Tre Jones, Daniel Oturu and Zeke Nnaji had summer practices together in Minnesota high school gyms so quiet you could hear their sneakers squeak on the hardwood.
Now those three former AAU teammates will try to make some noise in the next NBA draft.
Throw in McKinley Wright, Freddie Gillespie, Tyrell Terry and a few others from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and Minnesota natives are filling up draft projections.
“We have those close-knit relationships,” Oturu said. “Even if we didn’t play AAU together, we all talk and have a mutual respect for each other. That’s just amazing. And now we’re all in the same position that we might get drafted.”
No more than two Minnesota natives have ever been picked in the same draft. Most recently, Tre Jones’ older brother, Tyus, and Rashad Vaughn were chosen in 2015.
This year’s Minnesota contingent spent the college basketball season entrenching themselves as household names. Apple Valley’s Jones was named ACC Player of the Year for Duke. Oturu, a former Cretin-Derham Hall standout, was an All-America and All-Big Ten selection for the Gophers.
Nnaji, out of Hopkins, was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year for Arizona. Wright, an unheralded recruit from Champlin Park, was first-team All-Pac 12 a second straight year for Colorado. Gillespie, a former East Ridge and Carleton College reserve, was the Big 12’s Most Improved Player for a 26-4 Baylor team.
Terry, a DeLaSalle product, blossomed into a Pac 12 All-Freshman guard for Stanford and has been in several 2020 draft projections. But Terry, Duke’s Matthew Hurt (Rochester John Marshall) and Utah’s Both Gach (Austin) are expected to stay in college with an eye toward the 2021 NBA draft.
“I feel like Minnesota basketball in recent years has been put on the map,” said Gillespie, a 6-9 senior. “A lot of [prospects] have been coming out of Minnesota.”
Though Wright is testing the NBA draft waters, he’s making it clear he could return to Colorado for his senior season. The explosive 6-foot guard has been talking to agents with mentor and former AAU coach Al Harris. They believe he’s ready to play in the league.
But the pandemic has us all wondering when things will get back to normal, and it has left draft prospects across the country trying to figure out the developing timetable.
The key date is June 3 — the current deadline for players to withdraw their names from the draft pool and return to college. That’s what Gophers guard Marcus Carr is expected to do.
But the draft itself, scheduled for June 25, could be delayed until August or September, at least, giving NBA coaches and talent evaluators loads of time to study film.
“Getting that feedback from [NBA] teams will help me make that next decision,” Wright said. “I know if I do get to have some of those workouts later this summer, I’ll prove I can play at that level.”
For all these Minnesota natives, the development is striking. Nnaji went from getting no high-major offers as a Hopkins sophomore to becoming a one-and-done for Arizona.
He’s come a long way from 2017, when he was a relative unknown playing for Howard Pulley alongside Jones and Oturu.
“Zeke probably wasn’t playing that much, and now you’re seeing that he might be a lottery pick,” Oturu said, marveling. “That’s obviously a testament to how hard he works.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Wright was playing against Jones and Apple Valley in the Minnesota Class 4A state title game in 2017. Jones announced in a video on social media last week he was putting his name in the draft, following in the footsteps of Tyus.
“When I was growing up, I had a dream of being a professional basketball player,” Tre Jones said in the video. “My journey is just getting started.”
Oturu and Jones were part of the Pulley program before high school and traveled similar paths through their meeting in the 2018 Class 4A title game. Cretin-Derham Hall defeated Apple Valley on Oturu’s memorable game-winning dunk. Nnaji, who later played AAU at D1 Minnesota with Hurt and Terry, led Hopkins to the 4A state championship last year.
“It just tells you how crazy good Minnesota high school basketball is,” Oturu said. “We have some of the greatest players in the country that play here.”