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NBA PM: Gambling on “Small-School” Prospects

Can Cameron Payne be this year’s Damian Lillard – a small-school prospect who climbs into the top 10?

Joel Brigham profile picture
Updated 11 months ago on
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2015 NBA lottery prospect Kristaps Porzingis worked out at his pro day in Las Vegas today and our friends at DraftExpress caught up with him for an interview.

Who Will Take the “Small School” Gamble This Year?

In so many ways, the draft is an absolute crap shoot. Even the top players from the top schools and top international teams don’t always see widespread success in the NBA, but at least with those players, teams can feel fairly confident that they’re making a safe selection. Jahlil Okafor, for example, was the top prospect coming out of high school a year ago and just won a national championship for one of the most storied universities in the history of college basketball.

There’s not a lot of risk involved in a pick like that, regardless of where he’s actually selected, because if he ends up failing, at least his future NBA employers can say, “Look, we made what we thought was the smartest pick at the time. It’s not our fault it didn’t work out.”

Portland, for example, can defend themselves for taking Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. It’s easy to look back on that now and berate the poor Blazers for choosing the wrong guy, but at the time that decision was considered to be one of the toughest in recent draft history. They picked a talented kid from a respected college program who had been on top of scouting sheets for years. It didn’t work out, but it wasn’t like they took some big risk. He was, at the very least, a known commodity and certainly universally deserving of the No. 1 overall selection that year.

So where does risk come from if not the big names from the big schools? Well, the lesser-known names from the smaller schools, probably, particularly because almost every year there’s at least one kid from a mid-major program that just barely made the NCAA tournament (or didn’t make it at all) who finds himself in the conversation for a lottery selection. There’s no way of knowing how these players’ skills will translate to the NBA when they’re facing much tougher competition, or whether a team would be justified in taking someone who only recently popped onto the scene as a potential star, but general managers and team presidents look for star potential (and also like to receive credit for discovering a hidden gem), so they look for players like these.

They are undoubtedly risky selections, but guys like Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry show why teams keep on looking for those diamonds in the rough. This year, that player appears to be Murray State point guard Cameron Payne, who has generated a lot of buzz in the last few weeks and, as reported by Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy, has earned a promise from a first-round team (and likely one in the lottery).

Most recently, there were rumblings that he could even be a top-10 selection, but it would be extremely surprising to see him selected among the top six picks in the draft because there are six of those big-program, little-risk players ripe for the taking at the head of this draft class: Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow (Duke), Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State) and Emmanuel Mudiay (played in China last year, but is a former top-three, five-star high school recruit and McDonald’s All-American).

Typically, these small-school kids don’t go until “sure things” like the aforementioned six players are off the board.

In 2012, Lillard was one of the most hyped up prospects in the draft, but the ballast between risk and reward didn’t break until after Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky), Bradley Beal (Flordia), Dion Waiters (Syracuse) and Thomas Robinson (Kansas) were off the board. It turns out Lillard is the second-best player from that draft class, but it was just too hard for NBA executives to justify taking him ahead of what they considered to be surer things and safer bets.

In 2009, then-Minnesota GM David Kahn passed up on Curry even though he had two consecutive picks at No. 5 and No. 6, both of which were used to select other point guards (Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn). Curry was the nation’s leading scorer that year and that Flynn wasn’t even 6’0 tall, and it seemed it was a matter of trusting a Syracuse product over a Davidson one.

Of course, not all small-school kids taken that high turn out to be stars. Pacific’s Michael Olowokandi is one of the biggest busts in NBA Draft history, and Jimmer Fredette (BYU, No. 10, 2011) is a recent example of a pick that didn’t work out. The jury is still out on C.J. McCollum (Lehigh, No. 10, 2013) and Doug McDermott (Creighton, No. 11, 2014), but injuries have forced both of these players to get off to slow starts. However, things haven’t looked great for either so far.

The point is that there are gems to be found from lesser-known programs, and sometimes when a player rises up the ranks quickly in the weeks leading up to the draft, it’s entirely justified. Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette, No. 10, 2014) looks like he’ll be a very good NBA point guard, for example, while Klay Thompson (Washington State, No. 11, 2011) is one of the best scorers in the league and playing in the NBA Finals only a few short years after being drafted. Gordon Hayward (Butler, No. 9, 2010) received a max contract a year ago, and everybody loves Paul George (Fresno State, No. 10, 2010).

Any pick can break bad, regardless of school size, but taking a player from a college program that doesn’t have a long history of producing credible NBA employees absolutely is a risk. This year, it looks like Payne will be the guy that gets some lottery team gambling first. Hopefully he’s a pot worth winning.

Sixers Seriously Considering Porzingis at #3?

Mock drafts need to be taken with a grain of salt, but DraftExpress, easily the most respected source on the internet for all things NBA Draft, made some waves on Thursday by releasing a new mock draft that had the Philadelphia 76ers taking Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis with the third overall selection, ahead of guys like D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay and Justise Winslow, any of whom would appear to be a steadier building block for a team desperately in need a superstar to jump start their rebuilding process.

This isn’t a completely unfounded thing to do at this point, however, as Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie is genuinely interested in Porzingis and has been for some time. Jonathan Givony, the man who assembles those Draft Express mock drafts, reported earlier this year that the Sixers were instrumental in getting Porzingis to stay in this year’s draft pool, and he has been to Spain several times this year to see the forward play, according to SB Nation’s Derek Bodner. Russell deciding to cancel his visit and workout with Philadelphia has also turned some heads. Today, Hinkie went to Las Vegas to watch Porzingis work out at his pro day (for those interested, video of his pro day is above this post).

Despite all of this, there is plenty of reason to doubt that Porzingis would actually be the pick there, though there is plenty of interest in him from teams drafting high in the lottery. He is 7’0, can shoot the three and is pretty versatile on both ends of the floor, making him an exciting prospect for teams who think he has as much upside as any player in the draft. However, he’s rail thin and quite a bit riskier than some of the more well-known American prospects in the pool, with Russell and Mudiay both looking like surer bets.

Moreover, while it’s almost never advisable to draft to fill a need over selecting the best player available, Russell and Mudiay are both better fits and arguably stronger prospects. Philadelphia traded away Michael Carter-Williams because they didn’t think he was a franchise point guard. Now, Hinkie has two from which to choose at pick No. 3 (or one if the Lakers end up going with Russell at No. 2), and if there’s one area where that team is okay moving forward, it’s the frontcourt. Noel had a solid rookie season and Joel Embiid should be healthy entering this upcoming season. Philadelphia doesn’t need any more big man projects. They need someone who can start getting that city interested in basketball again.

Of course, all of this could be for nothing as it’s not strange for journalists to start making some changes in mock drafts that have been relatively static for weeks. Russell, for example, has long been DX’s guy to Philadelphia at No. 3. Perhaps Givony just wanted to experiment with how the first round would shake out if Hinkie selected a different player that he also appears to like.

Philly taking Porzingis would be an extremely surprising move in actuality, though if Twitter response to that mock draft is any indication, Sixers fans believe Hinkie is just crazy enough to pull the trigger. And why not? What’s one more year of bad basketball to bring aboard yet another high lottery pick in 2016?

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

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