After Jonny Flynn's phenomenal rookie year, the Niagara Falls sensation rapidly simmered down, averaging just 4.5 points per game this past season for the Portland Trail Blazers, his third team in two years. Lazar Hayward, 2005 grad of now-defunct Buffalo Traditional High School, competed in the Finals for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he appeared only in mop-up duty this postseason.
That's the extent of Western New York's presence in the NBA.
Tonight, that will change.
Recent graduates Andrew Nicholson of St. Bonaventure and Mitchell Watt of the University at Buffalo both have a shot at being selected in the NBA Draft. Experts have predicted Nicholson will go in the mid-to-late first round, while Watt is expected to either go at the end of the second round or be one of the highest-rated undrafted players. Their similarities are striking.
Both are quiet characters off the court. Both will play power forward in the NBA. Nicholson won Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10 Conference this season, and Watt claimed the same honor in the Mid-American Conference.
"It's always been a dream of mine as a kid, but I didn't realistically think of it as being in my future," Watt said. "At the same time, if people asked me if I was going to the NBA, I never shut off the dream or possibility. To say I'm not surprised with the ride or anything like that would be a lie, because in the middle of the season I was just focused on Buffalo basketball and what to do for the next game. I wasn't thinking too much about what I'd be doing this summer or next year."
Watt has visited eight teams, squeezing in one final visit (Dallas) before the draft. Nicholson has visited 10 cities and said he hasn't been home in weeks.
"It's been exciting, a little exhausting," Nicholson said. "You've got to take care of yourself more, stay more focused . … The cities I've been to have been really interesting."
Both said they believe they'll fit in anywhere because they pride themselves in versatility. Thus, neither player is focused on mock drafts or possible destinations. Watt said he's only heard about his draft stock from other people.
"Really, I'm not worrying about that stuff," Watt said. "I don't concern myself with what other people think will happen, it all comes down to the [NBA teams]. It's up to the general managers and coaches to decide if they want you or not."
Nicholson admitted he's checked mock drafts a couple of times but doesn't do so regularly.
At 6-feet-9, Nicholson is a footwork master, owning smooth, fundamental moves in the paint, a quick first step and a patented soft jumper. He put up staggering stats in his final college campaign, averaging 18.5 points and 8.4 rebounds in leading St. Bonaventure to its first NCAA Tournament since 2000.
Watt, listed at 6-10 with a 7-footer's wingspan, averaged 16.3 points and 7.5 boards last season.
Watt said he's patterning his game after Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka, a lengthy post player known for his startling rejections and rim-rattling dunks. Which is no surprise considering Watt was a big-time shot blocker in college who made SportsCenter's Top 10 plays his junior year.
As for Nicholson, "I want to have my own individual game actually, but a lot of people say I play like David West." West is bulkier than Nicholson, so the St. Bona product is focusing on getting stronger this offseason.
Nicholson said he hasn't felt a shift in competition to NBA tryout minicamps, but Watt said it's a lot different coming from a mid-major school. While mid-major schools focus on team ball, Watt said, the tryouts are more one-on-one oriented.
Watt is a native of Goodyear, Ariz. and Nicholson hails from Mississauga, Ont. Watt is training in Phoenix in his free time with Georgetown's Henry Sims and Colorado's Carlon Brown.
The 2012 NBA Draft will be broadcast starting at 7 p.m. on ESPN.