INDIANAPOLIS – One operated in the shadows all season long but stole the show when he stepped into the spotlight.
The other, seemingly destined for stardom, found himself in the audience when it mattered most.
Few outside of Norfolk, Va., knew of Kyle O’Quinn before the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Sure, he was an accomplished player at Norfolk State, the MEAC Player of the Year. But the thing is, you have go to all the way back to 1991 to find a MEAC Player of the Year that made a dent in the NBA, and Coppin State’s Larry Stewart didn’t exactly become a household name.
But in one magical game, O’Quinn earned his 15 minutes of fame. He scored 26 points with 14 rebounds as Norfolk State stunned No. 2 seed Missouri 86-84. Suddenly the 6-10 forward was something more than another mid-major guy whose professional future was overseas.
At the same time, Fab Melo was nowhere to be found. The 7-foot center from Syracuse faced his second suspension of his sophomore season at the most inopportune time and did not play in the NCAA Tournament — a crippling blow to Jim Boeheim’s team. Ranked No. 1 in the country for more than a month, the Orange lost to Ohio State in the regional final and despite a school record 34 victories finished a difficult, controversial season with the bitterness of destiny unfulfilled.
The two collided, literally and figuratively, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Tuesday, among six players working out for the Indiana Pacers’ coaches and scouts in advance of the June 28 NBA Draft.
Because of his size, athleticism and potential, Melo is still considered the better prospect, a certain first-round pick in a draft class nearly devoid of centers. But O’Quinn has proven he was no one-game wonder and continues to improve his stock.
“Everything changed at the end of my freshman season,” said Melo of the period when he shed 30 pounds and committed his body to basketball. “I learned how to be a professional, how to change my lifestyle and learned how much I had to work to be where I am right now.
“I think I can help the team on defense, running up and down the court. I don’t know about the team. I’m new to the team. I came to the United States four years ago and I didn’t know anything about the NBA. I’m still new to the NBA but I’m looking forward to learning.”
Indiana finds itself in need up front. Though the Pacers expect to re-sign 7-2 All-Star Roy Hibbert, he will soon become a restricted free agent. Backups Lou Amundson and Kyrylo Fesenko both are unrestricted free agents. Back problems forced veteran Jeff Foster to retire in March.
Whether Melo could help remains to be seen but he is trying to answer the questions that followed the truncated end of his college career.
“It was a tough season but I think Coach Boeheim did a great job keeping us focused,” he said. “That’s why we won games. He did a great job. … It was very difficult to not be there with my teammates and help my team to win (in the NCAA Tournament). But that was a thing I couldn’t do anything about and now it’s just move forward.”
The 6-10, 240-pound O’Quinn battled Missouri’s Ricardo Ratliffe again during the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. Though both players fared well, O’Quinn earned the tournament MVP award, averaging 11.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots.
A consistently productive player who racked up 39 double-doubles in 68 games his final two seasons, O’Quinn believes his rugged style would fit well in Indiana.
“When we were in the workout they said they play smash-mouth basketball. That’s down and dirty and I like that,” he said. “That’s the way basketball should be played.”
He narrowly missed another matchup with Ratliffe, who worked out for the Pacers on Monday, but cherishes these pre-draft workouts for the opportunity they represent for him to continue to be measured against players with bigger names from major programs. To O’Quinn, the workouts are much like that game against Missouri: another chance.
“That was just opportunity,” O’Quinn said. “You could put it all on that one game but I had to prepare for that one game. That one game gave us a lot of opportunity and made a lot of people believers. I appreciate the game but it wasn’t just that one game that has gotten me here.”
That game opened the door, but O’Quinn had to take it from there.