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NBA Daily: Five Of The Draft Combine’s Biggest Underdogs

The NBA Draft Combine stands as many potential draftees’ best chance to impress franchises, but there are plenty of second-round stories worth following this week as well.

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Every spring, college basketball’s top athletes are invited to the NBA Draft Combine to exhibit their wide-reaching skill sets. Not only does this afford front offices the opportunity to measure, interview and watch scrimmages, but it gives potential draftees a better idea of where they may be selected. While much of the attention has fallen squarely on the likes of Michael Porter Jr., Mohamed Bamba and other likely high lottery picks, their draft status is not in question.

Both experts and fans alike could put together a decent look at composing a lottery mock draft at this point — but there’s still some major intrigue in those second-round fringe players. Late-round picks won’t always net a team the next Isaiah Thomas or Manu Ginobili, but rotation-worthy assets are certainly out there each and every year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five deep cut underdogs that will compete at this week’s NBA Draft Combine.

Theo Pinson, North Carolina

The Tarheels’ hard-working senior originally missed the cut but received a better-late-than-never invite early this week, according to Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania. Pinson, who started 13 games for the eventual national champions in 2016-17, is fresh off his best-ever collegiate season. Racking up 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists on 47.3 percent from the floor, Pinson was a huge reason why UNC entered tournament play as a No. 2 seed back in March.

Pinson uses his athleticism and strong physical tools to hound the opposition and his 6-foot-6 frame and 6-foot-11 wingspan made him a defensive stopper at times. Although he may project as a potential 3-and-D player, Pinson only shot 22.6 percent from three-point range in 2017-18 — so that’ll need work. But even if Pinson were to go undrafted, exhibiting his NBA-ready skills during workouts this week could land him a summer league fling at the very least.

While the 22-year-old should have been included on the first list, Pinson will get his chance to prove himself outside of private workouts after all. For some, that’s all it takes.

Ray Spalding, Louisville

That massive sigh of relief you just heard comes from Louisville’s Ray Spalding, who has also collected a late invite. Very early last month, Spalding announced he’d be hiring an agent — thus making him ineligible to return for his senior year no matter what — so this fortunate turn may end up being a game-changer for the 6-foot-10 forward. Again, like Pinson, Spalding’s athleticism and defensive potential could pave the road for a second-round flier.

Over three years, Spalding improved in each successive season with the Cardinals but he truly outdid himself in 2017-18. The 21-year-old doubled his previous scoring output, led the team in rebounds and shot 54.3 percent from the floor over 34 starts for Louisville. While his steady tally of 12.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.7 blocks per game may not make him a can’t-miss prospect, he has earned his spot in Chicago this week.

Should Spalding impress front offices, his stock could rise between now and draft night in June.

Billy Preston, International

Coming out of high school, Billy Preston was widely regarded as one of Kansas’ top prospects — but he ended up never playing in a regular season game. Following a series of small vehicle-related issues, head coach Bill Self began holding Preston out of games as the program investigated how and why he got his car. After a few months without an answer — and a total of zero minutes played for Preston — he signed with KK Igokea, a professional club in Bosnia. There, things didn’t get much better and Preston played in only three ABA League games before returning home.

Preston is a former McDonald’s All-American that finished his high school career at the famous Oak Hill Academy (Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, etc) by averaging 15.3 points and 9.2 rebounds. As far as prospects go, Preston absolutely has first-round talent and ESPN ranked him as the 18th-best player in his class. But after sitting out for the better part of a year, what will NBA franchises see in him? Nobody knows where Preston will end up and predictions range from the second-round to undrafted right now.

This invite, however, stands as a remarkable opportunity for Preston to showcase the innate potential that’s been hidden for so long.

Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dayton

Without question, we all know why Kostas Antetokounmpo was invited to the NBA Draft Combine — and that’s perfectly OK, too. After his brother — Giannis, of course — slipped to No. 15 overall in 2013 before turning into a perennial MVP candidate overnight, the rest of his family is obviously going to get attention. The oldest Antetokounmpo brother, Thanasis, went to the Knicks at No. 51 overall in 2014 and flamed out in America after just one season, so Kostas would be another late selection in all likelihood.

Antetokounmpo, 20, averaged a paltry 5.2 points and 2.9 rebounds over just 15 minutes a game for a disappointing Dayton squad. Naturally, Antetokounmpo is built like both of his siblings — he’s tall, athletic and owns a massive wingspan of his own. But even if Antetokounmpo’s eventual ceiling slots him in somewhere between Giannis and Thanasis, that would be worth a second round roll of the dice, undoubtedly.

The sample size is unfortunately small, but he did manage to shoot 65 percent on two-pointers in 2017-18 and that’s a worthwhile start. Still, Antetokounmpo would have to really impress at the NBA Draft Combine to have a chance of sticking around past the draft-eligible deadline on May 30. The best guess here is that this high-upside prospect will end up back at Dayton this fall — but who could fault front offices for wanting to watch this royal NBA bloodline up close?

Brian Bowen, South Carolina

Similarly to Preston, the case of Brian Bowen may be ripe for a second-round home run swing as well. The former McDonald’s All-American had originally enrolled at Louisville before finding himself at the center of the Rick Pitino scandal in September. Although Bowen was cleared a few months later, Louisville announced that Bowen would not play or practice for the team in 2017-18. Shortly thereafter, Bowen enrolled with the South Carolina Gamecocks, where he’s still waiting to be reinstated by the NCAA.

As of today, he’s still not learned of his future eligibility, so unsurprisingly, Bowen intends to test the waters despite never playing a collegiate game. To outsiders, his invite may come as a surprise but Bowen is definitely talented. He averaged 22 points per game as a high school senior and was ranked as ESPN’s 14th-best prospect. At 6-foot-7, Bowen presently projects as a second-round pick — but with his standing for the 2018-19 still in the hands of the NCAA, he’ll likely have to make a tough decision before the deadline.

Obviously, Bowen, 19, will do whatever is best for a career currently on hold — but a killer combine showing could make that choice a whole lot easier.

If you tune into the NBA Draft Combine this week, it’ll be difficult to look away from the pool’s best and brightest, but don’t forget to keep an eye on the underdogs. Between four-year seniors and freshman that haven’t played in a single game, there are plenty of compelling stories to watch as the workouts unfold over the next month.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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