ONE IN FOUR PIT PLAYERS THE PAST 2 YEARS HAVE PLAYED IN THE NBA
By Chris Ekstrand
Ever since “one-and-done” became the mantra of blue chip basketball phenoms rushing to get to the NBA, it’s become a commonly-held belief of basketball fans that college basketball seniors are as passé as listening to an Alanis Morissette CD or wearing Dr. Martens boots to a formal party.
But here’s the thing about this commonly-held belief: it’s commonly wrong.
The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament has been around for 67 years. It may not be the hot new thing generating buzz on social media, but as a vehicle for getting accomplished but overlooked college seniors a real shot at playing in the NBA, it has no peer.
While the NBA Draft has become an event where NBA teams shower adulation on young players who embody potential more than performance, the PIT continues to showcase mature and experienced players who are ready to compete for a spot in the NBA in the near term, and are not “two years away from being two years away,” as ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla famously described a raw prospect who was chosen in the first round of a recent NBA Draft.
It’s true many PIT players are destined for long, accomplished careers in professional basketball leagues around the world. However, an increasing number of players from the PIT do reach the loftiest rung on the pro basketball ladder: the NBA.
As of this writing in late March, 32 of the 128 players who participated in the last two editions of the PIT (2017 & 2018) have played in the NBA. That means 1 out of every 4 players who has participated in the Tournament the past two seasons has found his way into the NBA during the regular season. Dozens more have been in NBA training camps, competed in the NBA Summer League and currently hold reputations as among the best players in the NBA G-League.
Derrick White of the San Antonio Spurs has a life story that one day might cause an intrepid filmmaker to package and sell it as the latest true-to-life feel-good story in professional sports. White played three seasons at Division II University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, achieving All-American status before transferring to Division I University of Colorado for his senior season. He was one of the best players in the Pac-12 that season, and earned an invitation to the 2017 PIT, where he continued to attract the interest of NBA scouts. San Antonio was smart enough to grab White with the 29th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft. Today, White is an NBA starter and along with 2016 PIT alum Bryn Forbes (Michigan State) a key piece of the Spurs’ bridge from past championship glories to future success.
Kenrich Williams (TCU) of the New Orleans Pelicans went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft after playing in the PIT, but his versatile game nonetheless earned him a guaranteed NBA contract. With the Pelicans looking to the future over the second half of this NBA season, Williams earned 20 starting assignments and his ability to play multiple positions on defense as well as on offense brands him as a long-term NBA player.
Damyean Dotson (Houston) and Kadeem Allen (Arizona) of the New York Knicks, both 2017 PIT participants and second round picks in the 2017 NBA Draft, have taken advantage of playing time extended to them this season by a rebuilding franchise, and both have excelled. While Dotson is a deadeye 3-point shooter who was averaging 10.8 ppg over the first 62 games this season, Allen came to the Knicks late in the year and surprised some observers by immediately stealing a spot in the playing rotation with his defense and playmaking abilities.
Sterling Brown (SMU) of the Milwaukee Bucks was another multi-dimensional, multi-positional player plucked in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft after displaying his talents in Portsmouth. While the Bucks soared to the top of the Eastern Conference on the other-worldly talents of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brown quietly carved out a rotation spot by doing almost everything well, especially taking good shots and playing stout defense.
Gary Clark (2018 PIT, Cincinnati) of the Houston Rockets and Deonte Burton (2017 PIT, Iowa State) of the Oklahoma City Thunder are two more players who have made an impact in the NBA this season in brief opportunities with the promise of more to come. But they are hardly alone. Jaylen Adams (2018 PIT, St. Bonaventure) of the Atlanta Hawks and Johnathan Williams III (2018 PIT, Gonzaga) of the Los Angeles Lakers also look like excellent bets to stick in the NBA for the long term.
Every season, you hear the tired refrain that college seniors are no longer welcome in the star-studded galaxy of NBA stars. But every season, and with increasing regularity the past few years, players who have showcased their abilities at the PIT have defied those assertions and broken through to enjoy impactful NBA careers.
(Chris Ekstrand has been a courtside fixture at the PIT for 25 years. He is a consultant to the NBA on matters relating to the NBA Draft. He lives with his wife, Dr. Victoria Ekstrand, and their daughter Elizabeth in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.)