouted or off radars altogether.
Finally, the next Kurucs must be a natural fit in today’s NBA landscape. Jokić was a unicorn-in-waiting, whereas Kurucs is a 6-foot-9 uber-athletic floor-runner that can provide on both sides of the ball. If Kurucs adds a consistent three-point shot to his repertoire, something he’s focused on all season long, he’ll be a lock in Brooklyn’s young rotation for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, here’s a short-list of contenders that could have a Kurucs-level breakout in 2019-20: Abdoulaye N’Doye, Cholet; Brian Bowen, Sydney Kings; and Darius Bazley, USA.
More popular names like Sekou Doumbouya, Luka Šamanić and Goga Bitadze will continue to garner buzz — particularly following the instant adjustments made by Luka Dončić this season — but all three international prospects have been ranked as a potential first-rounder in the early editions of draft boards, so they don’t qualify for now. Which leaves us with three options — one genuine overseas prospect and two Americans with a couple of unique circumstances.
N’Doye is a 6-foot-6 guard from Dunkirk, France, a 21-year-old that sports a strong physical stature already. Coincidently, he’s garnered comparisons to Frank Ntilikina, another French-born defensive-minded and similarly-sized point guard. Although he’s struggled to find his footing under two different head coaches in two years, Ntilikina still went No. 8 overall not too long ago and N’Doye could project on the same wavelength.
For Cholet of the LNB Pro A, N’Doye has averaged 6.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 43.8 percent from three-point range. And for an athlete that puts up a little less than five shots every contest, N’Doye’s jumper looks sturdy, all things considered. Physically, N’Doye frequently appears as if he’s in an entirely different stratosphere against his competition, often using his quick hands and ridiculously adapt wingspan to spring one-man fastbreaks.
Even if it takes a few seasons for the offense to catch up with the rest of his body, envisioning N’Doye as a day one asset on defense doesn’t feel like a major stretch. The French circuit isn’t as competitive as Spain or Turkey, for example, but it’s still the league where Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier and Clint Capela all earned their stripes before heading stateside — in fact, Cholet was the team that birthed the early beginnings of Rudy Gobert from 2010-13.
For Brian Bowen, however, his long-winding journey is far from over, it appears.
Bowen, best known for his involvement in Louisville‘s recent scandal, is trying to claw his way back into draft contention. The quick-fire SparkNotes for the uninitiated: After Bowen was deemed ineligible to play for the Cardinals in 2017-18, the talented scorer tried to transfer to the University of South Caroline, where, following a two-semester NCAA transfer sit-out policy, he could begin rebuilding his NBA resume in early 2019. Instead, Bowen declared for the 2018 NBA Draft despite not participating in any collegiate games, went to the combine, didn’t sign an agent and eventually withdrew before the international deadline.
While this move effectively killed any lingering NCAA dreams, it left the G League and overseas route open as well as his NBA Draft eligibility. So, long story short, Bowen then signed with the Sydney Kings of the Australian NBL and has been working there since August in hopes of jumping back on front office radars with a full season of experience under his belt. Bowen may not have become the breakout star the Kings expected, but the 20-year-old has held his own in a decently competitive league.
The 6-foot-7 forward has tallied just 6.5 points and 3.1 rebounds over 28 games for Sydney — still, it’s far too early to give up on Bowen. Remember, it’s only a few years removed from Bowen being ranked as ESPN’s 14th-best high schooler in an absolutely stacked class that once included Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and more.
Or, in other words, if Bowen declares for the 2019 NBA Draft and sticks with it this time, he’s got the makings of a perfect second-round homerun swing.
Lastly, there’s Darius Bazley, perhaps one of the most interesting cases in recent draft memory. Bazley, 18, was a former five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American that originally committed to play for Syracuse in 2018-19. At the last moment, Bazley decided to skip college altogether with plans to head to the G League for a season before jumping to the NBA. Before long, the 6-foot-9 southpaw forewent that intermediary league too, announcing that he’d spend the entire year training for the draft instead. And… that’s pretty much where things stand in early January.
Bazley has some impressive high school-level highlights that exhibit his above-average court-running abilities and slender frame — but, as always, those clips can be incredibly deceiving. For now, Bazley has taken up a million-dollar internship at New Balance but he’ll certainly land somewhere in second round come draft season. Of course, this path is close to that of the New York Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson, a ceilingless rookie that withdrew from Western Kentucky to train in private for the draft just last year. In order to keep the air of mysteriousness surrounding his on-court talents, Robinson dropped out of the NBA Draft Combine as well.
Ultimately, Robinson fell to No. 36th overall, where the Knicks were more than happy to grab the potential-laden center. If Robinson hadn’t missed a 14-game chunk already — and stayed out of foul trouble a bit better — he’d be spoken of as highly as Kurucs has been so far. Of note, over Robinson’s 43 appearances, he’s already brought in 26 multi-block efforts — for a second-rounder, that’s playing with house money. Naturally, Bazley has a tremendous distance to go before he even reaches Robinson territory, but even this path to the NBA has found recent triumphs — he’ll just need to land in the right spot.
Zion Williamson is an otherworldly, once-in-a-generation prospect, just like Luka Dončić was before him. But while fans and general managers deservedly salivate over those teenagers, most franchises must dig far deeper to unearth under-the-radar contributors. Kurucs’ immediate accomplishments will bode well for front offices that continue to do their due diligence on late-round rookies. The Nets’ savviness has landed them a talented youngster at a multi-year cost-controlled price — but now it’s an outcome that the other 29 other teams will all look to replicate come June.
Between now and the NBA Draft, it’s all about uncovering the next Rodions Kurucs or Mitchell Robinson — but who will it be?