Devean George meandered through the lobby of a Portsmouth, Va., hotel in April feeling totally out of place. He was one of 64 college seniors who had just arrived to showcase their basketball skills at the Portsmouth Invitational, a three-day predraft camp for NBA prospects, but nobody seemed to know who he was. "There were all these agents grabbing players and trying to take them out to eat," George recalls. "Not one agent said anything to me."
George, a 6'7" forward from Augsburg College, a Division III school in Minneapolis, can laugh about that now. He wound up leading his team to the Portsmouth title, earning first-team all-tournament honors and attracting the attention of all the Jerry Maguire wannabes, who were tripping over each other to press his flesh. "By the end I must have had 20 guys shove business cards in my hand," George says with a chuckle.
Like his idol, Scottie Pippen, who made the NBA after playing at Division II Central Arkansas, George is trying to complete that rare journey from small-school oblivion to David Stern's podium on draft day. No Division III player has been drafted by an NBA team since 1991, when, in the second round, Golden State picked Lamont Strothers, a 6'4" guard out of Christopher-Newport College in Newport News, Va. But scouts say George could snap that dry spell at this year's draft, on June 30. "He's a skilled player," says NBA superscout Marty Blake. "If he plays well in Chicago [at the league's June 8-11 predraft camp], he has a chance to be drafted."
Finding a Division III player in the NBA is harder than finding an agent without a cell phone. Since Division III prohibits athletic scholarships, its programs rarely attract players who can go on to the pro level. This season's NBA opening-day rosters didn't feature a single Division III product and had roughly a dozen Division II or NAIA rags-to-riches stories, such as Pippen. George could change that. Scouts like his size—he's a muscular 217 pounds—quickness, long arms and soft jump shot. "Athletically, there's no doubt he's an NBA player," says Timberwolves director of player personnel Rob Babcock, whose team recently brought George in for a private workout. "He's strong. He can shoot the ball. He's got pretty good instincts. He's still got a lot to learn, but he definitely has the potential to play in this league."
Four years ago no one would have predicted that George had a shot at the NBA. Coining out of Benilde-St. Margaret's High in Minneapolis, he didn't receive any Division I or II scholarship offers, even though he had averaged 25.0 points and 8.0 rebounds in his senior season. His biggest problem was that at 6'2" and 150 pounds, he was built, in his words, "like a pencil." George enrolled at Augsburg thinking he would play some ball, get a good education and move on with his life.
But then a funny thing happened. From the start of his freshman season in 1995 to the start of his sophomore season, George grew to 6'5". He added muscle through long hours in the weight room and soon was dominating opponents in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), posting up at will. In summer pickup games he was holding his own against Division I players such as Quincy Lewis of Minnesota and Khalid El-Amin of Connecticut. "Devean shot up like a weed," Augsburg coach Brian Ammann says. "Had he been taller coming out of high school, he could have named his school."
Unfortunately for George, few outside the Twin Cities were aware of his growth or his improvement. Concerned that NBA scouts would never see him, he says he tried switching to a Division I school, first UC Santa Barbara and then Eastern Michigan, but ran into problems transferring some of his credits. "I wanted to be seen, and I didn't think it would happen in tiny Augsburg," George says. "When [my attempts to transfer] fell through, I was mad. But I told myself to make the best of it. My coach had been saying all along, if you make enough noise, somebody will see you."
Eventually the scouts did visit, and George made it worth their while. Last season he finished third in scoring (27.5 points) and seventh in rebounding (11.4) in Division III while leading the Aggies to the MIAC title. He scored a career-high 52 points in a January game against Carleton College of Northfield, Minn., was named MIAC player of the year and earned first-team Division III All-America honors.
With help from local coaches, including Minnesota's Clem Haskins, George secured an invitation to Portsmouth, the launching pad for other lesser-known players over the years, among them Pippen, Dennis Rodman and John Stockton. During the tournament George averaged 13.6 points and 10 rebounds in three games and drew comparisons to Orlando Magic forward Bo Outlaw for his nonstop hustle and ability to fill the lanes on the break. " Portsmouth was my big break," George says. "I was the last guy picked [to attend the camp]. Everyone was like, 'Yeah, he's been putting up big numbers against Division III talent. Let's see if he can do it against Division I talent.' So when I held my own there, that kind of took the label off my back."
That George would work to make the most of his opportunity wasn't a surprise. Growing up in a rough neighborhood in north Minneapolis, he often had to deal with adversity. "Drugs, gangs—we had all of it," George says. "Our house happened to be in the worst place, right in the heart of it."