Two months ago, the casual college basketball fan might not have recognized Dillon Brooks or Sindarius Thornwell.
They were two of the top players in the country — Brooks was named Pac-12 Player of the Year for the 2016-17 season, while Thornwell took home the same honor in the SEC — but they were far from household names to fans of other schools and conferences.
In the college game, stars are made in March. That was certainly the case for both Brooks and Thornwell, each of whom steered his team on an expected run to the 2017 Final Four.
Brooks led Oregon to its first Final Four appearance since the inaugural tournament in 1939. Thornwell captained South Carolina on its deepest tournament run in school history.
Life has been very different for both players over the past two months. Brooks and Thornwell were among the five players to take part in a pre-draft workout for the Pacers on Wednesday morning at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and they both acknowledged the changes that come with their newfound celebrity.
“I go from nobody knowing who I am to now everybody knows who I am,” Thornwell said. “When people come talk to me, all they talk about is ‘How was the Final Four run?’ or ‘How was it beating Duke?’ or something just related to the NCAA Tournament. But it’s great.”
“Playing (in front of) 75,000 (fans), a lot of people can’t say that,” Brooks said. “And being around my teammates and doing something at Oregon that (hasn’t) been done in so long…It’s a blessing and I’ll be remembered there for a long time.”
Thornwell certainly made the most of his one shining moment. The senior wing led the seventh-seeded Gamecocks on a Cinderella run, knocking off second-seeded Duke, third-seeded Baylor, and fourth-seeded Florida on their way to the Final Four.
Thornwell averaged 25.8 points. 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists over South Carolina’s first four tournament games and was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Regional.
NBA scouts, of course, don’t put too much emphasis on how well a player plays over a couple of weeks in the NCAA Tournament. The Pacers and other teams have been following Thornwell’s career closely since he first enrolled in Columbia in 2013.
But Thornwell’s play in March wasn’t just a flash in the pan. He was a dominant two-way player over his college career, particularly as a senior, when he led the SEC in scoring (21.0 points per game) and steals (2.2 per contest) and ranked sixth in rebounding (7.2 per game).
“It’s not like in the NCAA Tournament I just picked up my play,” Thornwell said. “I was playing like that all season. It was just a matter of I was on the stage where all eyes were on me and all eyes were on my team. I just took advantage of my opportunity.”
While Thornwell’s scoring garnered most of the attention during South Carolina’s Final Four run, he is also an excellent defender, having honed his skills in coach Frank Martin’s defensive-minded system. The 22-year-old believes that his defensive prowess could be his ticket to an NBA roster spot.
“I do everything, but I love to play defense,” Thornwell said.
“Being around Coach (Martin), you start wanting to guard and liking it and loving it. Over my time at South Carolina, I started to embrace guarding and locking down offensive players. I think that’s going to be my way of getting on the court.”
Despite his accomplished college career, Thornwell is projected as a likely second round pick. NBADraft.net has him going 38th overall, while DraftExpress.com’s latest mock draft has him as the 57th player to hear his name called. The Pacers’ second round pick is right in the middle of those two projections at 47.
The main knocks on Thornwell are his age (he will turn 23 in November) and his size (he measured a quarter-inch under 6-5 in shoes at last week’s NBA Draft Combine). And though he demonstrated improvement from behind the 3-point arc in college, improving his 3-point percentage from .268 as a sophomore to .392 as a senior, there are also questions about if he can maintain that improved stroke from behind the longer 3-point line in the NBA.
While he’s well aware of those criticisms, Thornwell has a convincing pitch for why teams should draft him.
“I’m ready to play right away,” he said. “I’m not a young guard or an 18-year-old that you’re going to have to throw in the D-League…I think I’m ready to come in off the bench and gives guys breaks and guard teams’ best wings and make it tough for them.”
While Thornwell spent four years in college, Brooks elected to turn pro after a standout junior season. He actually entered his name in the draft after his sophomore season, taking part in the combine and a handful of team workouts before choosing to return to Oregon for one more year.
Brooks said on Wednesday that he learned a lot from getting those evaluations from NBA teams last spring. The honest feedback from scouts helped him focus on the areas where he most needed to improve.
For instance, several teams told Brooks that he needed to become a better outside shooter if he wanted to succeed at the NBA level. He responded by improving his 3-point percentage from .338 as a sophomore to .401 as a junior.
Going through the pre-draft process for the second time, Brooks’ confidence is much higher this time around.
“That’s why I’m playing so well in these workouts right now, because I’ve been through it before,” Brooks said. “It’s about picking and choosing your spots and being ready to make quick decisions when you catch the ball because guys at the next level are faster, stronger, and more athletic.”
On an Oregon roster loaded with talent, Brooks was the team’s leading scorer at 16.1 points per game. He improved on his season averages over the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, averaging 16.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists as the Ducks knocked off overall top seed Kansas to reach the Final Four.
Like Thornwell, Brooks is seen as a likely second round pick. Both NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com have him coming off the board just before the Pacers pick at 47, projecting him as the 45th and 46th pick, respectively.
That’s not too far off from where the Pacers picked Joe Young two seasons ago. Young was named Pac-12 Player of the Year as a senior in 2015 — Brooks’ freshman season at Oregon — before Indiana took him with the 40th overall selection.
Young took Brooks under his wing in their lone season as teammates in Eugene, mentoring the young wing. After Young left, Brooks assumed the mantle as the Ducks’ top offensive option and won his own Pac-12 Player of the Year award in 2017. Brooks said the biggest lesson he took away from watching Young was the importance of a strong work ethic.
“He taught me to work, work, work all the time,” Brooks said.
Prior to Wednesday’s workout, Brooks talked to both Young and former Pacers guard Fred Jones, who was among the observers at the TCU Practice Court on Wednesday. Both of them offered encouragement and gave Brooks insight into what he could expect from the franchise, should he be the next Oregon player drafted by Indiana.
Pony Up: SMU Teammates Moore and Ojeleye Reunite for Pacers Workout
Draft workouts can be a strange experience for prospects, sharing the floor with players they have either never met or known exclusively as opponents.
But Ben Moore and Semi Ojeleye were able to find a familiar face on Wednesday. Moore and Ojeleye were two of the stars on an SMU team that put together one of the best seasons in program history.
The Mustangs went 30-5, capturing the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles. Remarkably, SMU lost just one game from Dec. 1 – March 16 thanks in large part to the play of both Ojeleye, who led the team in scoring and was second in rebounding, and Moore, the team’s leader in rebounds and blocked shots.
On Wednesday, the two teammates were reunited in Indianapolis. Ojeleye attended last week’s combine and Moore took part in last month’s Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a showcase for many of the top seniors in the country, but Wednesday was the first time that they took part in the same pre-draft workout.
“It made it a little bit more comfortable, a little more like home,” Ojeleye said.
“It’s definitely good seeing my teammates do well, so I’m always for that,” Moore added.
Ojeleye originally signed with Duke out of high school, part of the same recruiting class as Jabari Parker and Matt Jones. He struggled to earn playing time for coach Mike Krzyzewski, amassing a total of 80 minutes as a freshman and appearing in just six games for the Blue Devils as a sophomore before he elected to transfer.
After enrolling at SMU in January 2015, Ojeleye would not have been eligible to play for the Mustangs until the second half of the 2015-16 season. Because the Mustangs were barred from postseason play that year for violations that occurred under the watch of former coach Larry Brown, coach Tim Jankovich convinced Ojeleye to sit out that season as well.
The result was that he did not play an official game for over a year and a half, but Ojeleye valued the time he spent away from the game.
“You just learn to find out who you really are off the court,” Ojeleye said. “We associate ourself as athletes since we’re little. But without basketball, I kind of had to find myself off the court, build off-the-court relationships, and then that helped me when I got back on.”
Finally back in action last season, Ojeleye showed little sign of rust. He was a dominant force for the Mustangs, averaging 19.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from 3-point range, and was voted AAC Player of the Year.
At 6-7 and 240 pounds with just 5.5 percent body fat, Ojeleye is one of the best athletes this year’s draft class. He wowed scouts at the combine, where he recorded a 40.5-inch vertical and recorded times of 10.58 seconds in the lane agility drill and 3.16 seconds in the 3/4 court sprint, placing among the top eight players or better in each of those categories.
At SMU, the Mustangs utilized Ojeleye primarily at the power forward position, allowing him to post up smaller defenders or use his speed and shooting to his advantage against bigger players.
Ojeleye said on Wednesday he feels comfortable playing on the wing or as a small-ball power forward at the next level. His athleticism should allow him to keep up with wings on the perimeter or bang with big men in the post.
“I think it’s an advantage for me because coaches can put me out there and let me play with first team, second team, whoever’s out there and I can just find my way,” Ojeleye said.
Though it took a while for his college career to take off, Ojeleye could still hear his name called in the first round on draft night. DraftExpress.com currently projects him as the 38th pick and he is the type of player that should help his chances in both workouts and interviews.
“For me, I try to offer maturity,” Ojeleye said. “I think what I’ve been through — going to Duke, transferring, having to find myself — it’s helped me just know who I am. No matter what happens, I’m going to fight through it because when you get to the NBA, there’s going to be highs and lows.”
Moore is a talented player in his own right. On an SMU team loaded with scorers on the perimeter, Moore played a specific role doing dirty work on the interior. He performed his role well, averaging 11.4 points on 56 percent shooting and 7.8 rebounds per game as a senior.
Just 6-8 and 220 pounds, Moore is probably a bit undersized for an NBA post player, but he does have the athleticism that could allow him to find success in a league that is putting more and more emphasis on pace.
For a big man, Moore is a deft passer. He averaged 2.4 assists per game as a senior and dished out 10 assists in three games in Portsmouth.
Moore is working to expand his game (he attempted just five 3-pointers in college but hoisted a number of shots from beyond the arc in shooting drills at the end of Wednesday’s workout), but also knows the value of playing a specific role.
“I just want to show a lot of energy,” Moore said. “I want to show that I can be a hustle guy, offensive rebound, play defense, be versatile.”
Despite Decorated Career, Young Still Out to Prove Himself
Michael Young had an outstanding senior season at Pittsburgh. The 6-8 forward led the ACC in scoring at 19.6 points per game while also accumulating 6.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists per contest.
But the Panthers struggled as a team, going just 4-14 in ACC play and Young did not receive an invite to participate in the combine.
It’s highly unusual for the leading scorer in a conference like the ACC not to receive an invite to the draft’s top scouting showcase, but Young said he will use the snub as extra motivation.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder,” he said on Wednesday.
“I didn’t really expect to get invited to the combine with the year that we had…but that’s just more fuel to the fire.”
Young scored 1,601 points in his four seasons in college. He played primarily in the post at Pitt, but thinks that he could succeed at either small or power forward at the next level.
“I’m versatile on both ends of the floor,” Young said. “On offense, I can play multiple positions. On defense, I can guard multiple positions. And I’m going to play really, really hard for the duration that I’m out (on the court).”
One thing that could help Young’s chances of catching on with an NBA team is if he continues to develop his outside shot. After attempting just 12 3-pointers as a junior, Young attempted 123 threes during his senior season, shooting at a respectable 34.1-percent clip from beyond the arc. With solid mechanics and footwork, Young appears to have the tools to make his outside shot a consistent weapon at the professional level.
Bacon Misses Wednesday’s Workout
Florida State guard Dwayne Bacon was scheduled to take part in Wednesday’s workout, but did not participate due to illness. Bacon averaged 17.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore before declaring for the draft this spring.