- 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 past several years, players from conferences outside of the Big Six have been more than holding their own. In 2012, Damian Lillard, from lowly Weber State, went No. 6 overall. In 2011, three players from non-Big Six teams went in the first round -- Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried and Norris Cole. In the 2010 draft, six players from outside the high-major ranks 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 may be a repeat of 2010. We have five non-Big Six players projected as first-rounders, and three as potential lottery picks. (Check out our complete Top 100 here.)
I spoke with a number of NBA scouts to get a take on five players outside of the high-major leagues that they'll be scouting most closely this season. Here's the breakdown:
1. Tony Mitchell, F, So., North Texas
Top 100 Ranking: 5
Mitchell was an elite prospect coming out of high school, but ran into some academic trouble at Missouri and ended up sitting out the season before transferring to North Texas. He didn't disappoint in his first season with the Mean Green, averaging 14.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3 bpg, and shooting 57 percent from the field.
Virtually everyone in the NBA expected him to declare for the draft after last season, but he surprised them all by returning to school for his sophomore season. If he were at North Carolina or Kentucky, Mitchell would likely be considered for the No. 1 pick in the draft.
He has a rare combination of size, athletic ability and basketball skills on both ends of the floor. Defensively he can be a monster. He's both a terrific rebounder and shot-blocker and can guard multiple positions. Offensively, he's still developing, but has showed talent both as a scorer in the paint and on the perimeter.
The biggest challenge for talent evaluators is the lack of talent Mitchell is playing with and against. There aren't any other NBA-caliber players on his roster, and the toughest team they are scheduled to play all season is Creighton. That said, a small conference and poor competition didn't stop the Blazers from taking Lillard at No. 6, and if Mitchell plays well this season, he has a great shot of even going a spot or two higher than Lillard did in June.
2. Adonis Thomas, F, So., Memphis
Top 100 Ranking: 13
Thomas is coming off a disappointing, injury-filled freshman season, but scouts are still very high on his potential. From a physical standpoint, he fits the bill of a lottery pick. He's quick, explosive athletically and loves to be physical in the paint. He's also got a terrific motor and a high basketball IQ. From that description, he sounds almost like the perfect prospect.
The issue for Thomas continues to center on his position. In high school he was a 4 and he clearly struggled with the transition to the 3 in college. Listed generously at 6-foot-7, he's probably going to have to make it clear to NBA scouts that he can be a wing player at the next level. As we said last November, if he can improve his jump shot and handle this season, he's got a good shot at the lottery.
3. Anthony Bennett, F, Fr., UNLV
Top 100 Ranking: 14
Bennett is yet another tweener who has NBA scouts split. No one doubts his athletic abilities and in Bennett's case, he's got a full array of offensive weapons. He's an absolute beast in the transition game and he also has sweet range on his jump shot.
In the post, his game is all power right now. He's going to have to improve his low-post moves as he's a bit undersized for the position at the next level (though his 7-1 wingspan helps) or prove to scouts that he can be a full-time wing in the pros.
Expect Bennett to play a starring role right away at UNLV. Scouts love to visit Vegas and I'm sure he's going to get more looks than your average Mountain West player. If he develops, he's a potential lottery pick.
4. Jamaal Franklin, SG, Jr., San Diego State
Top 100 Ranking: 38
Franklin is one of the most athletic guards in the NCAA. The question for scouts is whether he can turn that quickness and explosive leaping ability into more efficient production. As a sophomore, he averaged an impressive 17.5 ppg, grabbed a crazy 7.9 rpg and showed an ability to blow past defenders and get to the line. But his struggles with his jump shot and turnovers detracted from what was an otherwise stellar season.
If he can show some range on his jump shot and protect the ball, he has all the physical tools to be a terrific shooting guard in the NBA.
5. C.J. McCollum, G, Sr., Lehigh
Top 100 Ranking: 29
McCollum had a terrific junior campaign, netting the third-highest PER in college basketball, leading his team to the NCAA tournament and then absolutely torching Duke once he got there.
He's a scorer who knows how to get to the basket and finish. If he were a couple of inches taller or a better shooter from beyond the arc, there's a good chance he'd hear his name called in the lottery.
He's probably not going to grow this season, so McCollum's quickest way to the next level is to show teams he can run the point and shoot when open. If he does that, he'll have a genuine shot at the first round.
Others to watch: Ray McCallum, PG, Jr., Detroit; Isaiah Canaan, PG, Sr., Murray State; Mike Moser, PF, Jr., UNLV; Elias Harris, PF, Sr., Gonzaga; Doug McDermott, F, Jr., Creighton; Alec Brown, C, Jr., Wisconsin-Green Bay; C.J. Aiken, F, Jr., St. Joseph's; Khem Birch, PF, So., UNLV; De'Mon Brooks, Jr, Sr., Davidson; Nate Wolters, PG, Sr., South Dakota St.; Brandon Davies, PF, Sr., BYU; Deonte Burton, PG, Jr., Nevada; D.J. Cooper, PG, Sr., Ohio.