- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
The Big Six college conferences -- the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC -- obviously get plenty of attention when it comes to the NBA draft.
But in the last several years, the other group -- the "mid-majors" -- have been more than holding its own. In 2011, four players from mid-major teams went in the first round -- Jimmer Fredette, Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried and Norris Cole. In the 2010 draft, six players from mid-major teams went in the first round. Two of them -- Gordon Hayward from Butler and Paul George from Fresno State -- went in the top 10.
This year, we have just two mid-major players projected as first-round picks. Still, there's plenty of talent to keep an eye on.
I spoke with a number of NBA scouts to get a take on five players they'll be scouting closely in the mid-major conferences this season. Here's the breakdown:
1. Adonis Thomas: Freshman, F, Memphis Tigers
Top 100 ranking: 19
Thomas is one of the best freshmen in college basketball and with a breakout year could easily be a lottery pick. From a physical standpoint, he fits the bill. He's quick, explosive athletically and isn't afraid to be physical in the paint. He also has a terrific motor and a high basketball IQ. From that description, he sounds almost like the perfect prospect.
The issue for Thomas centers on his position. His game right now resembles more of a 4, but at 6-foot-7, he's probably a small forward in the pros. If he can improve his jump shot and handle this season, he'll shoot up the rankings.
2. Andrew Nicholson: Senior, PF, St. Bonaventure Bonnies
Top 100 ranking: 28
Nicholson is a bit of an enigma. He's been a longtime favorite of a handful of NBA scouts, but for many he's been way off the radar at St. Bonaventure. Nicholson has excellent size for his position and has been a serious scoring threat in the post since his sophomore season. He averaged 20 points in 34 minutes per game as a junior and has improved every season.
The questions with Nicholson center on motor and drive. He can be an indifferent rebounder and defender, and he lacks toughness at times. Given his late start in the game, scouts have been more patient with him. But if he's going to crack the first round, he needs to have a huge season.
3. Tony Mitchell: Freshman, PF, North Texas Mean Green
Top 100 ranking: 35
Mitchell was an elite prospect coming out of high school but ran into some academic trouble at Missouri and ended up sitting out the year before transferring to North Texas, where he remains ineligible until the end of the fall semester. But scouts got excited about him as a player for Team USA in the under-19 worlds.
Mitchell wasn't dominant and played just 16 minutes per game, but he showed off his great physical tools and was a factor on the boards and defensive end the entire tournament. He's still a major work in progress on the offensive end. As an athletic rebounder, shot blocker and defender who can guard multiple positions, he's a very intriguing prospect. But he's going to have to improve dramatically on the offensive end to realize his potential.
4. Orlando Johnson: Senior, G, UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Top 100 ranking: 43
Johnson is one of the best scorers in college basketball and proved in the NCAA tournament and at the LeBron James Skills Academy this summer that he can do damage against elite players. In addition to Johnson's scoring ability (he can get it done both inside and outside), he's a versatile defender.
If Johnson were playing against better competition, or if he were an explosive athlete, he'd be ranked much higher. But at least he's in the discussion -- few players from UC Santa Barbara can really say the same.
5. Ray McCallum: Sophomore, PG, Detroit Titans
Top 100 ranking: 92
McCallum didn't really wow anyone as a freshman, but NBA scouts are expecting a lot more from him this season now that he's settled in at Detroit.
McCallum is one of the few pure point guards in the country. He's a quick, pass-first sort of guard who is constantly managing the team on the court. McCallum needs to improve his jump shot and slow down on occasion, but he has the talent to have a breakout season.
Others to watch: Tu Holloway, Xavier; Tarik Black, Memphis; Arsalan Kazemi, Rice; Elias Harris, Gonzaga; Chris Johnson, Dayton; Robert Sacre, Gonzaga; Will Barton, Memphis; Joe Jackson, Memphis; Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis; Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga