Miami football has been known for decades as a top producer of pro-level talent. Even in the down years in the 2000s and 2010s, the Canes still produced just as many NFL players as the highly successful programs such as Alabama, Clemson, etc. The basketball team historically has not had the same success with players moving on and succeeding at the next level. Yes, there are fewer roster spots in the NBA, but the lack of Miami players in the league for extended periods of time has still been alarming (The basketball program has created just as many NFL players as NBA players recently, see Jimmy Graham and Erik Swoope). However, it looks as if that is about to change.
A few weeks ago, both Lonnie Walker IV and Bruce Brown Jr. declared for the NBA Draft. Lonnie is considered to be a lottery-level talent, while Bruce could sneak in to the back end of the first round. Players drafted in the lottery (top 14 picks) typically become at least rotational players who remain in the league for most of their career. Players drafted later in the first round or in the second round occasionally become impact players in the league, but they often either end up in the G-league (formerly the D-league) or overseas. With so few roster spots, it’s quite rare for NBA teams to find undrafted players who earn a role on their team. Lonnie has the talent to be a starter at the NBA level, but is still considered quite raw. Bruce is coming off of a down year, but also possesses the talent to make it with a NBA team. Two chances at solid NBA players coming from Miami are higher odds than we usually get in Coral Gables, and it’s valuable to see that transition work out.
To find the last Miami first round pick, you have to look back to 2013 Draft when guard Shane Larkin was taken with the 18th pick by Atlanta (and immediately traded to Dallas). Larkin was a special talent, a Wooden national player-of-the-year finalist who led the Canes to their most successful season in school history (ACC regular season and tournament titles, a #2 seed and a sweet 16 appearance). Even one of Miami’s best ever players struggled to find his place in the league, lasting only a season with the team that drafted him, which included multiple stints with their G-League affiliate. Larkin was then traded to the Knicks, where he also lasted one season before being traded again to the Brooklyn Nets, where he also lasted only a season. The NBA franchises’ interest in Larkin then waned, as the former first round pick failed to find any continuity with 3 programs in 3 years. He then spent the 2016-17 season with euro-league team Baskonia, where 13.6 points and 5.3 assists per game rebuilt his credibility enough to join the Celtics for the 2017-18 season as backup point guard deep on their bench. Fast forward to April, and injuries to the Celtics have thrust Larkin into a regular role on a team traveling deep into the playoffs, a development that should help the former Miami great in the league for at least another year.
Before Larkin, you would have to go all the way back to 2002 to find the last first round pick from Miami, John Salmons, He spent 13 years in the league, averaging 9.3 points per game for his career. 2 first round picks in roughly 20 years is tough to pitch to a recruit with dreams of reaching the league. While there is a valid debate for whether it’s more beneficial to bring in players willing to put in the work to achieve success at the college level (and not just looking for a pass-through to the NBA), I would also argue that being able to appeal to a higher echelon of talent is crucial for this program going forward. The top programs can appeal to both sets of recruits, and this staff needs to build that resume as well to bolster our chances with the five-star recruits. Bringing in Lonnie Walker IV was definitely a step in the right direction, showing we can reel in the big fish, Any success Shane Larkin can achieve shows NBA Coaches that Coach Larranaga can produce players able to handle the physical and mental grind of a NBA season. Dewan Huell (still hoping he comes back) and transfer Zach Johnson could help keep the momentum of pro potential going next offseason, as Huell is already being touted as a first round talent in the 2019 draft and Johnson has been regarded as an elite scorer with NBA size at 6’6”. (Correction: It’s been pointed out that Zach Johnson is not 6’6”, fellow transfer Anthony Mack is 6’6”. Johnson is 6’2”, which is on the lower end of ideal NBA size for a guard)
Coach Larranaga and his staff have brought the Canes Hoops program to new heights. It is now an expectation that we compete for an ACC title every season, and that we advance past the first round of the tournament every season. In order to fulfill those expectations, this program needs to fix the issues that once kept Miami basketball in mediocrity season after season. With more players on their way to the league, it appears that we’re continuing to make progress in elevating Canes Hoops towards being a legitimate basketball powerhouse. Where do you think our current draft prospects will end up? Who else do you see from this roster having a shot at reaching the NBA? Let us know in the comments.