Best basketball using Pac-12 alums

Nikola Vucevic
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When the Boston Celtics selected Jaylen Brown with the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, he joined a growing list of Pac-12 conference alumni who pursued professional basketball after their time as collegiate athletes. While players like former Bears Jason Kidd and Shareef Abdur-Rahim have retired after All-Star caliber stints in the NBA, players like Houston Rockets forward Ryan Anderson and Portland Trail Blazers forward Allen Crabbe are currently among a handful of Cal players competing in today’s league. Once big names on campus, many former Pac-12 players will be helping their squad compete for its playoff dreams and the ultimate goal of winning an NBA championship, starting this October. As NBA training camp begins next week and teams prepare for the long season ahead, we take a glimpse at the Pac-12’s brightest NBA stars to look out for this year and beyond.

Centers:

Nikola Vucevic (USC)

While Vucevic’s name doesn’t provide him or the Magic a lot of attention, he’s still considered one of the most dominant, big men in a league that’s relying on jump-shooting more than ever before. During his junior year at USC, he averaged a double-double on his way to an All-Pac-10 First Team selection. The 25-year-old will look to build off of an injury-ridden but still solid campaign last season. Over the past two years, he’s averaged nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. For all you fantasy basketball nerds out there, this guy’s one of the most underrated big men out there.

Brook Lopez (Stanford), Robin Lopez (Stanford)

The Lopez twins made history when they were the first set of twins to be drafted in the first round of the same NBA draft back in 2008. The former Stanford seven-footers have each put together solid NBA careers, although down two very different paths. While Brook has stayed tethered as the starting center to the team that drafted him, the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Robin has bounced around and will begin this year with the Chicago Bulls, his fifth NBA team. While Robin’s Bulls will likely have a better shot at making the Eastern Conference playoffs than Brook’s Nets, look for the latter Lopez brother to outperform his brother and potentially make the All-Star team for the second time.

Power Forwards:

Kevin Love (UCLA)

We all saw Love in the NBA Finals playing a minimal role as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving stole the show and ultimately the championship from the Golden State Warriors. While Love hasn’t been nearly as dominant as he was earlier in his career in Minnesota, the three-time All-Star still stands as one of the most dangerous shooters when he’s out on the court. As the former UCLA big man continues to adjust to life as the third primary scorer, we’re optimistic that he’ll find other ways to contribute on the court.

Ryan Anderson (Cal)

Anderson has to be one of the most resilient players in the NBA today. After a stat-packed two-year career at Cal, Anderson was awarded the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2012 as a member of the Orlando Magic. What makes Anderson’s story so remarkable is his ability to come back and compete after the unexpected death of his girlfriend in 2013. In the years after the tragedy, Anderson came off the bench for the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans and remained one of the most versatile power forwards in the game, with the ability to rebound inside and score at a prolific rate from outside. Now a member of the Houston Rockets, Anderson will head into the year seeking a spot in the rotation of the “James Harden Show.”

Aaron Gordon (Arizona)

While most people only know Gordon’s name because of his awe-inspiring dunk contest performance last season, the Bay-Area native out of Arizona improved nearly all aspects of his game last year, from field-goal percentage to rebounds. He’s only 21 years old and should receive minutes even with Vucevic’s presence at the center position and the addition of Serge Ibaka. He’s only going to get better and jump higher as the season progresses.

Small Forwards:

Andre Iguodala (Arizona)

The Pac-12 is a little thin at this position, but so is the rest of the NBA. Outside of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and a few others, the small forward position doesn’t have a ton of depth in the current NBA. That being said, the defensive standouts from the Pac-12 are led by former Wildcat Andre Iguodala. While Iguodala will continue to come off the bench for Steve Kerr’s ambitious group of Warriors, he’ll likely draw the assignments of many of the elite scorers on opposing teams. Once a high-flying All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers, an older Iguodala wants nothing more than another championship in his role as defensive specialist.

Matt Barnes (UCLA)

Matt Barnes is the definition of an NBA journeyman. He has played on a total of nine teams since 2002, and will begin his second-stint with the Sacramento Kings next week. Known in the NBA for his emotional demeanor and off the court issues with former teammate Derek Fisher, Barnes has been a steady contributor for all the teams he’s played on, averaging more than 20 minutes per game since joining the Warriors in 2006. The former UCLA standout won’t be a huge game-changer for the struggling Kings, but he may provide some well-needed consistency.

Trevor Ariza (UCLA)

An NBA-champion with the Los Angeles Lakers back in 2009, Trevor Ariza is reaching the tail-end of an eventful NBA career. The 31-year-old out of UCLA has started every game he’s played in over the past three seasons with the Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets. He’s a solid bet for at least 10 points per game and energy on the defensive side of the ball with James Harden failing to hold up his end of the bargain on a regular basis.

Shooting Guards:

James Harden (ASU)

Speaking of James Harden, he’s pretty good too. The only Sun Devil to make this list, Harden is quite simply one of the best offensive forces in the game. He’s a three-time All-NBA player and finished second to only Stephen Curry in points per game with 29.0 last year. With Dwight Howard gone and Mike D’Antoni in at the head coach position, Harden is primed for a big year under D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll schemes. If he can stay as healthy as he’s been over the last two seasons, he’ll be a threat to Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and others for the MVP award in May.

Klay Thompson (WSU)

The second (or third now with Durant?) splash brother has transformed from a streaky shooter to one of the most dangerously consistent outside threats in all of basketball. After setting an NBA-record of 37 points in one quarter in January 2015, Klay Thompson made the All-Star team for the second time last season and defeated Steph Curry in the NBA Three-Point Contest during All-Star weekend. After shooting 39 percent from three-point range over three years at Washington State, Thompson has shot an astounding 42 percent from deep in his first five years in the NBA. While his numbers are expected to dip with the addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors’ already dangerous lineup, Thompson’s shooting ability is something that opponents can’t ignore.

DeMar DeRozan (USC)

A member of the Toronto Raptors’ elite backcourt duo, DeMar DeRozan has blossomed from a high-flying Aaron Gordon type athlete into a dominant scorer and competitor. Alongside fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry, the former USC Trojan averaged a career-high 23.5 points per game while leading the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals. At 27, it appears as if DeRozan’s about to reach the peak of his career, so for fantasy players who miss out on Harden, Thompson, or other elite players at the position, DeRozan is your guy to nab.

Point Guards:

Russell Westbrook (UCLA)

With KD gone, look out. Russell Westbrook is a worthy pick to win this year’s NBA MVP, not because of his overall stats, but his ability to be a leader in a locker room that continues to fall just short of a championship. The five-time All-Star out of UCLA is a triple-double machine, having won the NBA Scoring Title in 2015 when Durant was sidelined with a foot injury. His 37 career triple-doubles ranks seventh-most all-time, and if he can get his three-point shot to improve from his 30.2 percent career average, he may very well lead the Thunder to challenge Golden State and San Antonio in the competitive Western Conference.

Isaiah Thomas (Washington)

Once the Mr. Irrelevant Pick out of Washington in 2011, Thomas has blossomed into the leader of the up-and-coming Boston Celtics. A first time All-Star last year, Thomas scored a career-high 42 points in a playoff game against the Atlanta Hawks, becoming just the ninth Celtic to score at least 40 in a playoff game. Only listed at 5-feet 9-inches tall, Thomas is one of the more exciting fan-favorites that Boston has seen in a long time, not to mention that he’s also reaching the peak of his career at 27 years of age. The Celtics will likely be among the Eastern Conference’s best this year, with Thomas and head coach Brad Stevens leading the charge.

Jrue Holiday (UCLA)

A one-time All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers, Jrue Holiday hasn’t quite found his niche with the New Orleans Pelicans as of yet. Injuries have plagued him during his stint with New Orleans and he’s expected to miss the start of this season to be with his wife Lauren who will undergo brain surgery this fall. When healthy and able to play, Holiday is a skilled ball-handler with tremendous upside and a dynamic Anthony Davis to dish the ball off to. Once he’s back, the former UCLA guard who left school after just one season will be ready to make up for all the time he’s lost over the past few years.

Contact Josh Yuen at [email protected].