OKC Thunder: Before they were pros

Originally Published: June 14, 2012
By Staff | ESPN.com

The players of the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder have reached the summit of their professional careers: the NBA Finals. But what did it take to get to the pros? Our writers and analysts share their memories of covering the high school and college days of the players who now share the greatest stage in basketball.

[Editor's Note: Our look back at the players of the Heat can be found here and Myron Medcalf ranks the Top 10 college careers of the NBA Finals participants in the Nation blog.]

Cole Aldrich
Dave Telep: Before he won a national championship at Kansas, Aldrich was a lumberjack look-alike playing high school basketball in Minnesota. He was injured in the second half of his high school career, which caused the ding in the national rankings. KU assistant Joe Dooley once said, "If we don't get him, I'll be working the drive-thru at McDonald's." Happy to report Joe still works for Bill Self.

Nick Collison
Eamonn Brennan: The state of Iowa isn't known for producing NBA lottery picks. But I grew up in Iowa, I learned the game in Iowa, and for better or worse there is absolutely an "Iowa" style of play. It's pragmatically Midwestern. It's predicated on fundamentals, teamwork and attention to detail -- on the joys of the extra pass, on the value of pure functionality. In eighth grade, I was still learning all these things, primarily from watching my future high school and its state-title-winning coach, Randy Norton, shred opponents with precisely those qualities. That's the first time I saw what might be the Platonic ideal of an Iowa player: Nick Collison.

It was at the 1999 IHSAA state finals, where the McDonald's All-American imperiously led his Iowa Falls team to a second state title. To my eighth-grade eyes, Collison was immense. His dominance also seemed to confirm what every coach, including Norton, had been telling me about the game since I was old enough to understand it. Now, 13 years after seeing him live for the first time, I watch Collison contribute performances like Game 1 -- when he grabbed 10 rebounds, shot 4-of-5 from the field and made every defensive rotation and baseline duck-in with simple but perfect footwork -- and I can't help but see the Iowa in his game. I think about my home and the basketball I learned there, and, not for the first time, I remember Coach Norton had it right all along.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams, Nick Collison
AP Photo/Michael ConroyNick Collison was crushed after his final game at Kansas ended in title-game heartbreak.

Jason King: As unbiased as reporters are supposed to be, we're also human. And anyone who covered Nick Collison for four years (which I did for The Kansas City Star) respected him immensely. His work ethic, his team-first attitude, his attention to details and fundamentals -- the guy did everything right. That's why I couldn't help but feel bad for him after his final game, an 81-78 loss to Syracuse in the national championship. Collison went 3-of-10 from the foul stripe. For years he had trouble even discussing that disappointing night. I can't blame him. It was a shame to see an All-America career end on such a sour note. On a lighter note: He's a multimillionaire now, but about 10 years ago, Collison was known for cruising around Lawrence in his minivan. He called it "the Wood Grain" because it was blue and had wood-grain panels on the side. Because it had seven seats, Collison was always stuck with driving duties whenever he and his teammates went out on the town.

Doug Gottlieb: Nick Collison was a freshman at Kansas my senior year at Oklahoma State. The guy was a stud, as were fellow freshmen Kirk Hinrich and Drew Gooden. We beat them by 33 and 19 that year, but Collison would end his career getting a standing ovation from Dickie V on his Senior Night. Collison is an underated athlete and passer, and his tip-outs and offensive rebounding in Game 1 were huge.

Reggie Rankin: Nick Collison was at Kansas when I was an assistant at Nebraska, and what sticks out in my mind is how hard he played and how efficient he was as a college player. He rebounded, ran the floor and scored in the lane. Collison played with great energy, effort and intensity. I am not surprised that he is such a dependable pro.

Telep: Roy Williams teamed him with his Martin Brothers AAU teammate, Kirk Hinrich, and the duo continued their winning ways. As a freshman at KU, Williams started Collison, Hinrich and Drew Gooden. That trio earned a combined $17.4 million this year.

Daequan Cook
Rankin: When I was an assistant at Dayton, Daequan Cook would play with our players during open gym when he was in high school. I remember hearing how hot he would get during the games, knocking down multiple deep jumpers. Cook has swagger and has been an elite shooter since he was a youngster.

Telep: The Dayton Dunbar product played on an AAU team that featured four pros. Cook rolled with future No. 1 pick Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Josh McRoberts. Cook was a clutch 3-point shooter who played with more athleticism at the rim during his grassroots days.

Kevin Durant
Telep: His recruitment got heated as Texas and North Carolina emerged as the teams to beat. Durant played at Oak Hill with Ty Lawson as a junior and then polished off a storied career at Montrose Christian. He's had great games in the NBA and at Texas, but anyone who saw his D.C. Blue Devils in 2002 against Darrell Arthur's Team Texas would never forget the ridiculous shooting exhibition he concocted. The first time I saw Durant in high school came in Lewes, Del., where he had to duck to get into the gym and was so skinny you could see right through him. The big-salaried major college assistant sitting next to me made a quick evaluation that has stuck with Durant. "Damn, he's skinny."

Stephen Bardo: I remember calling an Ohio State-Penn State game when Greg Oden & Co. were No. 1 in the nation. We had Bill Walton on a phoner during the game speaking of how dominant Oden would be. My argument to him was the game is going in the direction of guys like Kevin Durant, who had the height of an old-school center but with perimeter skills. We kept it cordial, but I was adamant Durant was the future of basketball. Guess I got that one right!

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
AP Photo/Rick BowmerKevin Durant's one season at Texas was about as dominant as it gets in college basketball.

Brennan: My lingering memory of Kevin Durant's lone season in college basketball -- when he averaged 25.8 points and grabbed 11.1 rebounds per game and became the first freshman in NCAA history to earn consensus national player of the year honors -- is not of a season in the traditional sense, but as a series of discrete events. By the time Durant had shown the world what he could do in November and December, it became clear to me that missing one of his games was a massive, inexcusable waste, a slap in the face of the basketball gods. They had created in their image one of the most naturally gifted, pure basketball players these eyes have ever seen; such a thing was not to be missed. I like to think that I was able to appreciate, if only for four months, just how individually special Durant was. Nothing much has changed since.

Katz: I spent a day with Durant on the Texas campus. He was as real then as he is today. He was a rock star, but he didn't embrace the image. He tried to be as approachable as any other student.

Derek Fisher
Telep: Derek Fisher is so old there were no rankings when he was in high school. OK, he isn't that old, but do we really think Arkansas-Little Rock beat Duke to sign him? No way. This guy beat the odds and pieced together a workmanlike career founded in winning. He was lightly recruited but was a state champion from the Class of 1992, which also produced a guy by the name of Jason Kidd.

James Harden
Joel Francisco: James Harden, who laced them up at Artesia High in Lakewood, Calif., was a late-blooming point forward who didn't hit his stride until the summer prior to his junior campaign. Fellow SoCal natives Taylor King (Mater Dei) and Chace Stanback (Fairfax) were well-known commodities in recruiting circles early on, but Harden was a relative unknown. King was headed off to Duke, while Stanback was headed to UCLA. Harden, on the other hand, had signed with Arizona State (high school coach Scott Pera was hired by Herb Sendek) after receiving modest interest from many elite-level programs.

But while King and Stanback struggled during their freshman seasons in college, Harden went on to become an all-conference performer as a frosh and later bagged the Pac-10 POY Award as a sophomore before declaring for the NBA. A few years later, Harden is a budding star, while King transferred multiple times during his college stint and Stanback just finished his senior season at UNLV -- hoping to play professionally somewhere down the road.

Miles Simon: I remember when I was an assistant coach at Arizona and we held our annual elite camp during the summer. We had James Harden in camp along with his high school teammate Malik Story. We were evaluating him very closely as a staff during that time because we had heard so many good things about him as a player. At the end of the camp, we felt we felt he was a good player but didn't know for sure if he was our level, so we didn't offer. He goes on to have a big junior season and blows up nationally. We invite him the next summer to elite camp again and he drives out, but stops at ASU first for an unofficial visit. Elite camp starts, no Harden, can't get a hold of him and we come to find out he has committed to Arizona State. Bummer.

Telep: As soon as Herb Sendek took over at Arizona State, his top target was a late-blooming guard named Russell Westbrook. Once UCLA figured out how good Westbrook was, the Sun Devils were toast. A year later, Sendek returned to California, and armed with the help of Scott Pera, Harden's high school coach-turned- ASU assistant, he landed one of the top players in ASU history.

Bardo: Covering several games on the West Coast, I saw a lot of James Harden and loved every minute of it. He was a good defender, could thread the needle with his passing, could shoot with range and attacked the rim with authority. He dropped 40 points against UTEP in the 76 Classic and was barely sweating when I interviewed him after the game.

[+] EnlargeJames Harden
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThis is, believe it or not, James Harden. Do you even recognize him without his famous beard?

Brennan: In 2009, his sophomore year, Arizona State guard James Harden was an All-American, the Pac-10 Player of the Year and an efficient, versatile offensive force. He was very good at basketball, and I had no idea what to make of him. Harden's game was, well, weird. He could score from just about anywhere on the court and he occasionally looked like the most athletic player on the floor, but he also possessed sort of a quirky, old-man style -- the high dribble, the midrange touch, the gliding layups and unconventional finishes. When he was drafted third overall in 2009, I still didn't know what to make of him. Now I do: The Beard is weird, and that's exactly what makes him so very good.

Myron Medcalf: The team I covered at the time (Minnesota) faced Louisville in Glendale, Ariz., in December 2009. That day in Glendale also featured a BYU-Arizona State matchup. I remember hearing the buzz about James Harden entering that game. And then I saw him walk onto the court for the first time. He just didn't look like an elite basketball player. Couldn't believe that he would be as good as advertised. And then he dropped 30. l was wrong.

Serge Ibaka
Fran Fraschilla: The first time I saw Serge Ibaka was as an 18-year-old at the 2008 Reebok EuroCamp, where I coached. At the time, he was somewhat of a mystery man after playing in Spain's second-division level. Ironically, what impressed me at first was his shooting form and touch for a young big man from the Congo. Obviously, he also displayed the shot-blocking and rebounding skills that now make him one of the better young big men in the NBA. Eventually, Ibaka was one of the stars of the EuroCamp camp along with the Blazers' Nicholas Batum and the Rockets' Goran Dragic, and he was named the camp's MVP. He was selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 24th pick in the 2008 NBA draft and has proved to be one of the great value selections in the last decade.

Royal Ivey
Rankin: When I was at Nebraska, we had highly ranked Texas on the ropes in Austin with under a minute remaining and I remember we overhelped in the low post and Royal Ivey received the kickout and hit a game-winning, step-back jumper from the left wing. Still hurts.

Telep: Meet the throw-in guard for Texas' 2001 recruiting class. He was no better than the fourth-rated prospect in the Longhorns' class that year behind Maurice Evans, James Thomas and Brandon Mouton.

Eric Maynor
Telep: This one is personal. It hurts. Raise your hand if you were there for Maynor's final high school game? I confess, despite a sterling performance in the state playoffs, I questioned if he was good enough to play point guard at VCU. Jeff Capel believed otherwise, signed him and the rest is history. History I'd like to forget … someday.

Nazr Mohammed
Katz: The Kentucky Final Four teams of the mid-to-late '90s were like NBA developmental rosters. The teams were loaded with high-level talent, and Mohammed has pretty much outlasted them all in the NBA.

Kendrick Perkins
Telep: No, he didn't smile much back then either. Back in 1999, there were legitimate shoe wars in the recruiting world. One time the rumor was Marvin Stone showed up at Nike after the company bought him a Jeep (they didn't). Well, ABCD Camp landed Perkins going into his senior year. To the best of my knowledge, at least three, if not all, of Perk's high school teammates (the rest of whom couldn't play) found themselves in the prestigious camp. Perk is not always a smiler, but he's a team guy!

[+] EnlargeRussell Westbrook
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesRussell Westbrook had a rapid ascent from lightly recruited to eventual top-five pick.

Russell Westbrook
Francisco: Russell Westbrook brings true meaning to the term late bloomer. He was only 5-foot-9 as a high school junior, and believe it or not, he didn't start dunking until a growth spurt during his senior season. Most recruiting sites didn't even have Westbrook in their top 100 until after his senior campaign. To further support that notion, heading into his senior year, he was only a third-team selection in the Long Beach Press-Telegram Best in the West voting. However, during his senior season he exploded, which translated into a late offer from UCLA, and the rest is history.

Telep: The year before Westbrook blew up at Leuzinger High School, Dorell Wright did the same thing. Both came out of nowhere to become NBA players. It's not like these guys were hiding; they're from Los Angeles. They bloomed late, real late. Westbrook visited Kent State during his senior season and Jimmy Christian almost had him in the MAC. Herb Sendek tried to recruit him hard in back-to-back years for Arizona State. But Ben Howland pulled it off with a late offer.

Gottlieb: Russell Westbrook barely played as a freshman at UCLA -- just nine minutes a game. But man did he come on his sophomore year. I will never forget his dunk on Cal forward Jamal Boykin. Unreal.

Katz: I remember the UCLA coaching staff saying how he was going to be the best pro, better than Darren Collison. He had the athletic flare and the ability to dominate. He clearly just needed a chance to shine. He got it, and look what's happening.

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