On Damian Lillard and Pros Exceeding NCAA Production

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Not all college basketball stars translate to the NBA — hello, Marcus Fizer — but most of the NBA’s best who went to college shined at that level.

Consider last season’s NBA Finals MVP, Kevin Durant, who put up 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and two steals per game in one season at Texas. This year’s clear front-runner for Most Valuable Player, James Harden, earned Pac-10 Player of the Year with 20.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game for the best Arizona State basketball team in almost three decades. Steph Curry won two of the last three regular-season MVPs, and the first indicators that he would revolutionize the game became evident during his tenure at Davidson.

The forthcoming NCAA Tournament features a variety of current standouts who should transition nicely to the pro game, like potential No. 1 overall picks Marvin Bagley III and DeAndre Ayton. The Tournament itself might spawn a budding talent, in much the same way Curry propelled into the national consciousness in 2008, or Jordan Bell did a season ago.

Indeed, referring to Basketball References’s 2017-18 MVP Tracker shows an impressive list of former college standouts:

• James Harden, Arizona State: 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year, Consensus All-American

• Steph Curry, Davidson: two-time Consensus All-American (2008, 2009)

• Chris Paul, Wake Forest: 2005 Consensus All-American

• Kevin Durant, Texas: 2006 Consensus National Player of the Year

• Anthony Davis, Kentucky: 2012 Unanimous National Player of the Year, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, NCAA Champion

Some exceptions include LeBron James, who eschewed college when that was still an option; Giannis Antetokounmpo, a EuroLeague import; and Kyrie Irving, who was injured for much of his tenure at Duke — but almost assuredly would have been an impact player for the 2010-11 Blue Devils.

But the names that fascinate me — and the type of players I will try to pay more attention to this NCAA Tournament — are those like reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, and dark-horse contender DeMar DeRozan. Both are products of the Pac-12 (10 at the time), and both showed flashes of brilliance in their respective collegiate tenures.

But they were just that: flashes.

Westbrook was on two Final Four teams at blue-blood UCLA, though contributed little in his freshman campaign; and was a clear No. 3 on the 2007-08 squad behind veteran point guard Darren Collison, and All-America big man Kevin Love.

DeRozan played for a good USC team in 2008-09, but veteran big man Taj Gibson was the clear leader of that team. For those who lament DeRozan’s outside shot now, his 17 percent shooting from behind the arc as a Trojan relegated him to third on the team in scoring behind Gibson and Dwight Lewis.

Damian Lillard, who has come on particularly strong in the MVP conversation over the past month, was the most productive at the collegiate level among the three. He won Big Sky Conference Player of the Year twice, including a senior season of 24.5 points, five rebounds and four assists per game.

However, Lillard never played in a single NCAA Tournament through four years at Weber State.

Spotting a candidate to be the next Westbrook or DeRozan isn’t easy, but various Tournament contenders have dynamic combo-guards who go around 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-6 and aren’t necessarily stars, but have the tools. This year’s class features names like Rawle Alkins and Hamidou Diallo.

Seeing the next Lillard means tuning into the conference tournaments, CBI or CIT; not exactly the typical proving ground for future NBA elite.

GMs did not exactly unearth hidden commodities when they selected Westbrook, DeRozan or even Lillard. All three were lottery picks in their respective draft classes. Still, it’s fascinating how far each progressed from college.

In the case of Westbrook and DeRozan, athletic guards who fit the mold physically are relatively common. Plenty go in the lottery every summer without putting up gaudy numbers in college — and they don’t put up big statistics in the NBA, either.

A prospect like Lillard is rare. A standout low-to-mid-major prospect can turn out like Lillard’s Portland Trailblazers teammate, C.J. McCollum (Lehigh), and be a solid contributor. He can also be more like Cameron Payne (Murray State), who has yet to click at the professional level. To land a Steve Nash (Santa Clara) or Curry is a winning lottery ticket.

And Lillard’s all the more awe-inspiring when considering that Curry, McCollum and Nash all had breakthrough moments in the NCAA Tournament.