It was a packed house for the NBA preseason game between Minnesota and Milwaukee on Sunday at Hilton Coliseum. (Jared Stansbury – Cyclone Fanatic)
The NBA came back to Hilton Coliseum.
Sunday night, in front of 11,603 fans, the Milwaukee Bucks topped the Minnesota Timberwolves 125-107 in a preseason NBA matchup. Some of the world’s best players in the world’s best league went head-to-head in one of the world’s best venues (at least to those of us who bleed Cardinal and Gold).
It was rare. It was unique. It was awesome.
Simply, this type of game does not happen very often anymore. The NBA decreased the league’s preseason schedule a couple years ago and thus limited the opportunities for teams to play at neutral sites.
This was the first time the NBA had been in Hilton Coliseum since 1999 when Tim Floyd and Fred Hoiberg came back to their old stomping grounds to lead the Chicago Bulls into a preseason matchup with the Atlanta Hawks.
In the 19 years since, the league has rarely ever left the back of Iowa Staters’ minds. Only not because the NBA was coming back to our favorite hoops venue. But, because our favorite Cyclones were leaving for it.
2000: Following a junior season that saw Marcus Fizer named the Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American, the tenacious big man announced his intention to enter the NBA Draft. He was taken No. 4 overall by Floyd, the coach who recruited him to Ames, and the Chicago Bulls.
It was the first time we watched one of our beloved Cyclones leave us for the splendor of the NBA since the NBA had last visited us. Obviously, it was far from the last.
2001: For the second year in a row, the Big 12 Player of the Year came from Iowa State as Jamaal Tinsley earned the honor after leading the Cyclones to their second consecutive Big 12 title. He was taken No. 27 overall by the Indiana Pacers and went on to enjoy an NBA career that spanned more than a decade.
2004: Jackson Vroman became the next Cyclone to be selected in the NBA Draft when Chicago selected the 6-foot-10 center in the second round then promptly shipped him to the Phoenix Suns. He was joined in the league that season by Paul Shirley, who was one of the key players on Iowa State’s back-to-back conference championship teams in 2000 and 2001.
2006: Will Blalock was the last player taken in the draft when the Detroit Pistons took him with the 60th pick after he left school following his junior season.
2010: For the first time since Tinsley nine years earlier, Iowa State had a player selected in the first round of the NBA Draft when the Oklahoma City Thunder took Craig Brackins No. 21 overall then traded him to the New Orleans Hornets then he was traded again a few months later to the Philadelphia 76ers. Brackins played parts of two seasons in the Philly organization and bounced around the D-League for a few years before going on to a have a successful professional career overseas.
2012: Diante Garrett signs with the Phoenix Suns after going unpicked in the 2011 NBA Draft. After bouncing around to a few other teams, Garrett played 90 games in the NBA, mostly with the Utah Jazz, and remains the longest-tenured recent Cyclone in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Royce White became the fourth Cyclone taken in the first round of the NBA Draft during his millennium when the Houston Rockets took him 16th overall. Despite high hopes for White’s professional career after a dominant junior season in Ames, constantly grappling with management and league power players caught up with him.
White has played only three games in the NBA and likely will never get another opportunity at the sport’s highest-level even if he does have the talent to be there. We will periodically hear about Royce having success on the court, most recently while earning MVP honors in Canada’s National Basketball League, but those successes have too often been followed by another fizzling and falling out.
2014: Chris Babb signs a 10-day contract with the Boston Celtics then another one before signing a non-guaranteed deal for the remainder of the season on March 21. He appeared in 14 games for the Celtics averaging 1.6 points per game.
Babb went on to join the Golden State Warriors in July 2015 after being waived by the Celtics. He appeared in five preseason games for the eventual NBA champions but was waived before opening night.
He has since become one of the highest-paid and most successful players overseas.
2015: You knew we were going to get to this point. The biggest dagger of this entire exercise. After leading Iowa State to four NCAA Tournaments as the program’s head coach, Fred Hoiberg leaves the Cyclones to take over as head coach of the Chicago Bulls on June 2. (Screw you, Gar Forman.)
It was a move Cyclone fans had long feared, especially with what was shaping up to be Hoiberg’s best team, led by senior to be Georges Niang (more on him shortly), returning for the next season. In the three years since Hoiberg has compiled a 110-136 record with the Bulls and made one playoff appearance. Iowa State has won a Big 12 Tournament title, appeared in two NCAA Tournaments and a Sweet 16.
2015/16: After a… um… tumultuous senior season during his only year in Ames, Bryce Dejean-Jones was signed to a 10-day contract by the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 21. In only his fourth game with the team, Dejean-Jones drew the start at shooting guard and scored 14 points. He signed a second 10-day contract on Feb. 1 while continuing in his starting role, including a 17 point performance against the Los Angeles Lakers.
On Feb. 19, Dejean-Jones signed a three-year deal with the Pelicans. A week later, he was ruled out for the remainder of the season due to a wrist fracture.
Three months later, Dejean-Jones was shot and killed in Dallas. His story remains one of the biggest Cyclones to the NBA what-ifs of recent memory.
2016: For the first time since Hoiberg and Loren Meyer were both drafted in 1995, Iowa State had two players selected in the NBA Draft. Niang was the first going No. 50 overall to the Indiana Pacers after a senior season that saw him earn consensus All-American honors and win the Karl Malone Award. Niang spent one season with the Pacers before being waived prior to last season. He went on to have an All-G-League season in the Golden State and Utah systems.
He signed a multi-year contract with the Jazz this summer and will most likely be a part of their team on opening night.
Seeing the second player selected was one of the biggest surprise Iowa State stories of the summer when Abdel Nader was taken No. 58 overall by the Boston Celtics. After spending two seasons in Boston and playing in 48 games, Nader was traded this summer to the Oklahoma City Thunder and is vying for a spot on the team’s opening day roster.
Also, this was the year former Cyclone Jeff Hornacek was named the head coach of the New York Knicks, which really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of this column because it didn’t make anyone sad but it is still noteworthy because two Iowa State alums were NBA head coaches and that’s super cool. It is also noteworthy because it came shortly after Hornacek’s agent tried to question the credibility of the publisher of this very website. Never forget.
2017: Monte Morris became the third Iowa Stater drafted in a two-year span when he was taken No. 51 overall by the Denver Nuggets. Morris excelled in the G-League on a two-way contract with the franchise and is battling to be the team’s primary backup point guard during his second professional season.
Meanwhile, former teammate Naz Mitrou-Long latched on with Utah, briefly via a two-way contract before he was waived and assigned to the G-League to make room for Niang joining the franchise. Mitrou-Long is still with the organization entering this season and is battling to make the team’s opening day roster.
2018: After a stellar senior season in 2016-17, Deonte Burton’s professional prospects seemed uncertain. That was until he got an opportunity to play in the Korean Basketball League, a league he absolutely dominated as a rookie on his way to earning most valuable player honors.
That success overseas caught the attention of the Oklahoma City Thunder and after a successful stint on the team’s summer league roster, Burton was signed to a two-way contract. He will be in the organization this season alongside former teammate Nader and will likely make a few appearances for the main club.
Now, back to Sunday night.
After 19 years of the NBA and Iowa State’s paths converging meaning exclusively that someone was going to leave the Cyclones, the NBA brought joy back to Ames. Nobody will ever try to convince you that Ames is an NBA town, but it is hard to argue there is no buzz for the league in central Iowa after what I saw at Hilton Coliseum on Sunday.
Interest is higher in this region than I have ever seen it entering an NBA season. That is probably due in large part to the five beloved Cyclones on NBA rosters and it proves the league and the school we love have never been closer.
The NBA came back to Hilton Coliseum. Let’s hope we do not have to wait another 19 years to see it again.