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Shurna's Path to the NBA Will Be Difficult, But That Was Expected

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

The text I received on Thursday night was about as succinct as it gets: John Shurna went undrafted.

Although my good friend is interning for the National Basketball Association this summer, his inside information was hardly necessary. Every Northwestern fan, conscious of the Wildcats’ drought in the NBA Draft as well as on Selection Sunday, was craning his or her head to see if the school’s all-time leading scorer would be picked. At a school where no player has been selected in the NBA Draft since 1999, when Evan Eschmeyer was taken with the fifth pick of the second round, just the notion of getting drafted is thrilling.

And Shurna came as close as any Wildcats player had come in years. For a good portion of the 2011-2012 season, Shurna was projected to break Northwestern’s NBA Draft drought by several mock draft websites. Many believed that Shurna could fulfill a niche for some NBA team. After all, how many players can shoot the ball like Shurna can? With his height and shooting ability, somebody would have to pick him up. And yet, when I got that text, I was hardly surprised. It’s not just that he doesn’t look like a NBA player. I’m also not sure he ought to be one.

After watching the Northwestern forward excel at Welsh-Ryan Arena for four years, I suppose I should have been offended. How could every single NBA team pass up on the Big Ten’s scoring leader in 2012? How could every single NBA team resist a player who might be the top three-point shooting prospect in the country? To that end, it’s worth noting that Shurna won the State Farm 3-Point Championship in New Orleans. He also drained 36 of 40 three-pointers in a workout for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Shurna’s perks are quite obvious to all who have watched the purple and white. He has always been a very creative scorer around the basket. His ability to dunk and hit reverse layups isn’t what you’d expect from a gangly 6-foot-9 white guy from Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He holds his own on the boards as well, especially considering that banging the boards wasn’t his primary role for Northwestern. In his senior season, he averaged 5.2 rebounds per game. And after shifting to the center position, due to Northwestern’s Tantalus-like search for a capable post player, Shurna proved to be a decent threat in the paint, swatting away 1.7 shots per game. His 55 blocks in 2012 was nearly double his total from 2011. Yet, what made him so delightful during his years in Evanston will be expected out of him in the NBA. While he was once celebrated for his uncanny ability to drain three-pointers despite having rather unorthdox form, he will now be expected to hit every open shot. His dunks will no longer be marveled at. They will justify his paycheck.

Certainly, there is something special about Shurna. He has pinpoint accuracy from behind the three-point line. Indeed, he drained 44 percent of his attempts from behind the arc during his senior season, after draining a similar percentage of outside shots during Northwestern’s 2010-2011 campaign. His range is spectacular, as he frequently spotted up from several feet behind the arc and swished pull-up three-pointers. In some ways, he actually reminds me of Jimmer Fredette, except that Shurna never jacked up shots from half-court.

Shurna’s downfall is the same as Fredette’s. Fredette, who averaged 7.6 points per game last season for the Sacaramento Kings, takes nearly half of his shots from behind the three-point line. While Shurna showed an ability to drive to the hoop in Big Ten play, his questionable quickness will likely hurt him on the professional level. His ball-handle is not smooth enough for the NBA, where lanky defenders will surround him at every juncture in order to swipe the ball away. Kept out of the paint, Shurna will be confined to the perimeter, and whether or not it’s worth it to take a risk on such a one-dimensional player is hard to say.

Shurna also had an unfortunate knack for disappearing in the clutch during his time in Evanston. It wasn’t a coincidence that the Wildcats came up just short in their bid to make the NCAA Tournament during Shurna’s time in the purple and white. As much as Shurna did to advance the cause, he occasionally betrayed it with missed shots and turnovers. He also passed the buck on a number of occasions. An unselfish player to a fault, Shurna frequently allowed Drew Crawford to take the lead as the final buzzer made its approach. For example, in Northwestern’s devastating 57-56 loss to Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena, it was Crawford — not Shurna — who was blocked on his final drive to the hoop to give the Fighting Illini the victory. Shurna should have been taking more of those key shots, and that’s something that NBA teams will have to scrutinize going forward.

Very early in his career, Shurna made a huge three-pointer against the Buckeyes to lead Northwestern to a critical home victory over Ohio State. In many games after — including several near-miss upsets of the Buckeyes — Shurna was nowhere to be found in the game’s final minutes. It seemed like Shurna had a hard time breaking through against the Big Ten’s top defenders. He would go missing for minutes at a time. Even in one of his best performances of the season, in which he led Northwestern to a 74-70 upset of Illinois at Assembly Hall, Shurna was virtually silent in the first half, before scoring 17 points in the second half to lead the Wildcats to the win. When Shurna is on his game, he can do virtually anything on the hardwood (drive, shoot and rebound), but his inconsistency has to be troubling to potential buyers.

I could certainly see Shurna being a successful player in the National Basketball Association. After all, in college, Shurna was required to lead the Wildcats. Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb were often not enough to take defenders off of Shurna. In the NBA, Shurna’s more athletically gifted teammates would presumably force the opposition’s defenders inside, leaving Shurna all alone from behind the three-point line. From there, Shurna could do what he has always done: make shots.

But that is the best-case scenario. And in a limited draft, where there are only 60 total selections, it’s hard to blame any and all NBA teams for not taking a risk on a perimeter shooter from Northwestern, no matter how talented he may be.