CJ McCollum is one of the most polished offensive players in the draft, scoring almost 24 points per game last season. (Greg Nelson/SI)
Former Weber State guard Damian Lillard's Rookie of the Year campaign this season helped put smaller schools on the map, but he's far from the only small-school prospect that has been a very good NBA player. This year's draft class has a number of good potential pros hailing from schools outside the major conferences, projected to go anywhere from the lottery to deeper into the second round. Here's betting a couple of these guys, at least, turn into very good NBA players.
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
McCollum had his national coming-out party against Duke in the 2012 NCAA tournament when he dropped 30-6-6 on the Blue Devils in the Mountain Hawks' 15-over-2 stunner. The performance was nothing new for McCollum, who nabbed a rare Freshman of the Year/Player of the Year combo in the Patriot League in 2010 and was leading the nation in scoring in 2013 before an injury cut his season short. He's a scoring combo guard who has been showing off more of his ball handling in pre-draft workouts, as he'll have to be able to play some point in the NBA. A very skilled and level-headed prospect, he seems poised to be a lottery pick.
Tony Mitchell, North Texas
There was a ton of hype surrounding Mitchell when he chose off-the-path North Texas for his college destination, and while he had a decent freshman season, his sophomore campaign was disappointing and leaves you wondering whether the substance (and mentality) is there to support the buzz. He's 6-foot-8 with a huge wingspan and big body, so he looks like a physical fit for the power forward spot. He's a very raw offensive prospect at this point, but should be able to rebound and defend some at the next level. If someone can harness his natural potential, they could get a steal wherever he's picked. That's a sizable "if," though, based on what we saw in college.
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State
A really successful four-year guy from the Ohio Valley, where he morphed from one part of an incredibly egalitarian Racers team in 2010 and '11 into the clear star of the team the past two seasons. He's a bit undersized at 6-foot, but his almost 6'5" wingspan helps compensate. He's been primarily a scorer at the college level, and showed great proficiency shooting off the dribble. He'll have to adjust to more of a playmaking role in the NBA, but he's a very good talent. Could be a first-round pick.
Nate Wolters, South Dakota State
There's not much more Wolters could have done at the college level -- other than going to a larger program so scouts would have a better idea how his game will translate to the NBA. He led the Jackrabbits to the school's first two Division-I NCAA tournament appearances while maintaining a high-usage, incredible-efficiency playing style that thrilled quant guys nationwide. In his limited opportunities against high-major programs, he generally played well, but given the size and quickness concerns, it will be interesting to see how he can adapt to the speed and size of the NBA. He can handle the ball, shoot and pass and even chipped in on the glass significantly at the college level. He could be an interesting second-rounder.
Mike Muscala, Bucknell
The yin to McCollum's yang in the Patriot League these past four years, Muscala is a highly skilled 6-foot-11 forward who put some big numbers on some big programs as a Bison. More physical than his body would suggest, he has a very good shooting stroke, rebounds well and earns/makes free throws at a significant rate. How his work in the Patriot League scales up is a question, but there should be room in the NBA for a guy with his skill set. He's a good, and underrated, player.
Ray McCallum Jr., Detroit
A highly touted prep prospect who spurned bigger programs to play for his father, McCallum has improved a good amount over the course of his three seasons. That said, he doesn't have the best size/athleticism package for the NBA level and he's not a particularly good jump shooter, so if he doesn't improve in that area, he may find himself lacking options on the offensive end. He's a very solid ballhandler who doesn't turn it over much despite Detroit's uptempo style. Maybe he can find a role as a change-of-pace guard off the bench.
James Ennis, Long Beach State
A still-raw prospect who hasn't played very much high-level competitive basketball, but whose physical traits, including his shocking wingspan, make you dream on him as a wing defense specialist in the pros. Ennis is 6-foot-7 or so, but has an almost 7-foot wingspan, and his lean build makes it seem even longer than that. He added a bit to his offensive game this past season, but he really should focus himself on becoming the new-age wing contributor -- a guy who can shoot 3s and defend like crazy. He shot 35 percent or so from 3 in both his college seasons, so the potential to be that is there. Intriguing second-round prospect.
Robert Covington, Tennessee State
College hoops junkies may have come across Covington when he was leading the Tigers over then-unbeaten Murray State in 2012. He had a great junior campaign, but fell off a bit as a senior and suffered a torn meniscus that cost him a chunk of the season. He's a legit 6-foot-9 (albeit lean) with skill, which never is a bad place to start. He's a good jump shooter with very well established 3-point range as a collegian. He's another guy who could be worth a second-round pick with his specific skills.
Zeke Marshall, Akron
Who doesn't need rim protection? Marshall is a legit 7-footer with a 7-foot-5 wingspan who blocked shots in the MAC at an extremely high rate. He's improved a little on the offensive end and as a rebounder, but he remains principally a shot-swatter. Given a few years in the league to learn, develop and add some more weight, maybe he can be more than that, but gambling on raw size and ability to block shots is never a terrible idea in round two.
Norvel Pelle, no college
The former Saint John's commit (who also was then expected to surface at Iona) never made it to the court in college and is a mystery man in this draft. He's tall, very lean, with good athleticism and promising skills for a guy that size, but probably will have to go the D-League or overseas route first in order to show he can actually perform at a professional level. Maybe someone rolls the dice late in round two? It would be the equivalent of stashing a Euro prospect for a couple of years.