How tough has it been for Utah college basketball players to find success after leaving for pros early?
Here’s a look at modern-era Utah college players who left early for the NBA draft and how their careers have fared
It’s a rare sight these days to see a college basketball player in the state of Utah not only declare for the NBA draft, but follow through with it and leave school early to begin a pro career.
In recent days, two Utah college basketball players — Utah State center Neemias Queta and Utah guard Alfonso Plummer — have declared for the NBA draft. Plummer simultaneously announced he had entered the transfer portal, keeping his options open to either go pro or utilize the extra year of eligibility the NCAA is allowing due to the pandemic.
This is the third straight year Queta has declared for the draft — he ultimately returned to Logan the past two seasons — though ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported that Queta will hire an agent and go pro this time. If Plummer, too, chooses to go pro, what could await them? Queta is rated the No. 76 prospect in this year’s NBA draft class by ESPN, and Plummer is unranked — there are only 60 players taken each year in the draft.
Over the past 10 years, 20 players from Utah colleges have declared early for the NBA draft, but only six of those players ended up going pro instead of returning to college.
The good news is all six are still playing pro basketball somewhere. Half of them were taken in the NBA draft and are significant players for their respective teams.
There are challenges and questions, though, in leaving early, even for guys like Queta, the reigning Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, or Plummer, a sharpshooter who made nearly 40% of his 3-point attempts at Utah.
Here’s how the careers of the six Utah ties who left college early for a pro career have panned out so far.
Damian Lillard, G, Weber State
- Year: 2012; NBA draft: Taken No. 6 overall, Portland Trail Blazers
The 30-year-old Lillard is the cream of the crop among Utah ties who’ve gone pro early over the past decade, and he’s among the best Utah college players to ever play in the NBA. Lillard made an immediate impact in Portland, being named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2013. He is a six-time All-Star and earned All-NBA first team honors in 2018 and All-NBA second team three other seasons.
Lillard is in peak form, as he’s averaging just a touch under 30 points per game this season (29.8) while shooting over 37% from 3-point range — he’s made 1,959 3s in his career through Tuesday, March 30. Lillard is also averaging 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game this season.
Jakob Poeltl, C, Utah
- Year: 2016; NBA draft: Taken No. 9 overall, Toronto Raptors
Poeltl left the Utes program after his sophomore season. He’s been a key reserve through much of his NBA career — he spent his first two seasons in Toronto before being traded to San Antonio, and he’s played for the Spurs the past three seasons.
Poeltl is putting up his best career numbers this season: he’s started 26 games for San Antonio and is averaging 24.7 minutes per game. He’s also averaging a career bests in several categories — 7.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.7 blocks — while shooting 62.8% from the field.
Kyle Kuzma, F, Utah
- Year: 2017; NBA draft: Taken No. 27 overall, Brooklyn Nets (dealt to Los Angeles Lakers in draft-day trade)
Kuzma has been a solid find for the Lakers through his first four NBA seasons. He’s averaged double-digit scoring every year in Los Angeles, and he’s started more than half of his career NBA games — though he’s come off the bench more in the past two seasons. Kuzma helped the Lakers win last year’s NBA championship.
Kuzma agreed to a three-year, $40 million contract extension with Los Angeles in December, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and he’s paid that off by averaging 12.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game this season through Tuesday night.
Eric Mika, F/C, BYU
- Year: 2017; NBA draft: Undrafted
Mika, who left BYU after his sophomore season, was the first of three straight Utah ties who’ve cut short their college career short and failed to be taken in the NBA draft. He’s bounced around during his pro career, from playing in the NBA’s G League with the Stockton Kings — he had a brief stint with the Sacramento Kings — to playing for several teams overseas. He’s currently as a reserve for Serbian team KK Partizan, where the Lone Peak High product is averaging 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game.
Elijah Bryant, G, BYU
- Year: 2018; NBA draft: Undrafted
Bryant, who transferred to BYU after one year at Elon College, went undrafted one year after his former Cougar teammate did. He’s played for a pair of teams in the Israeli Premier League during his pro career, first with Hapoel Eilat for a season, and with Maccabi Tel Aviv from 2019 until now. After being named All-Israeli League first team as a rookie, he won a league title in 2020 and is averaging 13.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
DeAngelo Isby, G, Utah State
- Year: 2018; NBA draft: Undrafted
Isby played just one season in Logan after joining the program as a junior college transfer from Wabash Valley College. While he was taken in the second round of the NBA G League’s 2018 draft by the Santa Cruz Warriors, Isby ultimately has spent his entire pro career overseas thus far. He averaged 24.1 points per game with Slovakian team BKM Lucenec during his rookie year and returned to the team earlier this season, though he was released in late January.