In a few hours, the 2013 NBA Draft will give the league 60 more prospective players until contracts are finalized. While the draft class does not include any can’t-miss superstars, it is deep and there are several talented entrants that, if available at No. 15, could tempt a team on the verge of a point guard regime change like the Bucks. Players from power conference programs such as Miami’s Shane Larkin and former Baylor Bear Pierre Jackson should be within reach, but a handful of point guards from lesser known schools could hold the keys to Milwaukee’s future if they can translate their mid-major NCAA experience into small market NBA success.
Yes, a similar train of thought can be applied to any new player, whose skills on NBA courts are all conjecture until they face game-time action. But perhaps the mindset fostered by competing under the national radar and being labeled an underdog any time a school from a more recognized conference was scheduled — the hunger to prove wrong the doubters; the compulsion not just to win, but to make a statement; and the humility required to keep an ego checked while being confident enough not to shy away from an otherwise imposing challenge — is most important for the NCAA’s point guard exports when considering prospects for a team like the Bucks.
Isaiah Canaan, a four-year player at the Ohio Valley Conference’s Murray State, garnered attention nationwide by leading the Racers to a nearly spotless record as a junior. Capped by a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and further validated by a 17-point drubbing of Colorado State before a narrow loss to Marquette, Murray State’s bright spot was Canaan’s per-game averages of 3.6 assists and 19 points on 46.8 percent shooting, including 45.6 percent from three-point territory. The Racers did not achieve as much last season, but Canaan put together a solid senior campaign even as the limelight faded, shouldering more of the scoring load (22.4 ppg) and facilitating more (4.3 apg) while committing just two fouls nightly.
Keeping his personal penalties in check is a direct reflection of Canaan’s maturity and, at 22 years old, he is older than the players Bucks GM John Hammond tends to select, but Canaan’s commitment to improving his game is obvious as he has climbed out of the mid-second round into a projected late first round pick through pre-draft workouts. His ability to command a team is proven, plus he is aware of the strengths and weaknesses in his game, all of which would be welcome changes to Milwaukee’s point guard position. For the stark differences between Canaan and incumbent Buck Brandon Jennings, they are both geared toward scoring first. Bringing in a point guard of Canaan’s abilities would not require a culture or system change to the plans put in place with regards to Jennings and could even make for a smooth transition if Jennings is traded or leaves in free agency next summer. Canaan is, however, a reliable three-point shooter, hitting 45.6 percent from long range as a junior before dipping to 37.1 percent as the Racers’ primary scorer during his senior season. His usage stats also suffered as a senior as Canaan took 30.1 percent of his team’s field goal attempts, including 36.9 percent of Murray State’s three-pointers. These shot selection errors and inflated usage percentages could be corrected if Canaan was surrounded with solid scoring role players in the NBA, and the Bucks would not suffer any great change on the defensive ended by implementing a Canaan-centric system in place of the Jennings plan. The edge Jennings has in athleticism would be countered by the former Racer’s anticipation of an opponent’s moves, showcased largely by Canaan accruing 24.6 percent of Murray State’s steals last season.
Canaan is just one example of a point guard from an overlooked college program available in this year’s draft. Nate Wolters’ star has never been higher after he led the South Dakota State to an NCAA Tournament appearance as a popular upset pick. The Jackrabbits lost their first round game as Wolters faltered on the big stage, but scouts still appear to have confidence in his NBA potential. Wolters falls into the same player mold as Canaan, scoring often and playing tough on defense despite physical limitations, but with an uptick in assists (5.8 per game; 6.2 per 40 minutes pace adjusted).
Whereas drafting Canaan would probably require a first round pick, Wolters will likely be available in the second round, as will Detroit’s Ray McCallum, Jr., a different kind of prospect in that he is a solid athlete with NBA lineage (his father played in the Association). McCallum is rawer than either Canaan or Wolters, though, lacking a consistent three-point threat and pick-and-roll execution, but he thrives in transition and other situations that allow him to utilize his quickness. There are also more questions about his ability as a natural leader because he played under the direction of his head-coaching father at Detroit.
Other point guards that fit the small school profile include former Wichita State point-man Gal Mekel, Colorado State’s Dorian Green (a likely undrafted free agent) and Casper Ware, an undersized guard that anchored Long Beach State in his time with the 49ers currently playing for Noipiu Casale in the second-tier Italian basketball division, Italia Lega 2. Further down the road is Florida Gulf Coast’s rising junior Brett Comer, an athletic, pass-first player who played alongside the New Orleans Pelicans‘ Austin Rivers during their prep school careers.
The NBA game is predicated on talent, though pure ability does not always result in surefire success. If not hard-wired into a player during or before high school, leadership cannot always be learned in one or two years at college, theoretically giving three- and four-year players such as Canaan and Wolters a better chance to develop the essential non-physical traits required to make group interaction and synergy work at a high level. That theory is not flawless by any means, but it is one that is evident in the careers of elite point guards like Stephen Curry (Davidson), Damian Lillard (Weber State) and Steve Nash (Santa Clara).
A change is on the horizon for the Bucks and the biggest factor in that change looks to be at the point guard position. Whether it happens in this draft or after the 2013-14 season when (because “if” is generous) Brandon Jennings enters free agency, a point guard from a small school could be the answer for a small market team based in a locale like Milwaukee, a home for a traditionally overlooked and underrated NBA team not unlike the mid-major programs that receive little attention and achieve nonetheless.