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NBA draft: 3 players with ties to Beehive State ready to start their NBA careers


Next stop, the National Basketball Association.

That's where three former college players, each with strong ties to the Beehive State, are headed following Thursday night's annual NBA draft.

Kyle Kuzma, a 6-foot-9, 221-pound forward out of the University of Utah, was chosen with the 27th pick in the first round by the Brooklyn Nets, who selected Kuzma on behalf of the Los Angeles Lakers to complete a trade the two teams made earlier in the week.

So Kuzma's NBA destination will be on the West Coast with L.A., not the East Coast in New York.

Then, just four picks later, former Lone Peak High School star Frank Jackson, with one year of college experience at Duke University under his belt, was selected by the Charlotte Hornets with the first pick of the draft's second round. Jackson was subsequently traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in a draft-night deal.

Those two picks took place shortly after Caleb Swanigan, another 6-foot-9 forward who was a consensus All-American and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year for Purdue University last season as a sophomore, was selected with the 26th pick by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Swanigan lived in Utah for several years as a boy, where he and his family endured some severe hardships and adversity before he moved to Indiana at age 13.

While Kuzma's pick was overshadowed by the Lakers' highly anticipated selection of UCLA guard Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick of this year's draft, the former Ute standout, a native of Flint, Michigan, was excited to be joining the high-profile Los Angeles organization.

After all, the Lakers' franchise is headed up by Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who led Michigan State to an NCAA championshp in 1979 — winning the national title in the same U. of U. arena where Kuzma played his college ball — followed by a Hall of Fame career with the Lakers. Johnson was named the Lakers' president of basketball operations in February of this year.

"It's unbelievable, man," Kuzma said. "Growing up, I was sort of a (Lakers) fan, watching Kobe (Bryant) and Shaq, you know, I was a big Shaquille O'Neal fan. Being from Michigan, where Magic Johnson (is from), watching him and him being from Michigan, I kinda idolized him, so it's a tremendous honor. I'll wear (the Lakers' jersey) with a lot of pride.

"I know what I can bring, and that's a lot of energy, a lot of versatility. I'm a guy that can pass, shoot, rebound, defend, and I can do a lot of things well. I don't really necessarily do things great, but I'm a winner and I know how to win."

Kuzma averaged 16.4 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field last season as a junior at Utah. He is eager to play with Ball, a former Pac-12 opponent who received a lot of pre-draft publicity due to many bold, often outlandish comments by his outspoken father, LaVar Ball.

"I'm excited to play with (Lonzo) and it should be really fun," Kuzma said. "He gets people involved and gets the ball to his guys, so he's great. I thought he was the best player in the Pac-12, even though (Washington guard) Markelle Fultz went No. 1 (in Thursday's draft).

"(Ball) was a guy that can hurt you so well. I always say that he can effect a game without really having the ball. He can get a rebound and see the floor from 45 feet and chuck it ahead, and there's no way you can guard that. That's the No. 1 thing I'm looking forward to playing with him, he's such a great passer."

As for Jackson, who averaged 10.9 points and 2.5 rebounds a game last season as a freshman at Duke, Pelicans' general manager Dell Demps traded up in the draft for an opportunity to pick the 6-foot-3 guard.

“We’re thrilled. We’re really happy to have him,” Demps said at a post-draft news conference. “We think of Frank as a really complete basketball player. He’s a combo guard who can play the point and also the two.

"I thought he had a strong season for Duke. He’s young, but we’ll see how it goes, as far as his growth and development. We’re excited to add him to our program. There’s a number of things we like, his competitive spirit. He’s a confident kid, watching him play and we got to see him play several times. He wants the moment. We feel he plays the right way. One of his skills is shooting and putting the ball in the basket, and we feel he fits in with our group.

“We targeted him,” Demps said of New Orleans' quest to move up in the draft in order to assure it could land Jackson. “We thought if we waited until the 40th pick he might not be there. We just did what we had to do to move up to get him.”

Jackson, who shot over 47 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-point range as a freshman for the Blue Devils, is confident in his ability to play at the next level after just one year of college ball.

“I have all the confidence in the world in myself,” he said in a conference call. “(Reaching the NBA) has been a lifelong dream and goal of mine, and I saw it in front of my eyes. I wanted to go and take it. It’s something I’ve been planning on doing, and being a part of the NBA has always been a dream of mine and I just wanted to take it.”

Jackson, who's only 19 years old, was named MVP of the 2016 McDonald's All-America Game following his stellar prep career at Lone Peak.

"It testified to me that I'm just as good as anybody in this draft class. I feel that way 100 percent," Jackson said. "I just can't wait to go out and prove it every day. It was moments like that and opportunities like that where I was given a chance to showcase my skills to the world, and now I can do it on the highest level."

Jackson, who is currently recovering from surgery he had in late-May for a stress fracture in his right foot, was the fourth player from a strong Duke squad who were selected in the first 31 picks of this year's draft. Three of his Blue Devils teammates — Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles — were taken among the first 20 picks of the first round.

"He played with some guys that were upperclassmen, but he found a way to fit in," Demps said. "There were times with that team that he really contributed to winning.

"I think he has a huge upside. I think he has an opportunity to be a really good player for the Pelicans."

Recovery from the surgery will prevent Jackson from playing for the Pelicans in the NBA Summer League, but he's expected to be ready to go in time for the team's training camp in October.

"(Rehab) is going great," Jackson said, "and I think I'm only a couple of weeks out here from really going 100 percent. Surgery went wonderful. The healing process is good. I am just excited to get to work and get going."

Jackson was also delighted to see the Pelicans trade away the 40th and 52nd draft picks on Thursday for the opportunity to move up to No. 31 in order to get him.

“It meant the world to me,” Jackson said. “I want to be a part of an organization that values me and wants me to be a part of what they’re doing.

"It’s just a blessing to be able to come to the city and kick off my career. It’s the ultimate blessing and it means the world that they were so high on me.” spot.

Swanigan averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds (second in the nation) and 3 assists per game last season at Purdue. Over the last 25 years, the only other player to put up those kinds of numbers was Tim Duncan of Wake Forest in 1996-97.

Swanigan's 28 double-doubles last season not only led all Division I players but also were the most in Big Ten history and 13th most in NCAA history. He shot 52.7 percent from the field, including 44.7 percent from 3-point range.

Portland GM Neil Olshey said that, in Swanigan and fellow big man Zach Collins, the No. 10 pick who the Trail Blazers acquired in a trade with Sacramento, "We got two of the toughest guys in this draft, and they're both gonna bring a lot of grit, a lot of toughness — they both have a competitive fire — to the team. When you're a young guy joining a team as young as ours, you're gonna need that.

"He's an incredible kid," Olshey said of Swanigan, who battled obesity as a teenager but has worked extremely hard and now weighs in at a very fit 246 pounds. "... What he's overcome off the court, on the court, the dedication and passion that he has to be the kind of person he is right now, it's pretty incredible. It's a great story.

"But he's bought into it now. It wasn't a means to an end; he's turned his life around. What we really evaluated more than anything was, he's just a big-time basketball player. ... He can bang, he's tough, he scores around the block, he's just one of those guys ... you just put him on the court and let him play.

"Looking at a transformation like that, it tells a lot about someone's character," Olshey said. "... It's not just his body — I think people get hyper-focused on that — but it's also his game. I mean, look at what he's done with his shooting, that's hours in the gym. His skill level has just become so much more advanced. Playing in the Big Ten at that level, competing, to do what he did on the glass and expand his game, is really inspiring."