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NBA AM: College’s Gold Reserves

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When it comes to the NBA Draft, the logical thing would be for teams to draft the best college and international players in the world every year. For the most part, that’s what happens, and it will happen again in 2017. However, there occasionally are outliers among prospects some seasons, where a player who didn’t even start for his college team can somehow find his way into the conversation for the first round of the draft.

This spring, for example, as we head into the NBA Draft Combine, there are two players that could potentially find themselves selected in the top half of the first round, despite not having started for their college teams.

Inexperience Doesn’t Scare Off Scouts

Gonzaga’s Zach Collins, for example, is a player who spent the better part of his freshman season as his team’s 6th man. He played only 18 minutes a game, putting up 10 points, six rebounds and two blocks per contest, but his combination of size (he’s a true seven-footer) and offensive range have him slated to fall somewhere around the middle portion of the first round this June. He’s Gonzaga’s first-ever “one-and-done” player, which is a little remarkable, frankly. Still, despite his youth and relative inexperience, he’s got lottery written all over him.

UCLA’s Ike Anigbogu, also projected as a first-round pick, is even less proven, having played a scant 13 minutes per game in which he averaged only 4.7 PPG and four RPG. Despite that, he’s incredibly athletic and physically imposing, and when one considers that he was one of the youngest players in college basketball this past season, it would be safe to assume that his role would have expanded had he returned to UCLA as a sophomore.

However tall or long or gifted Collins and Anigbogu may be, however, it’s kind of incredible that they both are considered two of the top 20 prospects in this draft despite not having proven themselves the way that Frank Mason III, Jaron Blossomgame and Sindarius Thornwell have.

Winning on the college level and contributing to an NBA team are two entirely different things. When it comes to the NBA Draft, it’s not necessarily about the resume so much as it is the physical profile and untapped potential. Mason, Blossomgame and Thornwell are base knocks to the shallow outfield. In theory, untested physical specimens like Collins and Anigbogu are supposed to be the home runs. Height, defense, range, athleticism and youth play to their favor, even if it mean paltry NCAA resumes. They pass the eye test. They also pass the statistical test, scoring well in terms of measurable and advanced stats. Those things matter in ways to NBA scouts that a Final Four appearance alone does not.

This Won’t Be the First Time

There have been plenty of NBA teams that have taken this gamble before. Perhaps most famously, the Atlanta Hawks drafted UNC reserve Marvin Williams second overall in the 2005 NBA Draft, despite needing a point guard and despite both Chris Paul and Deron Williams having been available to them when they made their selection. Atlanta passed up the best point guard of a generation to draft a kid in Williams who was lauded for his size, length, versatility and athleticism, despite his reserve role. Most importantly, though, Atlanta loved his upside. The ceiling always has been more attractive to NBA front offices than the floor.

That Williams pick completely bucked conventional wisdom, and while Williams has turned into a fantastic professional, he’s not even in the same zip code as Paul. Twelve years ago, however, a pick like that was made with the gut. In more recent years, those picks are made based off of data, and as such, the results have been less disastrous.

Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers, who made a similarly risky pick in 2012 when they selected Syracuse reserve Dion Waiters, who earned more than his fair share of Dwyane Wade comparisons that spring despite not having started for the Orangemen the previous season. While Waiters broke through with the best season of his career in Miami this past year, the selection was a bona fide shock five years ago, especially with Thomas Robinson still on the board when the selection was made.

While the Cavaliers also passed on Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond, it’s not like either of them has been an All-Star. At this point in their careers, Waiters has proven to be every bit as good as the guys Cleveland also may have considered with that fourth pick in 2012, the exception being Damian Lillard. Lillard went sixth, but wasn’t really talked about at fourth that year and wouldn’t have made sense with Kyrie Irving already on the roster.

Over the course of the last few drafts, we’ve seen the gamble of drafting non-starters pay off in big ways. Consider Minnesota’s Zach LaVine, who did not start for UCLA his lone season in SoCal. In three years in the NBA, LaVine has been the league’s most electric dunk artist was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting 51.5 percent from the field before tearing his ACL midseason. LaVine was selected 13th overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, after players like Nik Stauskas, perhaps the most celebrated player in college basketball that year, and Doug McDermott, another dominant college upperclassmen who was better than LaVine in college but has been nowhere near as good as LaVine through three NBA seasons.

It was LaVine’s otherworldly athleticism and relative youth that got him on the lottery map in 2014. He was too intriguing to pass up, and it paid off.

And then came Devin Booker. While it’s not easy for every elite prospect to find minutes at Kentucky, Booker came off the bench in his lone year in Lexington to help space the floor and knock down some threes. He only averaged 10 points in around 21 minutes a night for Coach Calipari that season, but three-point shooters are much more valuable at the NBA level, especially when it comes with Booker’s size and young age. He wasn’t a starter at UK in large part because he turned 18 mere weeks before the start of the season.

Now, he’s one of a very small handful of players to have scored 70 points in a game. Everybody else in that club is either in the Hall of Fame or will be there the second they’re eligible. Booker is still stupidly young but looks like one of the steals of his draft. LaVine does, too.

What Does This Mean for the 2017 NBA Draft?

Does that mean Collins and Anigbogu will prove similarly valuable once teams risk their own first-round picks on them later next month? Teams already seem drooly with desire to land them on their rosters, even if it means giving them a few seasons to marinate. Of the players listed above, the guys who didn’t start for their college teams but got drafted in the first round anyway, none of them have been complete and utter busts. While it’s arguable (or even undeniable) that the team’s drafting them could have made better selections, not a one has failed to live up to at least some of their astronomical potential.

That bodes well for this year’s NCAA non-starters. Hopefully, the teams that draft them find what they’re looking for at a point in the draft where it becomes more beneficial to shoot for the moon than play it safe.

Ceiling over floor. Midway through the first round, it’s always gotta be ceiling over floor.

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.