Nevada Wolf Pack alum Cameron Oliver was playing the best basketball of his career. He was playing so well I had planned this week to write a story about how the 22-year-old was on the verge of getting an NBA contract.
I am in fact still writing a story about Oliver this week. It is not for the reason I wanted.
During Delaware's game Tuesday night against Grand Rapids, Oliver hurt his ankle. It was bad. Bad enough he had to be stretchered off the court. Bad enough it will require surgery. Bad enough his season is over. Bad enough he's not going to get a 10-day NBA contract this season, a deal he was trending toward with his recent play. But his NBA dream has not died.
First, the backstory. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound Oliver is a crazy athlete, one of the best to ever come through Nevada. He will dunk over you. He will take your soul. (See below.)
But Oliver also can shoot, block shots and as such seems like a good fit for modern NBA basketball. Oliver tested the draft waters after his freshman season before returning to school. Projected as a second-round pick, Oliver entered and stayed in the draft after his sophomore season. He even flew to the draft on his own dime so he could be in attendance when his name was called. It was never called, and Oliver had to hit the grind to put on an NBA jersey.
Oliver's first season in the G League was solid but not spectacular. He averaged 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 49.6 percent from the field, with a midseason trade mixed in. But Oliver had been spectacular this season. He was averaging 15.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 1.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game. He was making 58.4 percent of his field goals and 76.8 percent of his free throws.
Something clicked in early December. In the 14 games prior to his injury, Oliver was averaging 17.4 points (on 59.1 percent shooting, including 65.2 percent inside the arc), 10.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.9 blocks per game. He had at least nine rebounds in 13 of those 14 games. He was one assist shy of a triple-double in an early-December game. He was making a strong case for an NBA contract. And then he was taken off the court on a stretcher.
This doesn't mean Oliver's NBA dream has died. Oliver had dealt with plenty of adversity in his career. He tore his ACL in high school and missed his junior season as a result. He had to sit out a season after high school after Oregon State fired its coach Craig Robinson. Oliver spent that time working at a Dollar Store wondering if he'd even get to play college ball let alone pro ball. After not being drafted following two seasons at Nevada, he signed a two-year deal with the Houston Rockets but broke his hand early in training camp and was cut before the regular season started. And now this, a right ankle requiring surgery that will sideline him until the 2019-20 season.
It's easy to forget, but Oliver is actually younger than every member of Nevada's current starting five. At only 22, he still has plenty of career ahead, and I still believe he's the best pro prospect Eric Musselman has recruited to Nevada. The latest injury also underscores why I'll never begrudge a Wolf Pack player for turning pro early (many did do that when Oliver left Reno). Had he finished his eligibility at Nevada, Oliver would be a senior this season. Imagine if he suffered this gruesome injury now. Instead, Oliver turned pro early and while he wasn't drafted, he still got a good chunk of money ($300,000 guaranteed) from the Rockets. He might not have gotten that had he stayed at Nevada until he was a senior and then suffered this injury.
Oliver's quest to make an NBA regular-season roster has hit another obstacle, but I still think he'll play in an NBA game. He's an NBA-caliber player who has had more adversity to get there than the average athlete. But I wouldn't give up hope on him yet. His timeline to the NBA might be delayed, but I don't think it will be denied over the long haul.