Process has yet to begin for Cam Oliver | RecordCourier.com

Process has yet to begin for Cam Oliver

Joe Santoro

Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .

The Nevada Wolf Pack posted a video on its web site this week of Cam Oliver declaring his intentions of jumping back into the NBA's pre-draft workout process. He looked like a guy who had just packed his suitcases at the end of a spring break vacation and just wanted to thank the hotel staff for a great week before heading to the lobby to pay his bill. The video had a thanks-for-the-memories feel to it. All it lacked was a "we'll-always-have-Milwaukee-and-the-NCAA-tournament" message. If you weren't worried about Oliver leaving the Pack, you should be a little worried now. Underclassmen joining the NBA's early entry list has become a rite of spring for college basketball players. It's sort of like following Kim Kardashian on Twitter. It doesn't mean anything until she direct messages you and invites you to a party. But that video made it seem like Oliver has gotten some pretty encouraging messages from the NBA.

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What are the chances of Oliver officially leaving the Wolf Pack in the next two months? It's probably 60-40 he comes back to school but the process has yet to begin. All it takes is one NBA team at the end of the first round telling Oliver it might, possibly pick him if things fall the right way. Don't forget Oliver remains sort of a hidden gem where the NBA is concerned. The young man missed all but 11 games over his junior and senior years in high school because of a knee injury. He then sat out an entire year before playing two seasons in the relative obscurity of a fading Mountain West conference that has sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament over the last two seasons. This might be the first time NBA scouts seriously look at him. And, well, the chances of one team with a pick late in the first round falling in love with all of his wonderful skills are pretty high.

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If Luke Babbitt could get drafted with the No. 16 overall pick in 2010, why can't Oliver get picked somewhere late in the first round this June? Babbitt in 2010, like Oliver now, had just completed his sophomore year. They were both basically the same size (Oliver is listed at 6-foot-8, 235 by the Pack and Babbitt was listed at 6-9, 225 in 2010). Who had the better Pack career? Babbitt scored more points (1,316-1,071), made more free throws (351-179), made more field goals (445-403), had more assists (119-94), had less turnovers (146-162) and had more steals (59-52). Oliver has more 3-pointers (86-75), rebounds (649-554) and blocks (190-51). But Babbitt played 137 more minutes. Give Oliver another 137 minutes (about four games) and the only categories he might still end up trailing Babbitt in are points (slightly), turnovers (a little more than slightly) and free throws (a lot). After two seasons Babbitt had the better overall Pack career but not by much. And Oliver's skills and attributes over Babbitt (explosiveness, length, ability to block shots and rebound) are much more NBA friendly.

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Oliver's detractors will point out he doesn't play any defense, has no post-up game, refuses to play with his back to the basket and only seems to get excited to play the most meaningful games when the spotlight is brightest. Well, Babbitt might have tried harder on defense than Oliver and he certainly brought his maximum effort to every game. But he also couldn't guard anybody no matter how hard he tried and it was obvious he wasn't going to make his living in the NBA in the paint. Babbitt has had a wonderful NBA career (300-plus games, 4,500-plus minutes over seven seasons) basically doing two things (making 300-plus threes and playing hard) at an NBA level. Oliver can do all that and more. And, oh, by the way, if he stays at Nevada this year he might also be a Top 16 pick in 2018.

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With Oliver, the Wolf Pack have a chance to get to the Sweet 16 and maybe farther next March. Without him, well, nobody knows. The Pack can still win the Mountain West without Oliver. But it's doubtful they can make any noise in the NCAA tournament without him. Oliver is what makes the Wolf Pack special on a national scale. He's a once-a-generation type of player. Over the last two seasons, he was the Pack's best player when the games counted most. When he plays well, the entire team puffs out its chest and feeds off of him. The Pack will still be good without Oliver but it will just be Mountain West good. With Oliver they can be NCAA good.

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The Wolf Pack could be Sweet 16 good in 2017-18 and they could be Final Four good in 2018-19 if everybody stays. Imagine a Wolf Pack team in two years with seniors Oliver, Jordan Caroline, Lindsey Drew and Caleb and Cody Martin and juniors Josh Hall and Devearl Ramsey. And that doesn't even include new recruits coach Eric Musselman will no doubt add to the mix. Dare to dream, Pack fans.

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There's absolutely no reason why the Wolf Pack can't become another Gonzaga. Don't forget Gonzaga and the Pack are sort of joined at the NCAA hip. It was the Wolf Pack, after all, who replaced Gonzaga in the Big Sky Conference in 1979 when the Bulldogs left to join what is now the West Coast Conference. The Wolf Pack becoming another Gonzaga, though, all starts with Musselman and his willingness to stay at Nevada. Gonzaga has been nationally good ever since Mark Few took over the program in 1999-00. Few stayed in Spokane when he could have left whenever he wanted for more money and a more traditional basketball power. But he realized he could dominate a mediocre conference and get to the NCAA tournament every year and the Bulldogs are now in the Final Four. Musselman could do the same in the Mountain West.

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With or without Oliver, Musselman's Wolf Pack have to take the next step this coming season to be considered a real threat in the NCAA tournament. They need to prove they can beat teams who are markedly better than they are. Granted, the Pack have rarely played a team who was considered more than slightly better than they were in the two seasons under Musselman. But when they did play such a team — Wichita State once and San Diego State twice in Musselman's first year and Saint Mary's and Iowa State in the second year — they lost every time. And they usually lost big, by an average of 14.6 points. Now, you don't necessarily have to play better teams before the NCAA tournament. See Gonzaga the last 18 years. But if you want to dance with the big boys in late March, you need to prove you can do it.