Markquis Nowell, Tyger Campbell
Former NCAA Tournament stars Markquis Nowell (left) and Tyger Campbell (right) matched up at Thursday's Pacers pre-draft workout.

Nowell Still Hungry to Prove He Belongs Even After March Success

Group pre-draft workouts always create an interesting dynamic, with six prospects -- all with their own unique journeys to professional basketball -- coming together for essentially one practice session with hopes of impressing an NBA team.

That naturally creates a competitive environment, but there was something in particular about Thursday's group of prospects that auditioned for the Pacers' brass at the Ascension St. Vincent Center that seemed to bring out the best in one another.

The combination of established college stars with a winning pedigree (UCLA's Tyger Campbell, Kansas State's Markquis Nowell, and Kansas' Jalen Wilson) with players that have turned heads during the pre-draft process (G League Ignite's Sidy Cissoko, Belmont's Ben Sheppard, and Clemson's Hunter Tyson) created a fun dynamic.

"This workout definitely had more talent it," Nowell told the media afterwards. "We got guys like Jalen Wilson, Tyger, Sid. You got guys that played at a high level in college. This is probably one of the most (fun) ones because you've got guys like that. It was a good group because we all competed, but also showed that respect for one another to dap each other up and root for each other."

"Once I saw the list, I knew it'd be fun," Sheppard added.

Nowell is probably the name most familiar to casual college basketball fans after his sensational showing in this year's NCAA Tournament. The diminutive 5-7 guard dazzled while leading Kansas State to the Elite Eight, averaging 23.5 points and 13.5 assists over four tournament games.

Nowell's star shined the brightest on the big stage of Madison Square Garden. The Harlem native tallied 20 points, a tournament-record 19 assists, and five steals in a Sweet Sixteen win over Michigan State, then followed that up with 30 points, 12 assists, and five steals in his final collegiate game two days later against Florida Atlantic.

"It was so surreal because you've got tons of family in the arena calling your name and then you've got celebrities like Carmelo (Anthony) coming out showing you love and Spike Lee," Nowell said of his magical March.

Despite his performance in the tournament, Nowell's name doesn't appear in many mock drafts. That's nothing new for the undersized guard, who has been overlooked and underestimated his whole life because of his height.

While Nowell is small and older than most prospects (he spent five years in college between Little Rock and Kansas State and will turn 24 on Christmas), he does possess the attributes that teams covet in backup point guards. He plays with energy and grit, is a capable playmaker (he finished last season second in the country in assists at 8.3 per game), a tenacious on-ball defender (averaging 2.6 steals per night as a senior), and a fearless competitor.

"I feel like I have different intangibles I can bring to a team, just from my leadership, from my winning mindset, and (my ability) to defend and compete at a high level," Nowell said. "This game is not hard when you give it all you've got every single day. So I just feel like if I can bring that winning mindset and that fierce, tough New York City point guard-type mindset, it would definitely help an NBA team."

Nowell has spent a lot of time studying other undersized guards that have carved out a niche in the NBA, players like Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb, Kemba Walker, and Jose Alvarado. He can also look at someone like Pacers guard T.J. McConnell, who went undrafted but proved to be a valuable NBA guard thanks to the combination of his effort and work ethic.

Despite his strong showing in the tournament, Nowell was the only player of the six at Thursday's workout that did not get invited to the combine last month. That doesn't faze him, though. He has relished the chance to compete with any and all comers in workouts.

His performance in Madison Square Garden cemented his status as a March Madness legend, but Nowell is hoping to not be the basketball version of a one-hit wonder.

"I got bigger goals than just being in March," Nowell said. "That's the momentum that I want to keep building on. March definitely was good to me. So now I'm just trying to elevate and get better."

Indiana Pacers Pre-Draft Workouts: Markquis Nowell One-on-One Interview (June 8, 2023)

The two prospects from Thursday's group considered to have the best chance of being drafted in the first round are Cissoko and Sheppard.

Cissoko, a 6-8 wing from France, was the first European player ever to sign with G League Ignite, the NBA's developmental team that competes against G League competition. On Ignite, Cissoko played alongside likely top-three pick Scoot Henderson and projected first-round selection Leonard Miller, who worked out for the Pacers last week.

Cissoko averaged 12.8 points and 3.6 assists over 28 games in the G League this season, where he often matched up with professional players 10 years his senior. While Cissoko said it was intimidating at first competing against older competition with years of professional experience, it ultimately accelerated his development.

"Everyone wants to play against us," he said. "We're like the team that they want to kill every time. It's tough. You've got a lot of pressure at the beginning because a lot of scouts are coming and everything and only our games are on ESPN and everything."

Cissoko's best attribute is his versatility. Though he played the guard positions, Ignite often deployed him at power forward. Cissoko said he feels comfortable guarding four positions. He has a nearly 6-10 wingspan and a 35-inch vertical according to combine testing.

He displayed some playmaking ability last season with his assist total. Teams will want to see growth from him as a shooter (he converted just 30.4 percent of his 3-point attempts), though he said he has grown more comfortable over time with the 3-point line, which is farther away from the basket in the NBA/G League than what he was accustomed to in Europe.

Cissoko is a part of inarguably the best draft class of French prospects ever. Victor Wembanyama is a virtual certainty to be the number one pick in the draft and fellow Frenchmen Bilal Coulibaly and Rayan Rupert give France a potential four first-round selections.

Cissoko keeps close tabs on his fellow countrymen and is in frequent contact with his old Ignite teammates as they all prepare for the draft.

"We have a group chat," he said about Henderson, Miller, and his other Ignite teammates. "We're still talking even though we're not a team anymore. But we're still a family."

Indiana Pacers Pre-Draft Workouts: Sidy Cissoko One-on-One Interview (June 8, 2023)

Sheppard has been rising up draft boards after a strong showing at the combine, where he scored 35 points over two scrimmages, dropping 25 points on 8-of-10 shooting (3-of-5 from 3-point range) in his second game.

The 6-6 guard may not be a household name to many college basketball fans, but he had quite the career at Belmont. Sheppard averaged 16.2 points per game on nearly 50 percent shooting as a junior in 2021-22, then was even better last season, when he averaged 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals.

Sheppard is known first and foremost for his shooting and he got better each year in college even as he increased the volume of his attempts. Sheppard's 3-point percentage improved from .279 as a freshman to .328 as a sophomore to .371 as a junior and finally .415 on six attempts per game as a senior.

"Super versatile, both on the defensive and offensive side," Sheppard said of his game. "I feel like I can do a lot. Most people know me as a shooter, 3-and-D type guy, but I think I'm more than that."

Coming from a mid-major, Sheppard is used to being overlooked, but is starting to get the attention he always craved.

"I feel like I've flown under the radar most of my life honestly in basketball," he told the media on Thursday.

"Just constantly improving myself," he added in his one-on-one interview with "I play with a chip on my shoulder and I try to let that show in places like the combine and workouts like today."

Sheppard would be just the third player from Belmont to be drafted, joining Indianapolis native and Perry Meridian graduate Dylan Windler (taken by the Cavaliers with the 26th pick in 2019) and Joe Gaines, a sixth-round pick by Portland in 1972.

Indiana Pacers Pre-Draft Workouts: Ben Sheppard One-on-One Interview (June 8, 2023)

No player in Thursday's workout accomplished more at the collegiate level than Wilson, who helped lead Kansas to a national championship as a junior in 2022. He tested the draft waters at that time, but elected to return to school, where he blossomed into one of the nation's best players as a senior, averaging 20.1 points and 8.3 rebounds and was named a consensus first-team All-American and won the Julius Erving Award presented to the country's best small forward.

The 6-7, 230-pound Wilson acknowledged on Thursday that he will be asked to take on a different role at the next level. His .316 3-point percentage in college is one area where NBA teams will want to see growth, but Wilson hopes he can make an impact with his defense and rebounding.

He also believes that his four years of experience playing at the highest level of college basketball help him stand out when compared to younger players from other programs.

"The NBA, all the stakes are high every single day," Wilson said. "And being at a place like Kansas, the stakes are high every single game there. People were gunning at us every single day. I just think it prepared me for a lot of different things that the NBA brings as far as the pressure."

Wilson's college teammate, Christian Braun, has emerged as an invaluable contributor for the Nuggets this summer in their run to the NBA Finals. Wilson is hopeful his shared pedigree can allow him to make a similar impact at the next level.

"A winner," Wilson said when asked what the team that drafts him will be getting. "A guy that's going to come in and compete. Mature leader and just a voice, a guy that's going to come in and want to embrace the culture and improve wherever we're at and just go out and win."

Indiana Pacers Pre-Draft Workouts: Jalen Wilson One-on-One Interview (June 8, 2023)

Nowell's presence created a bit of an unusual dynamic for Tyger Campbell, who is used to being the smallest player on the floor. That wasn't the case on Thursday, but the 5-11 Campbell is facing many of the same questions as his even shorter counterpart.

"I think just my toughness," Campbell said about how he can help NBA teams despite his shorter stature. "I'm willing to pretty much do anything to get the job done. And I think that at this level, teams like guys like that."

Campbell put together quite the career at UCLA, finishing second on the program's all-time assists chart. He was an instrumental part in the Bruins' surprise run from the First Four to the Final Four in the 2021 NCAA Tournament that was staged in Central Indiana and he averaged 13.4 points, 5 assists, and 1.2 steals last season as a senior.

Campbell demonstrated significant improvement as an outside shooter as a junior, improving his 3-point percentage from 25 percent in 2020-21 to 41 percent in 2022-23. That figured dipped back down to 33.8 percent last year, but Campbell has continued to work on his shot and hopes to show a consistent stroke during the pre-draft process.

Indiana Pacers Pre-Draft Workouts: Tyger Campbell Media Availability (June 8, 2023)

The final player at Thursday's workout was Tyson, a 6-7 forward who spent five years at Clemson. Tyson took full advantage of his extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting together a breakout campaign for the Tigers this year as a graduate student.

Tyson averaged 15.3 points and 9.6 rebounds last season, both career highs by a considerable margin and was a first-team All-ACC selection.

While he was always a threat to shoot from the outside, Tyson also significantly increased his volume of attempts last season. After making 86 total threes over his first four years of college, Tyson knocked down 83 triples last season alone, converting them at a highly efficient 40.5-percent clip.

His development as a shooter is particularly enticing to NBA teams. Tyson was initially invited to the G League Elite Camp in Chicago in May and impressed enough to be one of eight prospects from that camp invited to the combine.

"I've just gone out there and tried to play my game and tried to play hard every opportunity I've been blessed with," Tyson said of his success in the pre-draft process.

Tyson, who turns 23 on Tuesday, might have been a bit of a late-bloomer as a pro prospect, but he's turning heads at the right time.

"I think I'll be a guy who comes in and plays with a lot of toughness, not scared to stick his nose in there and rebound as well as space the floor," Tyson said of the role he can play in the NBA.

Indiana Pacers Pre-Draft Workouts: Hunter Tyson One-on-One Interview (June 8, 2023)