Well, Thursday night was certainly exciting for Aztec fans in San Diego and across the country: fan-favorite point guard Xavier Thames was drafted 59th overall by the Brooklyn Nets via a trade with the Toronto Raptors. When NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announced his name, Thames became the third San Diego State player to be drafted in the last four years.
Three players in the last four years is pretty consistent, not shocking coming from a program that's based on consistency (five straight NCAA Tournament appearances and nine straight 20-plus win seasons). So it's reasonable, then, to conclude that an SDSU player is likely to be drafted in 2015.
But who? The Aztecs have a few freshman phenoms, but I strongly believe they wouldn't have chosen SDSU if they hoped to be a "one-and-done." Plus, Malik Pope is the freshman who appears to have the most one-and-done type skills, and he isn't strong enough to enter the NBA after one year in college.
Skylar Spencer is a defensive force, but he'll need to improve his offensive game a great deal before drawing the NBA's attention. J.J. O'Brien makes everyone around him better and will have a fantastic career overseas. Aqeel Quinn is a great shooter, but this season will let us all know if he can lead an offense. I could see Quinn getting a few NBA workouts with his hometown Los Angeles teams and possibly a workout with fellow Leuzinger High School alumnus Russell Westbrook's Thunder, but he'll more than likely play pro ball overseas, as well.
That leaves two intriguing possibilities: Dwayne Polee II and Winston Shepard.
These guys aren't even thinking about the NBA--they're too concerned with reaching the Final Four next season. But this is very interesting to think about.
Today I'll take a look at Polee, and tomorrow I'll look at Shepard.
Dwayne Polee II
Polee had a breakout second half last season en route to his MWC Sixth Man of the Year selection. He became SDSU's sixth man, or "sixth starter" as Steve Fisher put it, around the Aztecs' first conference loss at Wyoming. So he played that role for about 14 games. In those last 14 games, Polee averaged 11.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 23.3 minutes per game. He not only put up great numbers, but he was a huge source of energy for both the crowd and his teammates who wanted to steal the ball and get a bucket on every single possession. Whether he's a sixth starter or one of the first five starters, Polee will average 27-30 minutes a game next year, so NBA scouts will have a much larger sample size to look at.
Polee's leaping ability and athleticism are world-class, and they allow him to get to the rim with ease. But he's also a 6-foot-8 forward/guard who can shoot from any spot on the floor. In his last 14 games, Polee shot 44 percent from 3-point range and 53 percent from everywhere else. NBA scouts want a tall athlete who can make a SportsCenter Top 10 play at the rim just as easily as he can consistently shoot a pull-up jumper. Polee demonstrated the ability to do both last year, and there's no reason to believe he won't improve during a full season with an expanded role.
The length and quickness that make Polee so dangerous offensively also cause problems for opposing offenses. His 1.4 steals per game as sixth man attest to his ability to disrupt and clog lanes. And if scouts want to see a perfect example of Polee's defensive prowess in action, all they need to do is watch the last 12 minutes of SDSU's MWC-clinching win against New Mexico.
The Aztecs trailed the Lobos by 16 with 12 minutes to go. Then, Fisher implemented a 1-3-1 zone and had Polee guard the point at the top of the zone. Polee wreaked absolute havoc on whomever brought the ball up court for the Lobos, smothering them before they could run their offense. He also stole the ball four times and led the defensive charge to hold New Mexico to just seven points in the last 12 minutes.
So, last season Polee showed us he's a tall, freak athlete, a consistent shooter from all spots on the court and a defensive force to be reckoned with. He'll play a full season as sixth starter or starter this year, so his numbers should improve. You heard it here first, folks: Polee will earn All-American honors come season's end.
But let's flip the script here: what does Polee not do well?
First of all, Polee must get stronger if he wants to be in the NBA. He can navigate his way around defenders at the rim in college, but he'll face guys just as long if not longer than him in the NBA. He won't be able to soar around them, anymore--he'll need to finish through them. Now, some NBA players have shown you don't need to be super strong to be a big-time players, namely Mr. Kevin Durant. But I think we all can agree that Durant would be even better if he was stronger (scary thought...an even better Durant?) And an NBA-hopeful needs as many attractive prospect characteristics as possible. Luckily for Polee, he doesn't need to alter his game or change his jump shot to get stronger--he needs to spend more time lifting weights.
Polee also must develop his ability to beat defenders off the dribble. If you can't beat your defender one-on-one, you're not making the NBA. Yes, the San Antonio Spurs recently showed us all that team-oriented basketball still dominates (and that bodes well for anybody coming from SDSU), but those guys still have the ability to beat their opponent one-one-one: just look at Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Polee mostly worked off his teammates last year and scored in a catch-and-shoot fashion--which he should still do. But if there's one skill on the court Polee should develop the most, it's beating his defender one-on-one off the dribble. That could translate into Polee even running the point from time to time during the season.
If Polee develops that ability and presents himself to NBA teams as a stronger, 6-foot-8 athlete who can shoot from all spots on the floor, finish at the rim and beat his man one-on-one, he'll find himself on NBA Draft big boards.
But that's a very, very long way away.