College Basketball: Memphis Tigers' D.J. Stephens, Adonis Thomas Go Undrafted

By Bryan Heater
D.J. Stephens
Nelson Chenault – USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 NBA Draft came and went, and to say it was full of surprises would be an understatement. The Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the world by taking UNLV big man Anthony Bennett, while Nerlens Noel, the favorite to be taken first, fell to the New Orleans Pelicans at no. 6, who then traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers.

These were just a few of the happenings from last night’s draft, but there were other stories beyond the major headlines: stories of players who were intriguing and players who were locks to go in the lottery just years ago. Two of the players who experienced this roller coaster over the last few months were the Memphis TigersD.J. Stephens and Adonis Thomas.

Both Stephens and Thomas are interesting stories of two players who never got the call last night that every player dreams of. Thomas was once a highly touted recruit out of Melrose High School in Memphis. A five-star player by most recruiting services, Thomas ended up sitting out most of his freshman season with the Tigers after an ankle injury. Because he was not able to showcase his skills for NBA teams, he opted to return for his sophomore year. The past season for Thomas was marked by sporadic play in which he would virtually disappear  in some games. Many critics also thought he added too much weight during the offseason, adding to a disappointing 2012-13 season in which he averaged 11.7 points per game, 4.5 boards per game and shot just 40 percent from the field. After the season ended, Thomas began working out at the IMG Academy where slashed 15-20 pounds and impressed scouts with his athletic ability and size. Nonetheless, Thomas went undrafted last night, a far cry from just two years ago when he was said to be a lottery-caliber player.

Then there is Stephens. Anyone who has followed the kid from Killeen, Texas has heard his story. Considered to be the worst recruit Memphis head coach Josh Pastner has ever reeled in, Stephens could not even get a scholarship to North Texas or SMU, both which told him he was not what their programs were looking for. Pastner needed another player in his class, got tape from his high school coach and gave him a scholarship. Stephens was played sparingly during his first three years and aside from his occasional eyebrow-raising dunks, was a non-factor. At the beginning of the season, Memphis stumbled through the Battle 4 Atlantis and looked to be completely out of sync. But Stephens made a name for himself, relentlessly pursuing the ball on defense and giving the Tigers the energy they desperately needed. Stephens quickly worked his way into the starting lineup and began making jaw-dropping dunks and blocks that gave Memphis and the fans something to cheer about.

At just 6-foot-5, Stephens started 28 games for the Tigers at the four spot, averaging a team-leading 6.6 rebounds per game and blocking a team-high 95 shots, not to mention his high-flying dunks that defied the human capabilities to jump. By season’s end, he had cemented himself in the hearts of the Tiger faithful and became an intriguing NBA prospect. At the NBA Draft Combine, he leaped 46″,  the highest vertical leap ever recorded. Though he worked out for many teams, including the hometown Memphis Grizzlies, and has freakishly-athletic qualities, Stephens also went undrafted, leaving Memphis players 0-2 on Thursday night.

Even though both players did not hear their names called, Stephens and Thomas have chances to make an NBA team and play long, productive careers. Stephens will play for the Miami Heat in the Orlando Summer League, which runs from July 7-12. Stephens’ sheer athleticism and relentless work ethic gives him a chance to make an NBA team. He is considered a long-term project, but if he can find his niche, Stephens could become a valuable defensive asset. Thomas is also already contemplating his next move and is in talks with the Los Angeles  Lakers and Atlanta Hawks on a possible contract, though he has not confirmed any plans as of yet on playing in Orlando or Las Vegas summer leagues.

At the end of the day, Stephens and Thomas would have liked to hear their names called. Both possess the skills and abilities to stick in the NBA. Whether or not that will happen will be told down the road, but for the next few months, you will want to keep an eye on these former Tigers.

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