With the biggest road game so far this season looming Thursday at No. 8 Michigan State, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino spent part of Wednesday’s media session talking about the Spartans — and just as long talking about Daniel Oturu’s rising NBA draft prospects.
The Gophers sophomore center is the only Division I player in the nation averaging at least 19 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and shooting 60% from the field. The last major conference player to do that was Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan in 1996-97.
In his second season since leading Cretin-Derham Hall to a Class 4A championship, the 6-10, 240-pound Oturu leads the Big Ten in rebounding (12.4 per game) and ranks second in scoring (19.1) and blocks (3.1).
He’s not surrounded by hype. He didn’t make the midseason Wooden Award top-25 list, and most early mock drafts completely passed over him. But Thursday morning, well-known website NBAdraft.net vaulted Oturu to No. 9 in its 2020 projections, which would make him a lottery pick next June.
“He knows [NBA] teams reach out to me,” Pitino said. “The biggest thing I want is transparency between both of us about the process. Let’s be honest with it. But we also have to understand they don’t draft in early January.”
No Gophers player has been drafted since Kris Humphries in 2004, so other sites from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo, Sporting News and CBS Sports have yet to project Oturu as a first-rounder.
And then there is NBAdraft.net, which ranks Oturu ahead of Duke’s Vernon Carey, a national player of the year candidate for the No. 2-ranked Blue Devils.
Opinions are varied, and Fran Fraschilla, a college basketball and draft analyst for ESPN, said he thinks Pitino is handling Oturu’s situation “perfectly” by being honest with him.
“He’s one of the most dominant big men in college basketball,” Fraschilla said. “I do think he’s going to have a chance to play in the NBA, but I think this is the kind of draft you will see 60-75 names in the accumulation of mock drafts as first-round picks.
“So there’s nothing set in stone for him. I think he’s draftable, but I’m not sure he’s played himself yet into being a first-round pick.”
The Gophers (8-6 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) hope their talented young center continues to raise their level of play along with his own.
“Let’s go all out,” Pitino said about what he told Oturu. “Let’s try to get you to be a lottery pick.”
What is intriguing for NBA scouts who have watched Oturu play this season? Length is the most obvious, with his 7-3 wingspan helping make him a stellar rim protector and high-volume rebounder.
Jordan Murphy, a Gophers senior last year, was the Big Ten’s leading rebounder twice but didn’t possess Oturu’s three-point range. Oturu went from 1-for-2 as a freshman to 7-for-22 from beyond the arc this season, including multiple threes in three games.
He delivered a 29-point, 18-rebound performance in an 83-78 double-overtime loss at Purdue a week ago. Oturu also recorded the U’s first 20-point, 20-rebound game since 1966 with 21 points and 20 boards on Dec. 28 vs. Florida International.
“I feel like I can shoot the ball better this year,” Oturu said after he had 19 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks in Sunday’s 77-68 victory over Northwestern. “I’m trying to be more physical down low. I feel like overall this year from my freshman year, I’m playing a lot harder in games. I feel like it’s been a big boost to help me out there.”
Pitino sat down with Oturu this week and told him, “If he’s got that opportunity at the end of the year, I’m all for it. I’ll support it.”
First, Oturu will be working to lift the Gophers back into the NCAA tournament after a 70-50 second-round loss to Michigan State last year. The Spartans (12-3), with reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston, are riding a seven-game winning streak and sit 4-0 in conference play. No doubt, NBA scouts will be watching.
“The real decisionmakers start paying attention at the end of the year,” Pitino said. “I learned that from my dad being with the [Boston Celtics]. So you’ve got to be there in March, whether it’s the Big Ten tournament [or NCAAs]. The production level is great that he’s doing, but you’ve got to be on that stage.”