Undrafted, Undaunted

March 24, 2012
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Alonzo Gee
At one point during last Wednesday’s game in Atlanta, three of the Cavaliers on the floor – Manny Harris, Samardo Samuels and Alonzo Gee – were undrafted. (Recently-acquired guard – also undrafted – Donald Sloan ran the point at other moments of the game.)

In today’s NBA, that’s a rarity.

The sophistication and reach of league scouts almost guarantees that quality NBA players don’t fall through the cracks when David Stern takes the podium at Madison Square Garden in late June. It’s even less likely that they’ll slip past Adam Silver’s announcements in Round 2.

But it does happen. And the Cavaliers are proof that a pro basketball life doesn’t always begin (or end) on Draft night.

“First of all, I think every (Cavalier) that wasn’t drafted should have been,” said Manny Harris, referring to himself, Gee and Samuels. “But it also shows that the player worked hard and that the team takes chances on players and has good scouts that find those players.”

In early February, when Jeremy Lin made his big splash and “Linsanity” gripped the nation, the NBA’s groupthink was: “How could we have missed on this guy?”

But teams did miss on Lin and, like the troika of undrafted Cavs, he proved that all he needed was an opportunity.

The undrafted Cavs haven’t made a Lin-like splash, but a year-and-a-half after clawing their way onto the club, have all been contributors to the cause.

“You have to prove yourself, and it’s tough,” said Samuels. “The first year was a lot harder, as far as: how do you get in (the NBA) and how can you stay in.”

Samuels came to Louisville as one of the most highly-recruited high school players in the nation, leading them to the Big East Championship in his sophomore season. He also led the team in both scoring and rebounding that year.

It was almost impossible for an undrafted player to make a splash many years ago. With 10 rounds – and later seven – it was tough for a skilled player not to get drafted. But with just two rounds since 1989, it became more feasible that diamonds in the rough existed beyond Draft night.

Some prime examples of undrafted players who achieved success include Bruce Bowen, John Starks, Reggie Evans, Earl Boykins, Brad Miller and Udonis Haslem. Jeremy Lin is the most recent success story, but Ben Wallace – who’ll go down as one of the greatest defensive players ever – is probably this list’s top dog.

One constant among undrafted players is the fabled chip on their shoulder. Even a mild-mannered guy like Alonzo Gee has the fire burning when he takes the floor.

“You’ll never know because of how quiet I am, but I really do (have a chip on my shoulder),” said Gee, who’s been fantastic since being named a starter. “Especially when I see players that were drafted ahead of me.”

Gee remembers that Draft night and it still motivates him.

“I had high hopes (that night) – I was really expecting to hear my name, but unfortunately it didn’t happen,” said Gee. “But I have a great opportunity here, so I’m good.”

Manny Harris agrees.

“Not being drafted, first of all, that gives you a chip on your shoulder that you should always have,” said the former Wolverine. “There are a lot of teams that passed on you. It’s definitely a motivational thing.”

As a junior, Harris finished in the top six in the Big Ten in scoring, rebounding and assists. As a sophomore, he was first team All-Big Ten and also earned Big Ten Academic All-Conference honors in both his final two years in Ann Arbor.

The Cavaliers organization prides itself on player development and, over the past two seasons, they’ve turned all three non-draftees into rotation players, with Alonzo Gee working his way back into the starting lineup.

Since making the Cavaliers out of Camp last fall, Manny has appeared in 60 games, starting 15, Samardo has started 10 of the 70 games he’s played in, and Alonzo Gee will make his 44th start on Sunday against the Suns – his 86th game with Cleveland.

“We’re all talented basketball players,” added Samardo. “For (the Cavaliers) to have faith and keep their eye out for talent, it speaks well for the team.”

The Cavaliers have stockpiled Draft picks for the coming years – with two first-rounders and two second-rounders this June alone. That means Gee, Harris and Samuels might have to fight the fight all over again next October.

It’s nothing they haven’t done before.