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December 22, 2012

Mid-major hoop stars thriving in return to school

OMAHA — Murray State's Isaiah Canaan, Lehigh's C.J. McCollum and Creighton's Doug McDermott are making headlines for mid-major programs instead of trying to find supporting roles as NBA rookies.

The three Associated Press preseason All-Americans all returned to school instead of entering the NBA draft. They knew there was a good chance they could have fallen out of the first round, making it even harder to succeed in the league without a guaranteed contract. Instead, they're focused on helping their teams top last year's runs to the NCAA tournament - which could ultimately help their pro prospects, too.

All three are averaging better than 21 points per game while their teams are a combined 29-4 to start the year.

"I don't regret not going to the NBA,'' Canaan said. "I've got five young guys with me and I know it's not going to be the best early, right now. But we're not worried about early. We want them to be at their best in the later part of the season. I'm trying every day to make them better because I'm going to need them, we're going to need them.''

Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations, said the odds of a player making an NBA roster drop significantly if he slides out of the first round and misses out on the guaranteed three-year contract that comes with that perch.

Blake said Canaan and McCollum, now seniors, would've fallen into the risky late-first/early-second category in a strong draft after last season. NBA rules prohibit Blake from talking about McDermott, who is a junior.

"My philosophy is if you're projected as a low first-round or second round (pick), that means you may not get drafted,'' Blake said. "That's how the variable is in the NBA - especially in last year's draft.

"Then again, it's not that big of a deal if you're enjoying college, if you're able to hone your skills and improve and so forth. I think that adds a lot. Maturity adds a lot.''

It's guys like Canaan, McCollum and McDermott - experienced players with developed games - that fuel March Madness as the scary upstarts facing big-name programs often led by young talent. Just ask Duke.

McCollum scored 30 points to lead the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks past the Blue Devils in Duke's home state last March.

The 6-foot-3 guard became the Patriot League's all-time leading scorer earlier this season. He entered the week leading the country by averaging 24.9 points per game on 51 percent shooting.

McCollum, who was held out of Lehigh's 90-75 win over North Texas Thursday night with a sprained ankle, said last year he returned to school because he had promised his parents he would earn his degree. In addition, his family was financially stable and didn't desperately need the money that comes with an NBA contract.

He said he got "mixed feedback'' on his pro prospects, though it was hard to learn much considering the deadline to stay in the draft came before prospects were allowed to work out for teams.

"Some scouts said I should strike while it's hot and leave school,'' McCollum said. "Some said I should stay and try and improve. ... With the way the draft is set up now, you can't get workouts unless you're all the way in. That put us at a disadvantage. It really hurts.''

McDermott, a 6-8 forward, wasn't in a rush, either. After averaging nearly 23 points and eight rebounds last season while leading Creighton to the third round of the NCAA tournament, he's averaging about 23 points and seven rebounds this year for the No. 17 Bluejays.

"I had my mind made right after the season,'' McDermott said. "I knew I wasn't ready for (the NBA) quite yet and there's a lot of stuff I still want to accomplish here at Creighton. ... I think we can do some special things and take this program where it's never been before, so that's my main priority.

"It's hard not to think about the next level, but for now I'm still in college and I'm going to make the most of it.''

His father, Creighton coach Greg McDermott, also pointed out that his son "doesn't have any bills to pay, so he doesn't have to be in a hurry.''

"These years could very well be the best years of his life,'' Greg McDermott said, "so he's enjoying every second of it.''

Canaan, a 6-1 senior, averaged about 19 points to lead Murray State's charge into the national rankings last year. He's upped that average to around 21 points this year for the Racers.

All three ranked among the nation's top seven scorers entering the week.

There's no guarantees the trio's decision to return will pay off with a first-round draft selection in June. Canaan and McCollum don't have a lot of size, while McDermott doesn't possess elite athleticism.

Still, staying in school can't hurt if things go well the rest of the year.

"It's a long process,'' Blake said. "I mean, it's a grind. It's a year of playing more basketball. It's a year of being more consistent, a year of ups and downs, a year of game toughness and maturity. If a player can improve through his freshman season, think about what someone can do in four seasons. If you continue to prove yourself, you'll get those opportunities.''

 

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