When you think of college basketball powerhouses, the 270th school you think of might be Penn State. The huge state-affiliated university in central Pennsylvania is good at many things, but producing high-caliber basketball talent is not one of them. The last player to come out of Penn State and get selected in the NBA draft was big man Calvin Booth, who was selected in 1999.
It's not as though there haven't been standout players at Penn State, but guys like Geary Claxton, Talor Battle, and Tim Frazier all went undrafted after their senior seasons. Whether it be a lack of size (Frazier, Battle) or the lack of an NBA jumpshot (Frazier, Claxton), each player had issues with his game that probably had something to do with him attending Penn State instead of a top flight program in the first place.
Something strange is brewing in Happy Valley, though. Head coach Pat Chambers' most recent recruits are starting to look more like blue chip prospects and less like the diamonds in the rough that the program is used to netting. Headlining the 2014 class is Shep Garner, a 6-foot-2-inch combo guard from Philadelphia who appears to have the right combination of ball handling and shooting skills to lead Penn State into the future.
Even if Garner turns out to be another Frazier or Battle -- a player who is a great leader in college but whose physical skills don't translate into NBA success -- it's the 2015 class that really has a chance to change how college basketball fans think of Penn State. Mike Watkins is a 6-foot-8-inch center from Philly who specializes in running the floor and blocking shots. He might not do much more than dunk on offense, but rim protecting and athleticism are two attributes that are highly sought after by NBA general managers.
Alongside Watkins in Penn State's 2015 class is Josh Reaves, a shooting guard who chose the Lions over traditional powers Georgetown and Maryland. Penn State being able to lure a kid from Oak Hill Academy away from even one of those schools was mere fantasy prior to the Chambers era, but now Reaves appears set to make plays at both ends of the floor for the Lions the way Gary Harris did for Michigan State in the last two seasons.
The 2015-16 season is more than a year in the future, though. On its current roster, Penn State already has a highly athletic shooting guard who is capable of breaking down opposing defenses. While I expect D.J. Newbill to become one of the conference's top players this season thanks to his ability to get to the rim, he still needs to improve his shooting and defense in order to be considered an NBA prospect. If that happens, the golden era of Penn State basketball may be arriving under Chambers sooner than anyone expected.