By now, most NBA fans know about the rise of Steph Curry, from Davidson sensation to two-time NBA MVP and three-time NBA champion with the Golden State Warriors. Two games into the 2019 NBA playoffs, three other small-school, first round point guards have their teams in the driver’s seat to meet Steph’s Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
Derrick White stood 6 feet tall and weighed 155 pounds when he graduated from high school, and not a single Division 1 school offered him a basketball scholarship. Derrick accepted the best offer he had, a $3,000 per-year housing voucher to the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. When he arrived on campus as a freshman, White had grown 5 inches and stood 6’5”. Three years later, after being was named a Division II All-American after leading the UCCS Mountain Lions to the Division II NCAA Tournament, White wanted to test himself against better competition. He transferred to the University of Colorado for one season, where he earned first-team Pac- 12 honors and a spot on the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team.
The Spurs, long known for shrewd personnel moves, recognized White’s talent and made him the 29th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Just two years later, after the departure of Tony Parker to Charlotte last offseason and a season-ending injury to expected starter Dejounte Murray in the pre-season, White finds himself the Spurs’ starting point guard in the playoffs against the 2nd seeded Denver Nuggets. Although White struggled against the Nuggets during the regular season, averaging just 8.25 points on 33% shooting in the teams’ four regular season matchups, he has doubled those averages this post season. Through the first two games of the series, White is averaging 16.5 points per game on 67% shooting. After not receiving a single Division 1 scholarship offer out of high school, White has played a pivotal role in helping the Spurs steal home court advantage, as the series shifts back to San Antonio, tied 1-1.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
A two-star prospect out of high school, Lillard was ranked the 214th best player in America when he graduated from Oakland High School in 2008. Lillard took his talents to Weber State in Ogden, Utah, where he earned Freshman of the Year honors in the Big Sky Conference. His sophomore year, Lillard was named Big Sky Player of the Year. Lillard lost his junior year to a foot injury after just ten games, but returned the following year to win his second Big Sky Player of the Year award before entering the 2012 NBA draft. Damian’s hard work at Weber State prepared him for immediate NBA success, as he became just the 4th player ever to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award by a unanimous vote.
Since the Blazers drafted C.J. McCollum 10th overall in 2013 to join Lillard in the back court, the Blazers have been to the playoffs every single year and Lillard has earned four all-star game appearances. In the regular season, Lillard averaged 25.8 points and 4.6 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game. So far in Portland’s first two postseason games- both wins- Lillard is averaging 29.5 points, 5 assists, and 3 steals. He is a major reason why, despite having the 3rd best record in the Western Conference during the regular season, Portland has surprised many by taking a 2-0 series lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, Lillard and the Blazers have benefitted tremendously by the elevated play of fellow small-school, former first round pick C.J. McCollum.
C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Like Derrick White, C.J. McCollum was overlooked coming out of high school because of his lack of size. McCollum was a mere 6’1”, 155 pounds when he stepped on campus at Lehigh as a freshman in the fall of 2009. During his college career, in which McCollum received AP honorable mention All-American as a freshman and led Lehigh to its first ever NCAA tournament victory as a junior, McCollum packed on 30 pounds of muscle.
C.J. McCollum busted many brackets in 2012 when he scored 30 points to lead 15th-seeded Lehigh past 2nd-seeded Duke in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament. The fearlessness that McCollum displayed in this matchup against a Duke team which featured 5 current NBA players (Seth Curry, Miles and Mason Plumlee, Quinn Cook, and Austin Rivers) is the same determination that has helped him return from injury with a vengeance. McCollum missed 11 of Portland’s final 13 regular season games with a left knee strain, but has returned for the playoffs to average 28.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game through two games against the Thunder. This represents almost a 25% increase in assists and scoring, and almost a 200% increase in rebounds from the regular season, where McCollum averaged 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game. Just as impressive, McCollum has maintained a 46% field goal percentage throughout the regular and post season.