Hidden gems on the hardwood

Two current NBA stars who overcame their mediocre college teams

When you think of memories of Michael Jordan, do you remember him as the dominant member of the Chicago Bulls or of his times at the University of North Carolina first? 

Sure, he’s the greatest basketball player ever, and he solidified that in the mid-eighties and nineties, but you can’t gloss over his performance in the 1982 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. 

Or what about the career long battle between Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson? 

Do you think of the three clashes between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Finals or the 1979 NCAA title game between Bird’s Indiana State University and Johnson’s Michigan State University? 

The point is, these players present a potential precedent for the game’s greatest professional players to have similar outstanding college team results. 

If you read the title of this article, you’d know this is hardly the case. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a quick look at current Los Angeles Clippers star, Paul George. 

George attended California State University, Fresno, more commonly referred to as Fresno State, from 2008 to 2010. 

In his two year stint with the Bulldogs, he earned a Second-team All Western Athletic Conference (WAC) selection, and his number 24 jersey was retired by the University. 

In 63 games, George averaged 15.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He had a field goal percentage of 45 percent and a three point percentage of 40 percent. 

The season before he arrived at Fresno State, they finished with a win-loss record of 13-19. They were 5-11 in conference play. Over his two seasons at Fresno State, the team had a combined record of 28-39. That’s no good.

 It gets even worse when you think about the competition he played against. As a member of the WAC, their toughest games came against Utah State University and the University of Nevada. 

Obviously, this story has a happy ending. George would leave after his sophomore season and be drafted tenth overall by the Indiana Pacers. 

Rumors have since circulated that the Pacers had attempted to trade up to the third pick to select Georgia Tech big man Derrick Favors, but the deal couldn’t get completed. 

George went on to be a six time All-Star, a five time All-NBA member and a four time All-Defensive Team member. 

In spite of the University and team he played for, George proved he is a perennial All-Star type player and a true hidden gem of the college hardwood. 

Two years after George was selected by the Pacers, a point guard from Weber State University was selected with the sixth overall pick. I’m talking, of course, of “Dame D.O.L.L.A.” Damian Lillard. 

Lillard’s status as a hidden gem dates all the way back to his high school days. At the aptly named Oakland High School in Oakland, California, Lillard was graded a three star recruit according to 247Sports. 

Since he didn’t receive many Division I offers, he took a scholarship from Ogden, Utah’s number one college, Weber State. 

In his freshman year, Lillard averaged 11.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists in an average of 29.4 minutes per game. 

That was good enough to earn him First Team All-Big Sky Conference and Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year honors. In order to not be complacent, Lillard averaged 19.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists in his second year outing. 

His statistical uptick landed him the Big Sky Player of the Year and honorable mention from the Associated Press’ All-American list. Perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve left out a few key insights. 

For instance, why were Lillard’s assist numbers so low for his position? Or what was their win-loss total? It must be good, right? They’ve got THE Big Sky Conference Player of the Year. Well, things look better than George’s Fresno State, I can tell you that. In Lillard’s freshman year, the team went 21-10 and finished first in the Big Sky. 

Their prime positioning in the conference’s tournament didn’t seem to matter, as they were bounced by the 14-17 Montana State Bobcats in their first game. 

In Lillard’s sophomore year, the team went 20-11 and once again finished first in the Big Sky. 

This time, Weber State and Lillard survived their first game and reached the conference title game. They were on the cusp of reaching the NCAA Tournament. 

All they had to do was get past the other team from Montana, the Montana Grizzlies. In an incredibly noble effort, Weber State lost to Montana 66 to 65. 

Once again, basketball teams based in Montana proved to be Lillard’s kryptonite. 

An injury kept Lillard out of competition during his junior year, but he returned with a vengeance the following year. 

Averaging 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists garnered him much national attention. 

At the end of the season, Weber State was 25-7, and Lillard was a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award (the award given to the country’s best point guard). 

Things were finally starting to come together for Lillard and his team. Then it happened again. 

The sky turned grey and distant rumblings of thunder could be heard. A college from Montana was back. In the 2012 Big Sky Conference Championship Game, the University of Montana mollywhopped Weber State 85 to 66. 

All hope was not lost for Lillard. His redshirt year performance put him at the top of many draft boards heading in to the 2012 NBA Draft. 

When the Portland Trailblazers were on the clock with the sixth pick, they made Lillard the first point guard selected. 

He has since become a five time All-Star, a three time All-NBA member and the Rookie of the Year in 2013. 

Despite playing at a smaller school, Lillard has gone on to be one of the league’s most recognizable players. 

Lillard’s accomplishments are great and all, but I can’t help but wonder if he’d still have accrued the success he has if there was a professional basketball team in Montana. 

Well there you go, that’s two current NBA stars who outshined their college’s standing. 

George and Lillard are certainly not the first to do so, as guys like Chris Bosh, John Stockton and Pete Maravich similarly went on to do great things in the league after playing for mediocre and underperforming college teams. 

All the players mentioned prove an NBA great can emerge from anywhere. 

~Matthew Morhiser, Staff Writer~


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