With the NBA Draft just mere hours away, it seems like another year will go by without a player from the MAC selected in either the first or second round. ESPN's Chad Ford has Javon McCrea from Buffalo going in the second round, but the last few picks of the second round are as much toss-ups as anything else.
Justin Kruse posted a great article this week looking back at the abundance of NBA-caliber talent in the MAC back in the late nineties. Guys like Wally Szczerbiak and Gary Trent were names everyone knew and Eastern Michigan had a great pair of guards in Earl Boykins and Derrick Dial. These days were the hey-days of the conference, where the league received two bids to the NCAA Tournament and (gasp) a couple teams actually made it out of the first round.
Just look at the MAC Players of the Year from 1992-2002. In that eleven year span, a future NBA player won the award nine times (Gary Trent won 3 times, but still). That's almost unheard of in a mid-major conference.
Nowadays MAC players aren't household names throughout the country. You can point to conference realignment and schools putting more money into football among other things. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent in the league.
Take a few of these guys who have excelled in their professional basketball careers:
Michael Bramos - Miami (2005-2009)
Bramos averaged over seventeen points per game as a senior but didn't get any NBA looks. He went overseas and eventually ended up with Panathinaikos, Greece's best pro team in the A1 League. Last year he played eighteen minutes a game and averaged five and a half points. While he is not taking over the league, getting consistent minutes for the best team in the league and one of the best in Europe is something to take notice of. He probably won't ever get a shot in the NBA, but why would he want to when he's carving out a nice career in Europe?
D.J. Cooper - Ohio (2010-2013)
The former Bobcat point guard has had one of the most successful pro careers and he has only been out of school one year. Cooper suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers Summer League Team last summer and played in a few games without making much of an impact. Greece also was his ultimate destination, as he signed a contract with PAOK Thessaloniki who also plays in the A1 League. Cooper was among the team leaders scoring 10.6 points per game and dishing out 6.5 assists. He also led the team with four and a half rebounds per game. He'll likely get a shot at the summer league once again to try to play his way into the league.
Chris Evans - Kent State (2011-2013)
While Evans was only at Kent State a few years he certainly made an impact. He averaged sixteen points and seven rebounds his senior year and turned that into a free agent tryout with the Sacramento Kings. While that didn't work out, Evans looked overseas and landed in Greece as well. His team, Aries Trikala BC, finished near the bottom of the league. But, Evans was the team's heart and soul, leading the team in scoring and rebounds. His athleticism is unbelievable and he should end up in the summer league once again.
Zeke Marshall - Akron (2009-2013)
Marshall parlayed a successful college career into multiple NBA tryouts before finally landing with the 76ers Summer League team. He played sparingly, but made his presence felt when he was in the paint. After not getting picked up for mini-camp, Marshall spent a few months around the globe, playing in Poland and Taiwan before finally settling down in Maine as a member of the Red Claws, the Boston Celtics' D-League Affiliate. While in Maine he improved and impressed, netting All-Rookie Second-Team honors. I'd imagine he'd be in the Summer League again trying to latch on to another NBA team.
Julian Mavunga - Miami (2008-2012)
Mavunga has also spent time in NBA camps, specifically with his hometown Indiana Pacers. While he hasn't been able to break into that talented roster, he did enough to earn a nice contract with a team in Ukraine. He starred with Hoverla in Ukraine, averaging fifteen points and six and a half boards before leaving the country due to political unrest. The Maine Red Claws picked him up in late March, and he'll be on another Summer League team this year.
Xavier Silas - Northern Illinois (2006-2010)
Unlike the others, Silas has actually played somewhat meaningful minutes in the NBA. Even though those minutes were minimal, he'd progressed from being an undrafted free agent to cracking an NBA roster. He's played with a couple teams in the summer league and didn't make it out of the Washington Wizards camp last year. Silas has dealt with a few unfortunate injuries that have derailed his chances at making it farther in the league.
Dime Magazine profiled Silas last year, pointing out the hardships the D-League players have to go though to get into the league. All the D-Leaguers are supremely talented and many have made the jump to the NBA. While the pay is minimal it's a great league to hone skills in and a place where the top teams in the world can see you.
While the NBA talent isn't always there, that clearly doesn't mean that there isn't any talent in the league. We're probably not going to hear Adam Silver read the names Javon McCrea, Nick Kellogg, or Shayne Whittington tomorrow night. But that doesn't mean we won't be hearing about these guys ever again. They're all certainly talented enough to make good money and have decent professional basketball careers, be it in the U.S. or some other random country.
What's great about our conference is that we've gotten to know these guys for awhile now. We don't live in a world of one-and-dones where guys like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins go to school to major in basketball. Almost all of the players I mentioned above were four year players. We were able to watch them grow up as freshmen and dominate the league as seniors. That connection us fans made with these players is special. We feel like we know them personally, even if we've only ever talked to them once or twice.
That's why we get excited when one of "our guys'" names comes up in a mock NBA Draft. How cool is that? We all know how good Javon McCrea is. The fact that outsiders realize his immense talent as well is awesome. Only 60 players are drafted into the league each year. To be one of those players, be it in the first or second round, is a huge accomplishment.
Us MAC fans are insanely loyal. We will follow how former players are doing, even if they're halfway around the globe. Wherever Kellogg, McCrea, and Whittington end up, they know they'll get support from Athens, Buffalo, Kalamazoo, and the rest of the Midwest. That's what makes our league great, and while the average fan couldn't pick Javon McCrea out of a crowd, we'll all smile a little when we see him suit up in an NBA game one day.