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An all-star team of basketball players the Nevada Wolf Pack almost signed

Klay Thompson
If Nevada did steal Mark McLaughlin from Washington State, would it have landed future three-time NBA champ Klay Thompson? (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Nevada basketball has landed its share of star recruits over the years, including future NBA players like Kirk Snyder, Nick Fazekas, Ramon Sessions, JaVale McGee, Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson and the Martin twins, among others. Nearly as often, the Wolf Pack has come up just short of landing a recruit who would turn into an NBA player. While it won't do any good rehashing some of these near misses now, I thought it'd be fun to go over a starting lineup of future stars who almost signed with Nevada. And by "almost signed," I don't mean, "Nevada offered the player a scholarship at some point." There had to be heavy mutual interest, as in the Wolf Pack was in the top three or four when each player committed to other schools. Without further ado, here we go.

PG Reggie Jackson

Jackson has become a solid NBA starter who is in his ninth season in the league where he's averaged 12.9 points and 4.4 assists per game while making nearly $70 million, basically a higher-scoring version of former Nevada star Ramon Sessions. And Jackson could have been the heir apparent to Sessions if he signed with Nevada, which he came fairly close to doing. Jackson was born in northeast Italy to American parents (his father was in the military) before moving to England and then the United States at age 5. The family skipped from North Dakota to Georgia to Florida before settling in Colorado Springs, Colo., when Reggie was in sixth grade. A three-star recruit in high school, Jackson was the Gatorade state player of the year in Colorado and had offers from Boston College, Nevada and Wyoming. Jackson was on a recruiting visit to Boston College with a trip to Reno scheduled. But he was apparently so enthralled with Boston College's empty practice gym he canceled his other visits and committed to the Eagles a couple of days after his visit (he liked the fact the team played in the ACC). Jackson played for Boston College for three seasons and topped out with 18.2 points, 4.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds as a junior before turning pro. Instead of landing Jackson, the Wolf Pack signed a different combo guard in that class, London "Cotton" Giles, who got into trouble off the court, struggled on it and transferred to SMU after two seasons. Jackson was a first-round NBA draft pick in 2011 and has played for three teams, his best season coming in 2015-16 with the Detroit Pistons when he averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per game.

SG Klay Thompson

I think many fans overestimate just how close Thompson, a three-time NBA champion, came to playing for Nevada, but it wasn't completely far-fetched he'd end up in silver and blue. The Wolf Pack was on Thompson exceptionally early, but his father, former NBA standout Mychal, wanted his son to play in the Pac-10, as did Klay. Originally, Thompson wanted to go to hometown schools UCLA or USC. One reason USC didn't recruit him is because it got an early commitment from Malik Story, who couldn't get into school there and went to Indiana before landing with the Wolf Pack. Washington State showed interest in Thompson but had a commitment from a similar player, Mark McLaughlin, a home state (and top-100) recruit. A few months before signing day, McLaughlin decommitted from Washington State and eventually signed with Nevada, although he never played for the Wolf Pack, which opened a scholarship at Wazzu for Thompson, whose final three ended up being Washington State, Notre Dame and Michigan (note Nevada was not on this list). Thompson was leaning toward Notre Dame, but the pull of the Pac-10 while playing for a high-level coach (Tony Bennett) with immediate playing time sewed up his decision to play for the Cougars, where he averaged 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game in three seasons before turning pro. A five-time NBA All-Star, perhaps Thompson lands at Nevada if not for the McLaughlin situation if he truly wanted to stay West, but Nevada's placement in the WAC probably would have led him to signing with Notre Dame over the Wolf Pack if Washington State wasn't in the picture.

SF Malik Fitts

Fitts is the only player in our starting five who hasn't played in the NBA, although that's in part because he just finished college this season. During Eric Musselman's tenure at Nevada, he targeted tons of transfers and usually got his man. Except with Fitts. Interesting backstory on this one: I was walked around campus in April 2017 after a spring football practice when I saw Fitts with a couple of Wolf Pack coaches, so I tweeted he was on an official visit. After Fitts didn't sign with Nevada, I got a call from the coaching staff saying I shouldn't have tweeted that because a former Wolf Pack assistant saw it and called Fitts to talk bad about the program so he wouldn't go there. The coaches thought the only way anybody would known about the official visit was my tweet, although two other reporters (here and here) also tweeted about the official visit so I wasn't alone. Anyway, whether that former assistant coach had any say his decision I don't know, but Fitts ended up transferring from South Florida to St. Mary's with Nevada being the runner-up. Fitts had to sit out the 2017-18 season due to transfer rules (that was Nevada's Sweet 16 year), but he had a dynamite two-year career at Saint Mary's as a Jordan Caroline-lite kind of player. Fitts averaged 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from three during his two years with the Gaels. He bypassed his senior season to enter this year's NBA draft and could be a second-round pick (he's listed one spot behind Nevada's Jalen Harris on ESPN's big board). Instead of signing Fitts, Nevada landed transfers Darien Williams, Tre'Shawn Thurman, Jazz Johnson, Corey Henson and Nisré Zouzoua after Fitts signed with Saint Mary's, so one of those guys would have gone (probably Williams). Fitts would have helped Nevada's loaded 2018-19 team that reached fifth in the nation and would have been an impact player last season if he opted for the Wolf Pack over the Gaels.

PF Derrick Williams

Given how poorly his NBA career went, it's easy to forget how good Derrick Williams was during his two seasons of college. Unfortunately for Nevada fans, those two seasons didn't come in Reno, although the Wolf Pack hunted him hard. Williams took an official visit to Nevada as well as USC, Memphis and Arizona. He originally signed with USC but decommitted after Tim Floyd resigned amid an NCAA investigation. The Trojans let Williams out of his letter-of-intent and he eventually whittled his options down to Arizona and Memphis while Nevada, which he visited before committing to USC, was essentially third on his list. Williams was a good recruit, but not a bona fide star. Rivals listed him as a three-star recruit, and he got a late bump by Scout and ESPN to push him in the back end of the top 100 after he committed to Arizona. But he was a superstar for the Wildcats who averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore, shooting 59.5 percent from the field, including a ridiculous 56.8 percent from three (on a healthy 74 attempts). He led Arizona to the Elite Eight in his sophomore season, where it lost by two points to eventual national champion, UConn. Williams then entered the draft and was the No. 2 overall pick in 2011 before playing in the NBA from 2011-18, averaging 8.9 points and 4.0 rebounds a game. Like others on this list, the fact Nevada was not in a power conference or a regular Top 25 mid-major really hurt its chances of landing the player.

C Nikola Vucevic

Shortly after I got the Nevada basketball beat writing job in April 2008, I got a tip there was a gigantic man at a local pizza place with some Wolf Pack coaches. So I called the place (I believe it was Boulevard Pizza on Barring Boulevard in Sparks) and they told me there was a huge Serbian there (although the player was actually from Montenegro, which borders Serbian). "He sat down and it was like his legs kept folding and folding and folding," the owner said. A little more digging and I identified the player as Nikola Vucevic, who was taken to this specific pizza place because it could make his favorite Serbian-style pizza (now that's good recruiting). Unfortunately for Nevada, that good recruiting was not enough as the Wolf Pack finished second in the race to get Vucevic behind USC (Hawaii also was in the mix). Vucevic moved to Simi Valley, Calif., to play for Stoneridge Prep for his senior season, and USC was close to that home. Vucevic's freshman season was delayed as the NCAA had to clear him after his tie with a professional team in Europe. But he eventually became a star for the Trojans, leading the team to two NCAA tournaments and averaging 17.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 50.5 percent from the field as a junior. He turned pro early and was the 16th pick in the draft. He was an All-Star last season and has signed contracts totaling $156 million in his pro career. Vucevic is one of the league's best big men and has averaged a double-double in six of his nine seasons in the league, averaging 16 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists over the course of his career.

So, yes, in a perfect scenario, Nevada could have had a starting five of Reggie Jackson, Klay Thompson, Derrick Williams, Luke Babbitt and Nikola Vucevic with Armon Johnson coming off the bench during the 2009-10 season. That team most likely wins a national championship. A couple of honorable mentions for this list include Hassan Whiteside, who signed with Marshall over Nevada; Festus Ezeli, who signed with Vanderbilt over Nevada; Lazeric Jones, who signed with UCLA over Nevada; and Arik Armstead, the current 49ers standout who wanted to play basketball and football in college and whose dad was friends with then-Wolf Pack coach David Carter. Armstead eventually committed to USC, de-committed, signed with Oregon and then gave up basketball (after playing in one game) to focus on football, which clearly worked out for him. One last name to mention is Brandon Roy, the former NBA All-Star who tried to turn pro out of high school before pulling his name late and playing for Washington, although Nevada was an option as Trent Johnson and Mark Fox hit Seattle hard during their tenures, signing players like Marcelus Kemp, Lyndale Burleson and Richie Phillips. My final note is to say most of the players above were recruited by Fox, who had a keen eye for unpolished gems who would become NBA-level players. He was, in my estimation, the best recruiter Nevada basketball has ever had.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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