The phrases “Northwestern basketball” and “NBA Draft” are rarely assembled in the same sentence. Only 28 players in school history have been drafted, with just 12 of them actually appearing in a regular season game. Considering Northwestern has yet to make an NCAA Tournament, it is not surprising that their professional talent pool has been rather shallow.
But with former Wildcat stars John Shurna and Drew Crawford competing for training camp invites in the NBA Summer League, it is worthwhile combing through the program’s current roster in search of a draft candidate.
Look no further than rising junior Alex Olah.
The 7-footer currently stands as Northwestern’s best chance at sending a player to the pros. He made big improvements to his game last season and coach Chris Collins talks highly of the Romanian center.
Olah started every game for the Wildcats as a sophomore, averaging 9.1 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game. Those numbers may seem mediocre for a center in arguably the best conference in the country, but the strides he made are ones that do not necessarily show up on a stat sheet.
Despite playing for the Big Ten’s basement-dwellers, Olah exudes confidence against conference foes.
Against Wisconsin Jan. 2, he shot 10 of 14 and scored 23 points in a loss to the Badgers. In games against Penn State and Purdue in March, he had 14 points and five rebounds, and 14 points and seven rebounds, respectively. The Wildcats won against the Boilermakers.
Olah’s grittiest, toughest performance came against Indiana Feb. 22. Playing on two sprained ankles, he recorded his first — and only — double-double of the season with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Though the Wildcats lost, 61-56, Indiana head coach Tom Crean called Olah a “fantastic player.”
While many would consider these numbers merely examples of expected production from a starting center in the Big Ten, the standard at Northwestern is different.
Devoid of a true backup or big-bodied players to spar with during practice, Olah essentially learned on the job and logged huge minutes while doing so. But he survived the grind of a full season against better counterparts, and that experience will surely prove to be invaluable the next couple seasons.
Of course, I say next couple seasons because Olah is nowhere near NBA-ready in 2015. For his size, he leaves something to be desired in terms of physicality. Though he improved his rebounds per game from his freshman to sophomore year, Olah did not even lead the team in that category.
On the offensive end, he has shown flashes of dominance in the post but must work on his consistency down low. Olah has had his share of games where he has made buckets while being double-teamed, and where he has missed fairly uncontested layups.
A skill set that may make Olah’s professional prospects more appealing is his improving jumper. He is working on his mid-range game, and the hook shot emerged as a go-to move in the last months of the season.
Olah is going to have to make many improvements to his overall game if there is any chance he is drafted in a couple years. However, he has flashed the potential to do just that. Moving into the upper echelon of college players is a tough ask for any Northwestern player but judging by the way Olah has raised expectations each of his two seasons, he is more than willing to accept the challenge.