Can Isaiah Canaan make a splash in the NBA?

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Isaiah Canaan is a household name for college basketball fans. Murray State and the Ohio Valley Conference doesn’t typically generate household names in the powerhouse-dominated college basketball landscape, but if you take a cursory glance at Canaan’s four-year career as a Racer, you will quickly see how he broke the mold to become an unlikely mid-major college basketball superstar.

Among the highlights for the 6-0 guard: 2,050 career points, two-time OVC Player of the Year honors (2012 and 2013) and Consensus Second Team All-American honors during a particularly memorable 2011-12 campaign.

And that doesn’t even include the winning — and Murray State won a lot of games with Isaiah Canaan on the floor.  The Racers went 106-26 in Canaan’s four years on campus and earned two NCAA Tournament bids — making it to the Round of 32 both times — while coming from a league that typically only gets one bid.

“Murray State gave me the opportunity to be able to win and play at a high level,” Canaan explained to NBC Sports. “(Murray State) showed me the way to lead, to earn a lot of wins, and that a lot of (NBA) teams want to see a four-year guard that has won at the college level.”

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But for as great as Canaan’s career at Murray State might have been, history shows he has an uphill battle to take his career to the highest level and succeed. The OVC isn’t exactly a mecca for NBA prospects and after a six-year period from ’86 to ’92 that produced four NBA veterans with at least nine years of service to “The League,” (Eastern Illinois’ Kevin Duckworth, Morehead State’s Bob McCann,  Tennessee State’s Anthony Mason and Murray State’s Popeye Jones) the conference just hasn’t produced very many NBA players that have stayed around for more than a few seasons.

Carlos Rogers (Tennessee State), Trenton Hassell (Austin Peay) and James Singleton (Murray State) all proved to be capable NBA role players in the last 15 years, but it wasn’t until former Morehead State forward Kenneth Faried took the NBA by storm last season — earning All-Rookie First Team honors — that the turnaround began for the fortunes of OVC players trying to succeed in the NBA.

“Manimal” — as Faried is fondly known as in Denver — has shown that even though he was labeled as an undersized, low-upside draft pick by some draft pundits, that his production in the OVC could still translate to effective NBA seasons. This season, Faried averaged 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds for a 57-win Nuggets team.

Canaan is hoping to follow in Faried’s footsteps and prove that his production in college came against better-than-advertised competition. After all, how many one-bid leagues can claim three consecutive first round wins in the NCAA Tournament like Canaan and Faried helped Murray State (2010 and 2012) and Morehead State (2011) achieve in recent years like the OVC can?

“The OVC prepared me a lot (for the NBA) because I’ve played against some good guys like Kenneth Faried and Isaiah Canaan,” former Tennessee State forward and fellow NBA Draft hopeful Robert Covington explained. “Just because it’s a mid-major conference doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of competitors out there.”

Faried’s often thrilling and energetic play has opened some eyes in NBA circles but Canaan is a point guard hoping that an NBA franchise values his ability to lead a team.

And as you’ll notice from the aforementioned group of OVC alums to carve out respectable careers in the NBA: There aren’t many guards on that list.

So Canaan turned his attention to another point guard that forged a similar college-to-pro, four-year blueprint in NBA Rookie of the Year and former Weber State star Damian Lillard.

Similar to Canaan, Lillard came from a Big Sky Conference that isn’t known for producing pros, but that didn’t stop the Portland Trail Blazers point guard from taking the league by storm and becoming only the fourth player in league history to unanimously win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.

And Canaan and Lillard’s college pedigrees are similar in a number of ways.

Although Lillard’s draft stock was closer to the lottery compared to Canaan’s current late first round, early second round projection — in part because Lillard is three inches taller (6-3 to Canaan’s 6-0) and possesses more NBA-level athletic traits — both point guards are two-time conference player of the year recipients and Lillard — like Canaan — also received some All-American honors despite coming from a league that rarely merits All-American inclusion.

“(Damian making it) does a lot. He might not know it, but he helped us a lot,” Canaan said of Lillard’s NBA ascension from the mid-major ranks. “It’s giving a lot of the people that might doubt us an opportunity to come and want to see some of the smaller school guys and realize that ‘hey, they can play just as well — if not better — than some of the big school guys.’ He gave us more motivation to do what he did.”

Nobody is expecting Isaiah Canaan to be the next unanimous NBA Rookie of the Year, but given his collegiate track record of winning games, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Canaan finding his way onto an NBA roster and sticking around the league for at least a few seasons.

As the NBA Draft Combine played out at ATTACK Athletics on Chicago’s West Side in early May, Murray State head coach Steve Prohm was one of the few college coaches in attendance there to track his former player.

Prohm sat along the west baseline for many of the drills during the point guard session of the combine and occasionally smiled watching Canaan run alongside players that came from powerhouse programs in Murray State’s own state like Kentucky and Louisville. Prohm helped recruit Canaan to Murray State as an assistant coach and eventually took over the reigns of the Racers for his star guard’s final two seasons.

Canaan could be drafted ahead of the players from the powerhouse programs that often overshadow players of his background and Prohm stopping in to watch the combine reminds Canaan of where he comes from in the basketball world. The OVC isn’t known for making every basketball player’s dream of making the NBA come true, but Isaiah is just thankful that he’s in a position to potentially make it happen.

“Coach Prohm is a tremendous coach with a great personality and he’s one of the guys that recruited me so I’m glad that he’s here with me,” Canaan said.  “I’m probably one of his first guys to go through this process. I’m just blessed to have a coach like him and to be able to showcase my abilities.”

Scott also writes for NY2LA Sports and can be followed on Twitter @sphillipshoops

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.