Thursday night was supposed to be the moment when hometown hero Daniel Oturu realized his NBA dream and broke the Gophers' draft drought all at the same time.
That big moment is on hold, though.
The pandemic delayed the 2020 NBA draft. Most recently, the draft was rescheduled from June 25 to Oct. 16, while the deadline for college underclassmen to withdraw is Aug. 3 or 10 days after the NBA draft combine.
Oturu, a 6-foot-10 All-America center, is being patient with the process. He also is confident the time will come eventually when he’ll be the first Gopher drafted since Kris Humphries in 2004.
“I think once I get drafted that whole talk about the U don’t be putting players in the league will be over,” Oturu said. “Amir Coffey is in the league. Once I get drafted, I think that will be a big boost.”
Coffey went undrafted after leaving last year, but he has found solid footing with the Los Angeles Clippers after signing a two-way deal. Oturu, an All-Big Ten first-team sophomore last season, flew to Santa Barbara on Thursday to spend the rest of the summer preparing for the draft. He's being projected as high as the middle lottery or as low as the top of the second round.
"I think that people are starting to come around and starting to realize more things about me," he said. "Even though I had a great season, I felt like I think I was not as high profile as some other guys in the draft class. But I’m just continuing to work and to show NBA teams why I’m a first round talent.”
Oturu knew before the Gophers’ season prematurely ended in March that it was time to pursue a pro career. Other Gophers such as point guard Marcus Carr and newly-signed Utah transfer Both Gach are also among more than 200 early-entry candidates this summer.
Gach, who is from Austin, Minn., will officially take his name out of the draft soon. Oturu, a former Cretin-Derham Hall star, will start the interview process with NBA teams next week. Since the spring, Oturu has trained with former AAU teammate and Duke point guard Tre Jones. Oturu and the Jones brothers (also Tyus Jones) are represented by Kevin Bradbury, an agent for BDA Sports.
“Every day we’re getting more information on the status of the coronavirus and how it’s impacting people,” Oturu said. “I just have to continue to work and show [teams] who I am as a person and a basketball player."
NBA teams aren’t conducting in-person workouts yet. They’ll see from Oturu’s training videos, though, that he continues to make significant strides with his outside shooting. His position at the next level will be as a stretch power forward or center who is versatile offensively, along with being able to rebound and protect the rim.
Since the 1992-93 season, Oturu is the only Division I player to average at least 20 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and shoot 35 percent from three-point range, according to player reference’s college hoops database.
Oturu shot 19-for-52 from beyond the arc (36.5 percent) last season, which was up from making 1-for-2 as a freshman. For example, Timberwolves All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns shot just 2-for-8 from three as a freshman at Kentucky. He’s now shooting over 40 percent from long distance in his fifth season.
“I had to add some things to my game that makes me more versatile player and would get the attention of the NBA,” he said. “Adding a three-point shot and being able to attack players off the dribble is important. That’s kind of what guys my [size] are doing now in the league.”
Carr followed Oturu's decision to declare in the spring to test the waters. The 6-2 Toronto native isn't projected to be drafted, but he averaged 15.4 points and set a single-season school record with 207 assists in 2019-20. Pitino is hopeful his captain returns to school, but he said recently nothing is for sure with Carr's decision.
“For Marcus, I hate it for him, because he wants to get feedback,” Pitino said. “This process he’s going through isn’t close to the normal process [with COVID-19]. He had a really, really good year. Unfortunately, he’s not able to do workouts for teams unless something changes. So, for me it’s, ‘Go through your process whatever it is.’ Continue to get your feedback. See how we can help you. Because everybody goes through a different timetable. We’re in constant contact with him. He’s been great. That’s all you really ask. Amir was like this. Daniel is like this. Just communicate with us. We’re all in this thing together. We want consistently to go [to the NBA] from our program. We’re going to have back-to-back NBA players. That means a lot to us. Whenever the time is right for Marcus how do we make him the third one?”
Gach, a 6-7 combo guard, also drew NBA scouts to his game last season. They were enamored with his size, athleticism and versatility on the perimeter. He averaged a career-best 10.7 points as a sophomore last season, but he suffered a slump during a stretch where his knee was giving him issues. Gach, who had 28 points vs. Colorado in his final regular season game, is healthy now.
The Gophers are the best opportunity for Gach to receive an NCAA waiver to play immediately. They also sold him on being the next Coffey.
“I feel like my skill set compared to Amir is similar but there are differences at the same time,” Gach said. “It’s a good opportunity for me to play multiple positions. That’s the way the game of basketball is going. It’s positionless. It’s always good to be able to do that.”
Months from now, Oturu should finally end the Gophers’ draft drought. He believes that will only be the beginning of a new trend. “More NBA players will be coming out of the U soon,” he said.
“Nobody really talked about us with that type of stuff,” Oturu said. “That’s why they are going to start talking about Minnesota more now, because we have so many talented players there.”