Tennessee national guardsmen, take note: If the Cumberland River overflows its banks anytime soon, there's a first-rate sandbagger in your midst. Whenever Austin Peay's senior swing-man Trenton Hassell takes on the nation's elite players—as he did while working as a counselor at the Nike All-America Camp for the last two summers—he'll don his red Governors practice jersey and act like a chump. You don't gotta worry about me, man. I can't shoot. I can't do nuthin'. Look, I'm from Austin Peay!
"Mind games," Hassell says, snickering. "By the time they start playing hard on me, it's too late. They're bullwhipped."
Call it what you will: Bullwhipped. Hasselled. Or simply very impressed. In workouts in front of pro scouts at the Nike camp, Hassell has more than held his own with the "It" boys of college hoops, rebounding at both ends, playing defense like a demon and skying through the lane off the dribble. "He's incredible," says Michigan State's Charlie Bell, one of Hassell's camp victims. "No doubt, he'll be a pro," testifies Arizona's Richard Jefferson. "A perfect example of no secrets anymore," says Charlotte Hornets scout Kip Bass. "Everybody knows about him."
Well, not everybody. For even though 300 college games will be televised nationally this season, Hassell is scheduled to appear only once, on a January Saturday at noon when you'll probably be cleaning the garage. Pity, because he's the finest talent you've never seen (2000 edition), a rugged 6'6" slasher who was the only player in the country last season to rank in his conference's top five in points (18.1 per game), rebounds (7.4) and assists (5.2). Of course, when that conference is the Ohio Valley, people tend not to notice. "The first time I went to Nike camp," Hassell says, "everyone thought Austin Peay was in Texas."
There's a rich world beyond the tube, folks, a landscape dotted with hidden gems, and if you don't see them, you can be sure the pro scouts do. In the past five drafts NBA teams have selected 39 players from colleges considered mid-major and below, in hopes of uncovering the latest Scottie Pippen (Central Arkansas) or Vin Baker ( Hartford). What's more, every year TV mainstays such as Ed Cota ( North Carolina) and JaRon Rush ( UCLA) go undrafted, while such unknowns as Cal Bowdler ( Old Dominion), Speedy Claxton ( Hofstra) and Devean George ( Augsburg) accept their Stern handshakes as first-round picks.
It's enough to make you wonder: Might there be advantages to playing at smaller schools instead of basketball factories? Nobody's saying that hoops backwaters are a surefire ticket to the NBA, but as the evidence shows, such schools certainly don't doom a player's pro aspirations. "You have 270 schools that never get the top players out of high school, so they develop them," says NBA director of scouting Marty Blake. "These guys get to play every type of competition, and the coaching they get is probably as good."
Look around. Blue-blooded programs are littered with the remains of once promising NBA futures, players whose development was stunted by pine time or by being locked into the hermetically sealed roles of Passer, Screener or Rebounder. If nothing else, top prospects at smaller schools are allowed to breathe. "Good players can get lost at a North Carolina or a Kentucky," says Bass, "because they don't get to do as many things as they would at a place where there aren't as many talented players."
That's one answer, but not the only one. As we introduce you to five of this season's top-rated sleepers according to NBA scouts, follow the prose to learn why they'll be pros.
REASON NO. 1: Late bloomers get a fighting chance at smaller schools. When Tamar (the Trey) Slay, then a forward, signed with Marshall out of Woodrow Wilson High in Beckley, W.Va., he was a 6'7" forward who weighed a mere 167 pounds, "a thermometer taking jump shots," says Thundering Herd coach Greg White. Though Slay won his state's player of the year award as a senior, only West Virginia and Marshall seriously pursued him, and ultimately White persuaded him to spurn the Big East for the rock-ribbed Mid-American Conference, a wellspring of NBA talent over the years. "If Wally Szczerbiak [a MAC alum and 1999 NBA first-rounder] goes to an SEC school, is he a pro today?" White asks. "At Kentucky you have to win now, but when we recruit a guy like Slay, we can offer him the starting position for four years because here you can invest in a player."
Two years later Slay, now a guard, has growth numbers that resemble those of a mid-1999 Dow Jones ticker. Through weight training and genetic fortune, he has added two inches and nearly 40 pounds to his frame, spurting to 6'9", 205 pounds. Likewise, his bench press has improved from 185 pounds to 275, while his scoring average leaped from 6.0 points as a freshman to a MAC-leading 19.9 last season. (He also shot 43.3% from three-point range.) One NBA player personnel director describes Slay as "a long, athletic three man who can swing out to the perimeter and shoot," and White says he wouldn't trade him for any guard in the country. "You don't realize how much putting weight on helps," Slay says. "Now I can go inside and outside, and I'm not getting pushed around anymore."