Ivy League products gain NBA's attention


Pete Carril's 80-year-old eyes twinkled when asked what he thought of Cornell's surprise run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last season.

"I wasn't doing too much thinking," the former Princeton coach said. "I was doing a lot of enjoying."

The Big Red's march to become the first Ivy League school in more than 30 years to reach the Sweet 16 did more than give people like Carril, the most successful coach in league history, something to smile about.

It raised awareness of the Ivy League among NBA executives, and that dynamic is in play this week in Las Vegas. Former Harvard guard Jeremy Lin (Mavericks), Harvard center Brian Cusworth (Hornets), Cornell forward Ryan Wittman (Knicks) and Pennsylvania guard Ibrahim Jaaber (Lakers) have earned playing time in the NBA Summer League.

Lin has by far the best chance of making an NBA roster, but Cusworth, his Harvard teammate for one season in 2006-07, also has a shot.

Ivy League prospects historically have an uphill climb to the NBA. No one from the league's eight schools has played in a regular-season game since 2003, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Carril, an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings, said he has no doubt Ivy League products can play at the highest level.

"It's whether you're good or not," he said. "If you're good, it doesn't matter where you come from."

Here is a look at two Harvard graduates in pursuit of their NBA dreams:

JEREMY LIN

Not recruited. Undrafted. Underestimated.

Lin couldn't care less, and neither could the capacity crowd at Cox Pavilion that cheered the rookie's 13-point game in a loss to the Wizards on Thursday. Lin battled head-to-head against No. 1 overall draft pick John Wall.

"I think we're starting to get some respect, for sure," Lin said of Ivy Leaguers. "Look what Cornell did, what Harvard did (last season). Just getting a lot of players to advance in the NCAA Tournament for Cornell, I think that was huge."

As a high school senior, Lin was inexplicably not offered a Division I scholarship -- Ivy schools don't offer athletic scholarships -- after leading Palo Alto (Calif.) to the Division II state title and being voted Northern California Player of the Year.

The 6-foot-3-inch point guard went on to Harvard, where he became the first Ivy League player to compile at least 1,450 points, 450 rebounds, 400 assists and 200 steals in a career.

That wasn't enough for Lin to be drafted, which in turn wasn't enough for him to stop playing.

Lin has averaged 9.3 points on 51.9 percent shooting in four Summer League games with Dallas. He has been impressive with his court vision, shot selection and fearlessness in getting to the basket.

It might soon pay off with an NBA contract. ESPNDallas.com reported Friday that Lin is in contract discussions with the Mavericks, Lakers and at least one Eastern Conference team.

Lin has an economics degree from Harvard, but he's not even thinking about wearing a suit and tie to work. He'd rather suit up for an NBA team.

"My passion is basketball," Lin said. "I don't really even have a 'Plan B' right now if basketball doesn't work out for this year, because that's what I'm set on doing."

BRIAN CUSWORTH

In his third year in the Summer League, Cusworth has perhaps his best shot at making an NBA roster.

Despite playing limited minutes, the 7-footer started three of five games at center for the Hornets and shot 7-for-14 from the field.

Cusworth also has momentum on his side after averaging 10.2 points with Suzuki Manresa in the ACB, the top league in Spain.

He said he doesn't mind doing the dirty work in the paint for whoever might come calling.

"You see the draft picks getting most of the attention, so I've got a feel for the fact I'm going to be a role player," Cusworth said. "If I made it into (the NBA) this year or in the future, I know that's what I would be, so I'm just being patient, working hard and trying to show my energy."

Despite Cornell's extended NCAA Tournament run, Cusworth thinks Ivy League basketball remains underrated.

"In the eyes of the scouts more than anything, I feel like it doesn't get the respect it deserves," he said.

Nevertheless, Cusworth is optimistic he is "one step closer" to a possible NBA future. If it doesn't happen, he will have traveled the world playing basketball and saving money before entering the work force.

"I definitely get jokes from my teammates plenty of times, and people say, 'Why are you doing this?' " said Cusworth, who graduated with a degree in biology. "To be completely honest, it's more fun than continuing school.

"I would have gone to med school if I hadn't decided to play pro ball. For me, it's a chance to get into real life, so to speak, and have fun."

Contact reporter Tristan Aird at taird@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203.

 

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