Fans watch college basketball for a multitude of reasons. They watch to cheer for their bracket picks, to root for their alma mater, or simply because the sport is always on. (ESPN broadcasts an infinite number of games between November and February.) Some fans watch to scout the next generation of NBA stars, but it is hardly necessary. Everyone knew that Kevin Durant was special, and you didn’t have to watch thousands of hours of games to discover him.
If you had watched thousands of hours of games, maybe you would have learned a few things. Maybe you would have learned that Russell Westbrook's stats were always a little misleading (96.7 ORtg as a freshman at UCLA). Westbrook did all the little things right that and was a consummate winner at UCLA, but he was never a perfectly efficient player.
Maybe you would have watched Mario Chalmers hit a huge three pointer en route to Kansas’ NCAA championship and learned that even though he rarely was spectacular, Chalmers was as solid as a rock.
Maybe you would have seen Udonis Haslem at Florida and realized Haslem never quite lives up to your expectations.
Maybe you would have learned how James Harden turned Arizona St. around only to see the program crumble when he left. Harden wasn’t always the perfect player in college, but he was a legitimate difference maker.
Maybe you would have seen Shane Battier at Duke and thought he was the classic Blue Devil, the flopper who loves to outwork his opponents.
Maybe you would have seen Ronnie Turiaf display some brilliant moves at Gonzaga, but been disappointed that he never got a chance to play late in the NCAA tournament.
Then there is LeBron James, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Eddy Curry who never stepped on an NCAA floor.
But even if the emphasis is on the stars, to me the joy of The NBA finals is seeing which unheralded college players have reached the pinnacle of the sport. Playing in The NBA Finals might not quite be as important as earning a post-rookie contract and learning you get to stay in the league, but for most players it is still a dream come true.
Sadly, there are very few surprise players in The Finals this year. It was well known heading into the season that Miami and Oklahoma City had championship aspirations, and these teams are not fielding rotations filled with recent college graduates. Of the 21 players to play legitimate minutes in the playoffs, only seven are under 27-years-old. You might get the impression because Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka are all 23 or younger that these are young teams, but Oklahoma City’s young stars represent the bulk of the youth movement.
The unsung hero for recent college basketball fans might be Miami’s Norris Cole who graduated from Cleveland St. in 2011. After a freshman year in which he was relatively passive and inefficient (92.4 ORtg using only 21% of his teams’ possessions), few would have expected Cole to play on this stage. But year after year, Cole has improved.
I love when people claim we should have seen Jeremy Lin’s breakout NBA season coming because Lin had great college statistics. Lin had decent college statistics, but I can make a long list of players to post better numbers than Lin did at Harvard. And Lin’s senior stats paled in comparison to what Cole accomplished in his final college season. While Lin’s assist rate was 31%, Cole had a 37% assist rate. And while Lin and Cole had similar efficiency as seniors, Lin used only 27% of his team’s possessions while Cole used 32% of his team’s possessions. Now, I am not trying to say that Cole is going to be the next NBA superstar, quite the opposite. What I am trying to say is that there are a lot of fantastic college point-guards who never make it in the NBA. But even if he has only played eight minutes per game in the playoffs, you have to salute Norris Cole for reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
The other unsung hero might be Oklahoma City’s Daequan Cook. If I had told you in 2007 that a freshman on Ohio St.’s national championship runner-up team would be playing in The NBA Finals, Greg Oden would have been everyone’s first pick. And Mike Conley would have been the consensus pick of contrarians. But Daequan Cook was on that team too. He had a surprisingly efficient freshmen campaign, making over 40% of his threes (54 of 130), and rebounding like his life depended on it. But he was always the overlooked piece on that Ohio St. squad. Even Thad Matta hesitated to give Cook major minutes, and Matta is usually not afraid to play freshmen. Cook has played even fewer minutes than Norris Cole so far in the playoffs, but he has scored more points and his shots may have been more memorable. His pair of three pointers against San Antonio in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals helped swing the series to the Thunder.
Indeed, I salute Cook and Cole for reminding us that watching thousands of hours of college basketball games sometimes has a bonus payoff. Northwestern’s John Shurna may never play a meaningful game in the NBA post-season, but Cleveland St.’s Norris Cole will. And for fans that saw the first chapters of his career, you cannot ask for much more.