Eight former Huskies played in the NBA this year, and what’s even better is all of them had some level of success. While it’s unfortunate that the best UConn men’s basketball took place in the NBA this year, it is always nice to see our favorites continue to play well even after leaving Storrs.
At the conclusion of the regular season, some of the former Huskies in the league will see their seasons continue after their teams made the NBA playoffs, but others will be starting their offseason programs very shortly.
Here’s a look at what you can expect from UConn alumni in the NBA playoffs, followed by a recap of the seasons of those who won’t be playing anymore this year.
Rudy Gay had a strong start to his season, his first with the San Antonio Spurs, but struggled after a midseason injury. He’s recovered his form since then but didn’t get back to his regular level of playing time until very recently.
Gay has had a strong season as the key to the Spurs bench, and his 12th season in the NBA might be his best from a team perspective. Gay has only made the postseason once before in his career—he was injured the year his Grizzlies upset the Spurs in the first round—and will be thirsty for some playoff success. San Antonio will have a tough matchup ahead of them, though, as they meet the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
Bazz rose his game considerably this season, and Portland coach Terry Stotts gave him a bigger role in the offense. The star of UConn’s 2014 national championship team nearly tripled his shot total this season, maintained his percentages, and improved his defensive efficiency. So in his most successful season yet, Napier became the first guard off the bench for the Trail Blazers, which is a big assignment, given that either Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum has to leave the game to make room for him.
Napier has become an important part of the team, and after a promising individual series last postseason (albeit in a loss to the Warriors), he’ll have a chance to make more of an impression this year.
Facing Napier in the first round will be the New Orleans Pelicans and Emeka Okafor, who made a successful comeback in the second half of this year after missing four straight seasons and starting this year in the G-League.
Okafor was originally signed after the season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins, and while he obviously hasn’t been able to replace the production of a top-15 player in the league, he’s still played a lot like his old self. He’s still a strong overall defensive player, especially when cleaning up the glass, and his old-school game complements Anthony Davis’ free-range style very well. He’s still a fine all-around player and will be on the floor a lot during the playoffs; he might even start. If you’re a UConn fan, this series is definitely one to keep an eye on.
Andre Drummond and the Detroit Pistons didn’t make the playoffs this season, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort, especially after the team acquired Blake Griffin to play alongside him. The experiment didn’t fail, but Griffin didn’t get acclimated to his new environment as easily as they hoped, and the team was so far back in the standings that they didn’t have much of a chance for the playoff run.
Drummond, for his part, had his best professional season yet, making his second All-Star team, leading the league in total rebounds for the third straight season, and being the defensive centerpiece for his team yet again.
Speaking of former Huskies making their second All-Star Game this year, Kemba Walker had another spectacular season, proving himself to be one of the best lead guards in the league, and the best UConn alum in the NBA since Ray Allen. Very few players have the same offensive impact on their teams that Kemba does, and those who do are normally discussed as the game’s superstars: Curry, Harden, Westbrook, etc. Kemba might not be quite that good, but he’s not far behind either. If he had a better team around him, things might be different, and there will definitely be some changes in his environment next season, as the Charlotte Hornets have already fired their general manager and head coach. There are rumors he might be traded this offseason, and if he is, hopefully, it will be to a better situation.
Joining Kemba in Charlotte for the past few years has been Jeremy Lamb, a teammate he’s been fond of since winning the 2011 national championship together. Lamb also had his best season in the NBA this year, averaging 12.9 points per game and having his most efficient professional season despite having a bigger role in the offense than he’s had since his collegiate days. Lamb has carved out a weird little niche for himself, since he’s athletic but not explosive, and his most effective scoring options aren’t what you’d expect from a solid wing in today’s NBA. He has two more years on his contract with the Hornets, but with the team’s future uncertain this offseason, he might also be on the move.
Rodney Purvis was one of the two UConn guys who made an NBA debut this season. Purvis’ first stint in the league was pretty inconsistent; while he had a small handful of impressive games, he had his fair share of bad ones too, finishing with a .327 field goal percentage and very poor advanced stats.
There’s reason to be optimistic about his future, though. First is that Orlando seemed to like him, and that may carry over even as they hire a new coach to replace the departing Frank Vogel. The second is that the Magic are terrible, and it’s not as if they have a bunch of players considerably better than Purvis. Third, and most optimistic for Purvis himself, is that when looking at the play itself, it’s possible the poor stats can be attributed to factors beyond his control and small sample size. Purvis will get another chance in the NBA soon—though it might not be an extended look—and he’ll have the opportunity to show off his improvements then.
Daniel Hamilton, UConn’s most recent draftee, also made his debut this season, playing 28 minutes over six games for the Oklahoma City Thunder (who did make the playoffs, but Hamilton will not be on their postseason roster unless multiple injuries happen). That’s obviously not a lot of time, and it’s impossible to glean a player’s true ability over such a short amount of time, but he flashed enough ability over that time for UConn fans to remain positive about his future. His passing can translate to the professional level, he’s shown he can get to the rim against NBA defense, and if his jump shot has truly improved, there’s no reason he can’t be a backup guard in the future. He’ll continue to get better in the offseason—he’s still only 22 years old—and, with development and perhaps a better situation, Hamilton can get some playing time again next season.