Norris Cole on target to draft day surprise

Back before the NBA draft was based on a series of individual workouts and “upside,” players like Norris Cole were super hot commodities.

That’s because players like Cole received merit for their full bodies of work, their work ethics and the intangibles they could bring to the pro game.

And Cole might be the hardest working man in the basketball business.

Let’s start from the beginning, when Cole was coming out of Dayton Dunbar High and made Special Mention on the all-state team. Noteworthy, for sure — but nothing more than “special.” He averaged 15.5 points per game, and was ranked by one recruiting service as the fifth-best point guard in the state of Ohio.

Yes, the top player on Cleveland State’s basketball team this past season was once ranked fifth … in the state … at his position … coming out of high school.

In fact, Cole was considered a better football player, and seemed ready to spend his freshman season of college playing quarterback for Walsh (Ohio) University, an NCAA Division II program.

And why not?

Cole threw 19 touchdowns and compiled a whopping five 300-yard games during his senior year. He also had the type of quick feet most football coaches seek in a QB. On top of that, Cole has good football bloodlines, with his cousin (Trent Cole) a regular starter on the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive line.

As for pro basketball, forget it. If Cole planned to play basketball at all, it would be as a secondary sport at D-II Walsh.

But Cleveland State coach Gary Waters admired Cole’s instincts and attitude. Waters liked the fact Cole didn’t act like the world should kneel before him just because he was a good athlete. Waters also appreciated how Cole worked just as hard in the classroom as he did on the playing field — how he served as Salutatorian of his senior class and was a member of the National Honor Society.

So Waters took a flyer on the young man who really looked like a shooting guard stuck in a point guard’s body, and someone who seemed destined to do little more than give the Vikings an extra body at practice.

Fast-forward four years later. Between then and now, Cole went to the gym early to take tons of extra jump shots on an almost-daily basis. He worked tirelessly in the weight room during the off-season. He developed his ball-handling and leadership skills, never losing focus or acting as if he would someday audition for the NBA draft.

Cole always stayed within the team concept, listening to his coach and remembering that the name on the front of the jersey read “Cleveland State.” When it came to basketball, Cole approached the game without dollar signs in his eyes, never seeming to care about the bright lights and big cities that dominate some of the country’s major college programs.

Instead, Cole made the most of what was before him. He went from a 6-foot-2 shooting guard his sophomore year to someone who directed the offense his senior season. Cole also displayed the type of tenacity on defense that often goes unnoticed in the off-the-beaten-path gymnasiums of the Horizon League.

Making his case

But by mid-season, NBA scouts began to notice. They started trickling into CSU’s Wolstein Center to check out this ball of fire with a basketball. Former Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry (now with San Antonio) made an appearance. So did current Cavs GM Chris Grant and assistant GM David Griffin.

Also, Hall of Fame guard and current Detroit president Joe Dumars watched Cole play a game at Detroit Mercy. Cole noticed these high-profile visitors, but remained composed on the court.

“Your numbers have to jump out, but you can’t worry about that,” Cole said at last week’s pre-draft combine in Chicago. “You have to just play.”

Cole went on to become both the Horizon League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, displaying a willingness to attack the basket and mix it up underneath in averaging 21.7 points and 5.8 rebounds (and 5.3 assists) per game.

He emerged as a potential late first-round draft pick, and at worst, someone who will go midway through the second.

Teams such as Detroit and Sacramento are said to be particularly interested, with the Pistons owning the 33rd overall pick and the Kings the 36th. But again, Cole could be off the board before either of those.

Mostly, NBA teams finally see in Cole what the rest of the basketball universe eventually found out — that he may be a senior, but he still has plenty of potential. At least, he does when you consider how far he’s come since thinking about turning to football for good four years ago.

“I can affect the game on both ends, not just offense,” Cole said. “I think being a complete player, as a point guard, can separate me from the rest.”

Despite the fact the NBA evaluates prospects differently these days, scouts seem to agree with that assessment. They seem to have determined that Cole is someone who can help their teams right away, upside alone be darned.