The NCAA tournament returned on Saturday after it got cancelled last year due to COVID-19, and it’s worth the wait. In true March Madness fashion, we saw some exciting battles and shocking upsets. Among the most notable saw the 15th-seed Oral Roberts Golden Eagles knocking off the second-seeded and powerhouse program Ohio State Buckeyes in overtime, 78-75. It was only the Golden Eagles’ fifth tournament berth and second tournament win in their 46-year history in Division I ball.
Such upsets are what hoop fans live for. It puts mid-major/underdog schools in the spotlight and helps unknown players gain much-deserved recognition. There are cases, however, where a bona fide stud is simply born to play and thrive in the NBA, others even burst into stardom right away.
Here now are some of the best active players that came from mid-major colleges:
Richaun Holmes – Bowling Green University
Richaun Holmes is now a starter for the Sacramento Kings. He began clogging the lane and honing his shot-blocking skills at Bowling Green State University, where he was the main inside presence in two of his three seasons with the school.
Holmes is one of only three BGSU alums to reach the NBA over the last 34 years.
Elfrid Payton – University of Louisiana
Though usually ranked as a borderline mid-tier point guard, Elfrid Payton has established himself as one of the more all-around floor generals whenever he’s on. He made a name for himself at Louisiana as he guided them to a rare tournament appearance in 2014.
Payton is one of only 10 University of Louisiana alums to play in the NBA. He leads all of his co-alums in career assists, steals, blocks, and threes.
Patty Mills – Saint Mary’s College
Patty Mills is a one-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs and is long considered as one of the better three-point shooters and most serviceable back-up point guards in the NBA.
The Aussie helped guide Saint Mary’s to a 53-14 record in his two seasons with the team. He’s only one of seven Gaels to reach the NBA and he leads his co-alums in career threes and free-throw percentage.
George Hill – IUPUI
George Hill was the San Antonio Spurs’ surprise late first-round pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. He came out of nowhere, but soon joined the franchise’s long list of draft steals.
Hill remains as a serviceable role player 13 years after, and he’s still the only IUPUI alum to play in the NBA.
Larry Nance Jr. – University of Wyoming
Being a second-generation player didn’t help Larry Nance Jr. be a top recruit. He, however, proved that he belonged in the NBA and was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the 2015 draft.
Before graduating in 2015, Nance Jr. led the Cowboys to its only tournament appearance over the last 19 years. He’s one of only two active Wyoming alums in the NBA, and he leads the all-time list in career threes.
Hassan Whiteside – Marshall University
Marshall is home to a ton of draft steals and underrated talent in the NFL, but they also have some in the NBA, with Hassan Whiteside the most recent. Though he initially flopped with the Sacramento Kings in the early 2010s, he made a successful return in 2015 with the Miami Heat, where he immediately blossomed as a monster in the paint.
Whiteside is one of only 13 Marshall alums to play in the NBA. He leads all of his co-alums in blocks.
Robert Covington – Tennessee State University
Before being a reliable ‘3 and D’ guy, and now an NBA vet, Robert Covington was a key starter at Tennessee State University. In 2012, he led the Tigers to a 20-11 record, one of the school’s winningest seasons in over 30 years.
RoCo leads all TSU alums in in the NBA in career threes, while also being a close second in steals.
Pascal Siakam – New Mexico State Univesity
Pascal Siakam had two fruitful seasons at New Mexico State, one of which had him be as a key piece in the school’s tournament appearance. Despite having a slow rise in the NBA, he hasn’t looked back ever since breaking out in the 2018-19 campaign.
‘Spicy P’ won the NBA Most Improved Player of the Year award in 2019, thanks to being a major piece in the Toronto Raptors’ memorable championship run.
Paul Millsap – Louisiana Tech University
Paul Millsap was unable to bring Lousiana Tech to any tournament appearance in his three seasons there, but it was clear that he was the school’s best player since Karl Malone. He soon proved that he indeed was as he immediately made an impact for Utah Jazz, coincidentally like Malone in the mid-1980s.
Millsap is now on the tail-end of his pro career but he’ll be remembered as a do-it-all stretch four that created good damage on offense and defense.
Ja Morant – Murray State University
You know a player is good if he can suddenly shoot himself up the mock drafts in a few weeks, all while playing in an unknown program like Murray State. That’s exactly what Ja Morant did.
After being an afterthought in his freshman year, he became an explosive highlight reel in his sophomore season, which eventually made him the consensus second pick in the 2019 draft, only behind Zion Williamson. He then won the 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year plum after a strong campaign with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Morant is among the most promising and electric young players today. Despite only being 1.5 seasons in, he’s closing in on having the most assists among Murray State alums in the NBA.
CJ McCollum – Lehigh University
CJ McCollum led Lehigh to two NCAA tournament appearances in four years, but he mostly generated a buzz in the 2012 tourney, when he powered the unknown Mountain Hawks in upsetting the perennial powerhouse Duke Blue Devils in the first round.
After injuries derailed CJ’s first two seasons in the NBA, he broke out in 2015. He has kept his foot on the gas ever since and is now part of a high-scoring backcourt tandem alongside Damian Lillard in Portland, who’s also on this list.
Paul George – Fresno State University
Though Paul George had two losing seasons while at Fresno State, his talent was obvious, which soon landed him 10th overall in the 2010 draft by Indiana Pacers. He caught the eye of then-Pacers GM, Larry Bird.
George won the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year in 2013, and soon grew to become a star two-way player. He has multiple-time All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive team selections, and finished third in the MVP race in 2019.
Among all FSU alums in the NBA, PG13 is the far and away leader in points, rebounds, steals, and threes.
Damian Lillard – Weber State University
Damian Lillard had an up-and-down stint at Weber State. Thankfully, though, he was able to end it on a high, which helped him become a sought-after rookie in the 2012 draft class.
Dame busted his way into the scene right away as he was able to bring excitement back in Portland. He captured Rookie of the Year honors in the 2012-13 season and evolved into an elite scorer, All-Star, All-NBA member, and perennial MVP candidate.
Kawhi Leonard – San Diego State University
True to his stoic demeanor and personality, Kawhi Leonard chose to go to a low-profile basketball program despite being recruited by heralded universities.
Kawhi’s 2010-11 campaign saw him guide the Aztecs to its best season in history. They reached the Sweet Sixteen stage in the NCAA tournament for the first time and it hasn’t been surpassed since.
Leonard had a slow-but-steady rise while with the San Antonio Spurs, but he eventually established himself as a superstar in the NBA, a feared weapon on both ends of the floor, boasting two NBA championships, two finals MVPs, and multiple All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive team selections.
His second championship in 2019, where he had one epic playoff performance after during his lone season with the Toronto Raptors, will go down as an individual run for the ages.
Stephen Curry – Davidson University
Like Nance Jr., Stephen Curry wasn’t heavily recruited despite being the son of a former NBA player. He ended up in Davidson after being practically rejected by North Carolina and his father’s alma mater, Virginia Tech.
That didn’t stop Curry from emerging, though. He was a one-man team while at Davidson, most notably during his 2008 run, where his offensive prowess brought the unheralded Wildcats to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight stage.
Steph, as you know, has grown to become a multiple-time champion and MVP (first undisputed MVP in NBA history). At this point, it’s also pretty uncontested that he’s the most prolific and deadliest shooter the game has ever seen.