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