Isaac Okoro has spent time in Auburn this summer, working out right alongside former teammates and new Tigers inside the arena where he became a star in the SEC.
Jared Harper isn’t here yet, but he will be soon — he’s hosting a skills camp at nearby Lee-Scott Academy during the first week of July. Coach Bruce Pearl made it sound like Chuma Okeke might come through town sometime, too.
Their presence is a sign of how far Auburn basketball has come in recent years. For a long time, the only pros who came through Auburn Arena were Kentucky players. Before the Tigers went to the Final Four in 2019, the most recent NBA player the program had produced was Marquis Daniels, who played his final game for the Milwaukee Bucks on April 17, 2013. The last player to be drafted out of Auburn was Jamison Brewer in 2001.
Now, Auburn has three active pros. Harper has appeared in 11 games as an undrafted free agent over two seasons with the Suns and Knicks. Okeke was the 16th overall pick by the Magic in the 2019 NBA Draft. Okoro went fifth overall to the Cavaliers in 2020. He was named to the All-Rookie second team this season after averaging 9.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists while leading all first-year players in minutes played.
And that number is poised to grow — both Sharife Cooper and JT Thor are trending toward being first-round picks in the 2021 NBA Draft on July 29 after standing out at last week’s combine in Chicago.
That was always the expectation for Cooper. The point guard was a five-star recruit ranked as the No. 24 player nationally when he signed with the Tigers out of McEachern High in Powder Springs, Ga., where he was teammates with Okoro.
Cooper missed the first 11 games of his freshman season while the NCAA reviewed his eligibility and still starred immediately after being allowed on the court, averaging a team-leading 20.2 points and 8.1 assists in 12 games, all against major-conference opponents.
His size (Auburn listed him at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds) and shooting struggles in college (39.1 percent from the floor, 22.8 percent from 3-point range) may keep him from being a lottery pick, but court vision that can’t be taught and elite passing ability should make Cooper an option for point guard-needy teams such as the Thunder, Knicks and Rockets in the latter half of the first round.
The biggest riser of the two, though, is Thor. He wasn’t considered a first-round prospect when he declared for the draft in March, more than a week before Cooper did. Some hoped he might return to Auburn for his sophomore season up until he hired an agent on June 5.
No one is questioning that decision now, though. Thor was one of the stars of the combine. The 6-9 forward was measured as having a wingspan of 7-3.25, which is longer than Giannis Antetokounmpo’s and less than two inches shy of matching Kevin Durant’s.
On the court, Thor impressed scouts with the size, length, athleticism and versatility that helped him start all 27 games and average 9.4 points, five rebounds and 1.4 blocks as a freshman. So much so that he pulled out of the scrimmage portion of the combine despite being healthy, which usually means that a player has received a guarantee that he’ll be selected in the first round.
ESPN didn’t project him to get drafted at all when he first declared. But in its most recent mock draft published Tuesday, it had him going 27th overall to the Nets. Other mocks have him going to the Suns and Jazz late in the first round.
And Thor’s stock may not be done rising — Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman reported Monday that Thor has pre-draft workouts scheduled with the Pacers, Hornets and Pelicans, all of whom have lottery picks.
If Thor works his way into the lottery (the first 14 picks of the first round), it would mark the first time in program history that Auburn has produced lottery picks in back-to-back drafts. The Tigers’ last lottery selection before Okoro was Chris Morris in 1988.
But even if Thor stays in the 20-30 range, he and Cooper could still make history by being the first pair of Auburn players selected in the first round of the same NBA Draft. The last time the Tigers had two players selected in any round of the same draft was 2000, when Mamadou N’Diaye went 26th and Chris Porter 55th.
And Auburn’s burgeoning pipeline to the NBA won’t end with Cooper and Thor. Early 2022 mock drafts project five-star freshman power forward Jabari Smith as a surefire top-10 pick and wing Allen Flanigan and center Walker Kessler as potential late first-rounders.