Since 2002, the Virginia basketball program has had just two players who were selected in the NBA Draft — Sean Singletary and Mike Scott.
But in the next three years alone, UVa has a chance to double that total.
The overall talent level on Virginia’s roster is a main reason why the Cavaliers have been tabbed as a preseason Top-25 team for the first time since 2001-02.
It’s a reason why UVa was picked to finish second in the ACC by ESPN.
It’s a reason why Wahoo Nation is excited as they’ve been in years.
Of course, possessing NBA prospects doesn’t guarantee success.
N.C. State had four players who were considered draft-worthy prior to last season but wound up finishing just fifth in the ACC.
However, more times than not, having the future pros on your side is a good thing.
Even Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who is known to place a high value on intangibles, doesn’t argue that point.
“You can be the nicest guy and have the best character,” Bennett said, “but if you can’t play, you can’t play.”
The elite college programs almost always have a handful of players who move on to the NBA.
In the last three years, Butler, VCU and Wichita State have been the only Final Four participants who didn’t have a player picked in the first round of the draft.
Jonathan Givony, the owner of Draft Express and a well-respected evaluator of basketball talent, says that right now Virginia has five players with varying degrees of NBA potential: Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey, Justin Anderson and Evan Nolte.
Some observers have compared Harris’ game to former Georgia Tech star Matt Harpring’s, but Givony says more apt comparisons are current NBA guards Kyle Korver and Jodie Meeks, who have found niches in the league as 3-point shooters.
“A lot of NBA teams really like Joe Harris,” Givony said. “I know a couple [teams] who think he has a really good chance of getting drafted, just because he has very good size for a wing player and he’s one of the best shooters in college basketball.
“He’s become much more versatile. As his career has moved on, he’s relied less and less on the 3-point shot and has been able to get to the free-throw line and his passing ability has improved...I think he’ll definitely be in the mix.”
Givony believes Mitchell’s rebounding and athleticism make him attractive.
“He went from a guy who wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen to one of the most productive big men in the ACC,” Givony said. “It’s impressive to see a guy make that kind of jump from year to year...
“I think if he can make another good jump as a senior he’s going to have a really good chance.”
The last Virginia player to be selected in the first round of the draft was Cory Alexander in 1995.
Right now, in mock drafts, Harris and Mitchell are projected as second-rounders at best.
ESPN’s Chad Ford ranks Harris as his 80th-best prospect (only 60 players are selected in the draft); he doesn’t have Mitchell in his top 100.
Draft Express doesn’t have Harris or Mitchell getting drafted, but Givony says that doesn’t really mean a whole lot.
“Outside of the top 20 prospects, it’s a crapshoot,” Givony said. “There are 100 guys that NBA teams are looking at and only 40 are going to make it. I think NBA teams are going to want to see Virginia make the tournament. I think that will be a big thing for [Harris and Mitchell] — showing what they’re doing to contribute to winning. Adding players who they think can help them win more games is a goal.
“Virginia had a good year last year and everyone is going to want to see how they build on that this year.”
The 6-foot-11, 253-pound Tobey, just a sophomore, has had scouts drooling since early last season. Givony says NBA teams love his combination of size and skill.
“He’s pretty advanced for a guy who was 18 years old for his entire freshman season,” Givony said. “For him to be able to step into the ACC and score the way he did...I think that was impressive. The question is how his body will fill out and what type of athlete is he after that.”
The 6-foot-6 Anderson already has that part of the equation down. Anybody who watched him block five shots and hit five 3-pointers in last season’s NIT game against Iowa could see his NBA potential.
“The potential defensively I think is what really stands out,” Givony said. “His being able to guard multiple positions. And he’s not a bad passer, either. I guess the question is what kind of shooter is he going to be? If he can knock down 3s, I think he definitely has a spot in the NBA.”
Of the five Virginia players whom he believes has NBA potential, Givony says Nolte is the furthest away. Still, Givony likes the sophomore’s upside.
“He’s a 6-8 guy who can shoot the ball,” Givony said. “I think he has room to grow physically. I think the way he looks now won’t be the way he looks three or four years from now.
“He’s another guy who knows how to play and has a good feel for the game and how to operate in a half-court setting. People are just going to want to see how his body fills out and how his skill level improves as he moves on.”
Bennett himself was no physical specimen. Generously listed at 6 feet, he wound up being a second-round pick of the Charlotte Hornets in 1992.
The coach calls all the chatter about his players having a chance to make the NBA “a positive.” It’s certainly something that hasn’t happened very frequently in Virginia history. UVa has had just six players drafted in the last 21 years — Alexander, Singletary, Scott, Bryant Stith, Junior Burrough and Roger Mason, Jr.
Bennett seems optimistic that the total will increase.
“I think guys like Joe and Akil, I think they’re on the radar, without question,” Bennett said. “Who would have thought that when they came in? But now they’ll legitimately be considered and I think it will all be based really on how well our team does and well they do, then how they do in workouts, how they do in summer leagues. There’s a process.
“I think the more your program improves, they’ll get the attention. Are we a team that has a bona fide top-five NBA [Draft pick]? No, we don’t have that. But we’re getting better. I think players are improving. As we have success, they’re getting more notice. There’s a correlation there and I think that’s what most people will tell you. Hopefully guys will keep improving and they’ll have a chance.”
As you would expect from a pair of seniors, Mitchell and Harris have the right mindset about the possibility of achieving NBA grandeur.
“It’s definitely a dream,” Mitchell said. “It should be a dream for every guy that plays basketball. It’s the highest level. I definitely think about it, but it’s something in the future. All I can do is play to the best of my ability and help this team win games right now. If my team’s not winning, nobody really cares who I am.”
Added Harris: “All that stuff in the future, that will take care of itself as long as we do well as a team this season.”