Two seasons ago, Richard Pitino thought the Gophers were as close as they’ve been in the last decade to having a player drafted into the NBA.
After reaching his first NCAA tournament with the program in 2017, Pitino saw several of his players earn postseason accolades for the first time during his tenure. Recognizing his team’s talent, NBA scouts were showing up at practices.
“It’s amazing what happens when you win,” Pitino said Wednesday.
A year later, injuries and off-court issues resulted in Minnesota going from a top-25 team to finishing 15-17 last season. And no Gophers were on NBA draft boards going into this summer.
Thursday’s NBA draft will mark 14 years since former Hopkins standout Kris Humphries — the last Gopher drafted — went No. 14 overall to the Utah Jazz.
“It’s kind of a surprise to me that no one else has been drafted since me,” Humphries said. “There’s a few guys who you thought probably would’ve, but a lot of things have to come together sometimes.”
Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State have the longest draftless droughts in the Big Ten, with their last NBA picks in 1999. Michigan State and Ohio State have the league’s most draft picks since 2004 with 11 and 10 players, respectively.
“It’s beneficial for everybody if we get guys in the NBA,” Pitino said. “It helps recruiting. It helps obviously their lives, because they’re dreaming of those things. I think we’re close. I feel like, if we can stay healthy, I think we can get there.”
So who will be drafted next from the Gophers? Pitino believes he has several NBA prospects on the 2018-19 team.
“I think that if you look at our roster, there are some guys in Jordan Murphy, in Amir Coffey, in Eric Curry, in Daniel Oturu, in Isaiah Washington,” Pitino said. “I’m not saying they’re locks for it, but they can be in the conversation.”
The 6-7, 250-pound Murphy decided not to declare early for this year’s draft even after leading Minnesota in scoring (16.8), leading the Big Ten in rebounding (11.3) and grabbing an NCAA-best 24 double-doubles, tying potential No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton of Arizona.
Murphy’s lack of size for a post player might not hurt him with NBA teams playing small ball. Improving his jump shot and defense will likely determine if he will hear his name called a year from now on draft day. He’s currently projected as a second-round pick in 2019.
“He’s not the profile of an NBA power forward because of his size,” ESPN NBA draft analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “But he is a very good basketball player. I would never rule him out playing in the league. There are always a handful of outliers, guys who don’t fit the mold. Jordan is one of those guys. Until [the Gophers] had their turmoil, he was playing about as well as any power forward in the country.”
Murphy isn’t the only Gophers frontcourt player on the NBA’s radar.
Despite missing last season because of a knee injury, Curry gained attention as an impact freshman on the U’s last NCAA tournament team in 2017. The 6-9, 235-pound redshirt sophomore has a 6-11 wingspan, can stretch the floor with his outside shot and defend pick-and-rolls.
“I think Eric Curry actually has NBA potential someday, if he’s healthy long-term,” Fraschilla said. “He showed great rebounding instincts and shot the three his freshman season. He’s a live body. I really liked his freshman year and thought three or four years from now, this kid could be one of those guys who can play in the league. They’ve got some good pieces.”
Oturu held his own in AAU ball last summer against big men such as Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, a top-three projected pick in Thursday’s draft. The 6-10, 225-pound Cretin-Derham Hall star finished his high school career as one of Minnesota’s all-time best shot blockers. His 7-2 wingspan and expanding offensive game give him considerable upside as he develops physically in college.
Coffey, a 6-8 junior, played in the same venue as Oturu in front of NBA scouts at the Nike Skills Academy last August. Coffey came on strong his freshman year with his ability to attack the basket, play above the rim and hit shots from three-point range.
The Gophers thought when they signed Coffey, they possibly had their next NBA-bound player. What could have been a breakout sophomore year ended prematurely because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. But Pitino believes that when Coffey is healthy, his pro potential is as high as anyone on the team, maybe in the Big Ten.
“People forget about Amir Coffey,” Pitino said. “But Amir is ready when he gets healthy to make a big jump.”
Pitino believes getting the program back on track and to the NCAA tournament this year could end their NBA draft drought soon with not only one, but multiple picks.
“The older guys will have a shot and the younger guys are talented enough,” Pitino said. “When you’re building a program, you’ve got to have success on the court, you’ve got to graduate your guys, which we’ve done. But then you’ve got to be able to show you can get guys in the NBA. And I think we’re close. That’s going to help everybody.”