Nebraska, not historically known as a major supplier of talent to the NBA, suddenly is on the cusp of leaving its mark on the league’s draft — again.
There have been 11 Nebraskans drafted and 13 who have played an NBA game who attended high schools in the state. Justin Patton become the latest member last year.
Now Creighton’s Khyri Thomas, a projected first-rounder, is expected to add to that list on draft night June 21. Thomas would make it back-to-back years in which a player from Nebraska was drafted in the first round — something that has never happened.
Nebraska-born NBA players form a small and elite club. That’s why they’re excited to add a new member.
Dave Hoppen, like Thomas, played his high school ball at Omaha Benson. The former Nebraska star was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the third round with the No. 65 overall pick in 1986. He spent parts of six seasons in the NBA with five teams.
Hoppen said he is happy to see fellow Omaha Public Schools products like Patton, with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and possibly Thomas reach the NBA. Neither Patton nor Thomas were national recruits coming out of high school, but both quickly built strong reputations at Creighton.
“That is a credit to Creighton — and them — doing a good job of developing those guys,” Hoppen said. “It is pretty amazing to have two guys from north Omaha potentially get drafted in back-to-back years. It’s a lot of fun.”
Hoppen, Patton and Thomas all grew up on the north Omaha basketball training grounds.
“They played at their neighborhood schools,” Hoppen said, “and I am proud of both of them that they were able to play with their friends and have good college careers and potentially good NBA careers.”
Erick Strickland is inevitably mentioned, though incorrectly, when discussing NBA draftees from the Omaha area. Strickland, out of Bellevue West and later Nebraska, was not drafted, but eventually played nine seasons in the NBA, averaging 7.5 points per game.
“I hated that (Patton and Thomas) didn’t go to Nebraska,” Strickland said. “To watch them progress the way they are now is great. They are hardworking …heart, discipline and determination is something those kids have. They are driven and are well-coached.”
Patton and Thomas played AAU basketball for the OSA Crusaders, though a year apart. Strickland was an assistant at Bellevue West then and spent time around the OSA programs.
“It makes me feel good for Nebraska,” he said. “The exposure and success that the AAU programs like OSA are having nationally is something that college teams are starting to take notice of. They see that we can play in Nebraska.”
Strickland also shared some advice for Patton and Thomas as they get started with their NBA careers.
“Don’t be overly disappointed,” he said. “Don’t be in a rush if it doesn’t go the way you would hope or expect to go early.”
And be a consummate professional in every way, Strickland said.
“You have to understand that your body and your rest is your livelihood. If you are not playing right away, use that as an opportunity to develop your game. Get with individuals or veterans that will inspire you and help you become a professional.”