If there’s one lesson to take from the NBA draft every year, it’s that potential is often viewed as more valuable than production.
Teams will often bypass a proven college upperclassmen in favor of a younger prospect who has not accomplished much yet but might achieve greatness a few years down the road.
That trend continued Thursday night when the Most Outstanding Player of this year’s Final Four lasted until the sixth-to-last pick of the draft and a second- and third-team All-American did not get selected at all. By contrast, underachievers Nassir Little of North Carolina and Kevin Porter Jr. of USC both went in the late first round, as did Darius Bazley, who chose not to play at all this past season.
The good news for this year’s top undrafted college players is that it doesn’t mean their NBA dreams are dead. Fred VanVleet went from going undrafted to helping lead Toronto to an NBA title this season, while fellow former undrafted free agents Allonzo Trier, Seth Curry, Joe Ingles and Wes Matthews each further entrenched themselves in the league.
Those players should provide inspiration to the quintet below. Here’s a look at the best college basketball players who were not selected in Thursday night’s NBA draft.
1. Ethan Happ, F, Wisconsin
Why would the NBA pass on a second-team All-American who’s one of the most decorated four-year players in Wisconsin history and averaged 17.9 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists as a senior? Probably because Happ is a terrible fit for the modern NBA. The 6-foot-10 Happ contributes little outside the paint, as evidenced by his one career 3-pointer and his 44.6 percent free throw shooting as a senior. He’s also a below-average athlete for an NBA big man, which makes it difficult to envision him protecting the rim or defending in space on the perimeter. Happ might get a shot in NBA Summer League, but it’s tough to see him sticking unless he suddenly extends his shooting range.
2. Dedric Lawson, F, Kansas
If Lawson doesn’t make it in the NBA, the third-team All-American’s sub-par athleticism will be the primary culprit. The 6-foot-9 redshirt junior averaged 19.4 points and 10.3 rebounds in his first season against power-conference competition, but NBA teams viewed it as a warning sign that some of his least efficient games came against long, athletic Kentucky, Texas and Michigan State. Lawson has a chance to defy the skeptics if he gets stronger and tougher and extends his shooting range. He shot a career-best 39.3 percent from behind the arc this past season, but he only made one 3-pointer per game.
3. Barry Brown, G, Kansas State
The unanimous first-team all-Big 12 guard will forever be revered at Kansas State, but NBA talent evaluators apparently aren’t confident he’ll be able to make a smooth transition to the professional level. The concern is that he’s undersized for an NBA shooting guard and he’s a below-average outside shooter who shot just 29.8 percent from behind the arc this past season. What Brown does provide is elite defense, both on and off the ball. He’s also an effective slasher on offense who averaged nearly 15 points per game as a senior.
4. Shamorie Ponds, G, St. John’s
In addition to averaging 19.7 points and 5.1 assists this past season and guiding St. John’s to an NCAA bid, Ponds showcased some unique skills that no doubt impressed NBA scouts. He displayed the shiftiness to either blow by defenders or create separation to get off a step-back jump shot. That should give Ponds a chance to stick as a backup NBA combo guard, but it was not enough to get him drafted Thursday night. Concerns over his shot selection, decision-making and defensive ability contributed to him not hearing his name called.
5. Jared Harper, G, Auburn
It’s only fitting that Harper will have to fight his way into the NBA as an undrafted free agent. The 5-foot-11 Auburn point guard has always had to overcome the odds throughout his career. Not only did Harper average 15.3 points and 5.9 assists this past season, he saved his best for his team’s unexpected Final Four run. He outplayed future lottery pick Coby White in a Sweet 16 upset of North Carolina and torched five-star Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans for 26 points a couple days later. What prevented Harper from walking across the stage on Thursday night is his lack of size and his sometimes questionable shot selection. Nonetheless, Harper’s speed, athleticism, deep shooting range and ability to make plays out of a pick and roll should give him an opportunity to make an NBA roster next season.
Honorable mention: Mike Daum, F, South Dakota State; Dean Wade, F, Kansas State; Caleb Martin, G, Nevada; Naz Reid, F, LSU; Tyus Battle, G, Syracuse; Phil Booth, G, Villanova; Jordan Murphy, F, Minnesota; Josh Perkins, G, Gonzaga