NBA draft combine highlights potential hidden gems from smaller schools

NBA hopeful Tosan Evbuomwan speaks to the media following his final draft combine scrimmage. (Max Olsan/MEDILL)

By Max Olsan
Medill Reports

Grabbing a spot in the NBA is no easy task, especially if you are from a non-Power Five school. 

At this year’s NBA draft combine in Chicago there were members of Final Four teams, national champions and national player of the year winners. There were also players who never once played in front of more than 6,000 fans. 

“That’s just part of it being from a small school,” said Tosan Evbuomwan, who played forward at Princeton. “People also seem to count the small schools out. I’m just trying to represent my school in the right way at this event.” 

Evbuomwan earned an invite to the NBA combine through his stellar performance at the G-League combine event held in Chicago the weekend before, where he put his talents on display in front of more than 100 team scouts and media members. 

Smaller school players have gained more attention over this past year around the league, spearheaded by the success former Santa Clara forward Jalen Williams had at the professional level this season. He has led the way for NBA hopeful Brandin Podziemski. The current Santa Clara guard transferred to the program after spending his first season at Illinois. 

“Hopefully I can be in the same situation that Jalen was last year,” Podziemski said. “Santa Clara did a great job of just letting me be me. It’s all about opportunity, and they gave me a great one.” 

Williams is a great example of what these smaller school players can do when given an opportunity. Coming into the combine last year, Williams was largely viewed as an off-the-radar prospect. After the combine, he had scouts intrigued, which led him to being selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder with the No. 12 pick in the 2022 NBA draft. From off the board to lottery pick in a matter of one week. 

Following along the same path as Evbuomwan and Podziemski is Grant Nelson, the 7-foot-tall center from North Dakota State. Nelson was invited to the combine because his height combined with his unique ability to handle and shoot the ball has intrigued many NBA teams. 

“I know I can play at the next level,” Nelson said. “I think I performed well. I can always improve on everything, but it was good to actually show what I can do in person.” 

Being able to play live in front of these scouts helped boost Nelson’s confidence about what his next steps are. Should he go back to college, or does he keep his name in the NBA draft with the May 31 decision date looming? 

“My plan is to stay in the draft and get drafted this year,” Nelson said. “I kept my eligibility as something I can use to fall back on if I need it. But my main goal is to get drafted this year.”

Three different guys from three different schools with three different stories sharing one opportunity and one goal. 

Evbuomwan had to earn his spot at the NBA combine by standing out at the G-League combine just days before. Podziemski went to Illinois for a season, transferred and found a home in Santa Clara that turned him into a professional-level prospect in just one year. Nelson spent three years perfecting his craft at North Dakota State and now has caught the eye of several professional scouts. 

“At the end of the day it’s just basketball,” Evbuomwan said. “It doesn’t matter where you are from, everyone just comes out here and plays the game we all grew up to love.” 

Max Olsan is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.