Hot in Cleveland: Draft sleeper Norris Cole

Fred Katz is a contributor to Hoopspeak.com. You can reach him at FKatz26@gmail.com or on Twitter @FredKatz

When a player scores 24 of his team’s 28 first half points, you know he’s having a special game. When that player gets those buckets in a 35-point performance against Old Dominion, an NCAA Tournament team, you suspect he’s a special player. And when that performance is only the player’s second best in the past eight days, only a blip on his radar following a 41 point, 20 rebound, nine assist game about a week earlier, you have Cleveland State’s Norris Cole, the 2011 NBA Draft’s potential super sleeper.

When Cole arrived in Cleveland for his first day as a Viking basketball player, he was nationally and locally insignificant. The scrawny 6’2” point guard from Dayton, OH had received no other scholarship offers from Division-1 schools, but Head Coach Gary Waters gave him a chance at Cleveland State. As a freshman Cole played sparingly (14.4 minutes per game) and shot the ball poorly, but the Vikings’ staff thought enough of him to put him in the starting lineup for his sophomore season. And they told him what he needed to work on was his defense.

The summer following Cole’s unremarkable freshman campaign, Watson took his team to Spain for a 10-day trip of international competition and workouts. Cleveland State had just graduated its best defender, Breyhon Waters, and throughout workouts in Spain, the coaching staff used his departure to bite at Cole.

“All we did was talk to Norris about, ‘you can’t guard as good as Breyhon,’” says Cleveland State Assistant Coach Larry DeSimpelare. “’Breyhon was a shut down guy, you can’t do what he did.’ We were challenging him.”

If someone made a shot on Cole, the staff would call him “Bulls Eye” or other unflattering nicknames, which they thought were clever and Cole, surely, did not enjoy hearing. But the staff knew what it was doing. By the time the team left Spain, Cole was not Bulls Eye anymore. Not only did Cole develop into a lock-down defender, but he also led the team in scoring on that trip.

Two years later, after successful campaigns as a role player as a sophomore and junior, Cole’s coaches called on him to do it all for the Vikings in his senior season—even rebound. His season-high 20-rebound performance came in his stat-packing 41-20-9 game against Youngstown State.  He averaged 5.8 rebounds-per-game on the season and compiled five 10-plus rebound games. More importantly for his NBA prospects, Cole matured on the offensive side of the ball, vastly improving his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0) and his points-per-shot (1.36).

No longer hidden in a mid major conference, Cole has so far impressed NBA Draft scouts in his workouts, quickly climbing up the boards.

“Cole has wowed with his athletic ability and his ability to get to the basket,” ESPN’s Chad Ford writes. “I’ve had a couple of teams tell me he’s the fourth-ranked point guard on their board behind [Brandon] Knight, [Kemba] Walker and [Jimmer] Fredette. He could go as high as No. 21 to the Blazers.”

But could Cole be even better than the fifth best point guard in the draft? (Ford’s ranking assumes that NBA teams are not ranking Irving since he is the projected number-one overall pick.) Fredette and Cole seem to be in similar boats – both with huge numbers coming out of non-power conferences. Fredette is clearly the bigger name, but he may not be able to contribute to an NBA team like Cole can.

It’s well known that BYU hid Fredette all season on the defensive side of the ball. Some scouts have actually been surprised by Fredette’s progress as a defensive player in workouts, but that progress is relative to one of the worst defensive reputations in the draft.

Meanwhile, Cole not only led the Horizon League in steals-per-game, but also won the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. And while the steals are impressive, he is actually a better off-ball defender than on-ball defender. His defense is what will allow him to come in and make an immediate impact. A steady backup point guard that will play relentless defense for 94 feet will always have a spot in the League. Guards with far less skill than Cole, like Earl Watson, have made careers out of that style of play.

Perhaps Cole’s biggest advantage over the rest of the draft class – behind Irving – is his unswerving midrange game. Guards like Fredette come out of college with unlimited range, but struggle with the 15-footers that they rarely attempted in their collegiate years. Fredette actually shot a better percentage on two-point field goals than Cole, but almost all his 2′s were on lay-ups and it’s highly unlikely that he will be able to make those out-of-control penetration shots he made at BYU. Pulling up may not work for Fredette either, as he shot only 29.2% on his midrange jumpers this past season. Meanwhile Kentucky’s Knight lived on the perimeter the most of season and attempted over six threes-per-game.

Conversely Cole has shown off Tony Parker-like skills at his workouts with his ability to get to the hoop complementing his strong mid-range game. His pull-up is as good as any other guard’s in this draft class and Cole employs an extremely quick first step to create space.

“He may have the best mid-range game coming out of college,” says DeSimpelare. “He’s deadly from 17-feet to 12-feet.”

Usually, the midrange skills are the last developed by a young player. That he has such a refined game now is a great sign of development for an NBA organization.

Cole’s biggest weaknesses are his size and his ability to consistently hit the NBA 3. His 6’2” height is fine for the NBA level, but he isn’t long and his body needs some work. Right now, Cole only weighs 175 pounds. However, his is 11 bench presses are second most behind Fredette (14) among Ford’s top five point guards. He was able to compensate well for his slender physique at the college level, getting to the hoop aggressively and pulling down rebounds with regularity. Yet, to stay consistent at the professional level, he might have to add some more bulk.

Cole will also have to add consistency to his 3-point shot to remain successful at the next level. His numbers from behind the arc were erratic throughout his senior season. There were games like Old Dominion (8-15 from three) and Youngstown State (5-10 from three) where he flashed great range. However, on seven different occasions in his senior year, Cole missed at least three three-point-attempts in a game without making one, including 0-6 and 0-8 efforts against UW-Milwaukee and College of Charleston, respectively. He finished the year shooting 34.2% on 149 attempts.

His biggest adjustment might come in the transition from mid-major to NBA. In seven games against power conference teams since he became the starting point guard his junior year, Cole averaged 16 points and 4.3 assists, down from his usual numbers, but still productive. But aside from those non-conference game, Cole has never played in the spotlight. If you go to YouTube, you’ll only find a few grainy Norris Cole highlights videos– obscure high school standouts have dozens more. This begs the question: is Cole not that good, or is Cleveland State really that forgotten?

DeSimpelare describes Cole as one of the most competitive players he has ever worked with; and just like in Spain, Cole uses that hyper-competitive persona to improve on the court. In his sophomore year, Cole was fired up to play against a big-name point guard, who eventually went on to become a first-round pick. When a coach asked Cole why he was so excited, Cole responded, “He was ranked ahead of me.” The coach was confused. Everyone was ranked ahead of Cole.

But it did not matter to him. The rankings just inspired Cole to prove doubters wrong. He dropped 16 points in a road upset and outplayed that big-name player. Now NBA front offices are deciding whether Cole is prepared to spend a career matched up against guys who were ranked ahead of him.

“Spend 45 minutes to an hour with him and you’ll be in love with him,” exclaims DeSimpelare. “He is almost like the perfect kid and I’m not talking about the perfect player. I’m talking about the perfect kid…He gets on that floor and has a dogmatic will to beat you.”

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