With the NBA season coming to its midpoint and March Madness nearly upon us, it’s a great time to look at the best former Mountain West conference players currently performing in the NBA.
Christian Wood played at UNLV from 2013-15. As a sophomore, he played in 33 games and averaged 15.7 points, 10 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, earning first team All-Mountain West honors. After the season, Wood declared for the 2015 draft.
Christian Wood has been the source of much debate for Rockets fans. He has been the Rockets best player since his arrival from the Detroit Pistons in Dec 2020, however the Rockets have been one of the worst teams for both those years.
Wood’s time with the Rockets has certainly been productive. Over 90 games he has averaged around 19 points and 10 rebounds per game on 50% shooting and 37.4% 3-point shooting. Centers that are league average 3-point shooters that can also finish in the paint are pretty invaluable in today’s NBA and as an offensive contributor, Wood has excelled.
Unfortunately his defense and rebounding (despite the surface numbers) have not been great. He is not a great rim protector and has yet to find his feet on perimeter switches, as such he has been at best an average defensive contributor to the Rockets. Offensive boards are some of the most valuable rebounds, however Wood’s offensive rebounding percentages are poor, limiting his overall ability to affect the game in different ways.
For all of Wood’s flaws he is still a good NBA player. If Wood improves any aspect of his game he could take that next step to borderline All-Star status.
Before Brandon Clarke was named the West Coast Conference’s Newcomer of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year (first player in WCC history) in the same season for Gonzaga, he played two seasons for the San Jose State Spartans. As a sophomore, he averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 2.3 assists en route to being named All-Mountain West First Team and Mountain West All-Defensive Team.
In the NBA the Memphis Grizzlies have been utilizing Clarke off the bench incredibly effectively, especially teaming him up on the floor with Jaren Jackson Jr. When these two share the floor together, the Grizzlies outscore opponents by an outstanding 16 points per 100 possessions.
Clarke has developed into a strong pick-and-roll option with a developed floater on offense; a fast-twitch athletic rim-protector on defense. In his second year Clarke has certainly made an impression on the surging Grizzlies and if the plan is to transition Jackson Jr. into becoming the full-time center, it looks like Brandon Clarke should have the inside track becoming his frontcourt partner.
In around 19 minutes per game for the Grizzlies, Clarke has managed the seventh best PER (according to ESPN) at just under 25, for contrast Ja Morant is eleventh at 24.77 PER. An indication of his importance to the Grizzlies second unit. The Grizzlies are certainly a young and hungry team that no one else wants to face in the playoffs, the sky’s the limit for Morant and co. There aren’t many better spread betting opportunities than the Grizzlies right now.
Wolf Pack fans learned that Caleb and Cody Martin paired together can be something special as the Sweet 16 banner hanging at Lawlor Events Center shows.
Even in the NBA their career began together, Cody being drafted by the home-state Charlotte Hornets and Caleb making the team as an undrafted free agent. That story line was broken up this offseason when Charlotte waived Caleb but kept Cody. And this season they have shown they were more than a publicity play for the Hornets. Caleb Martin signed for the Miami Heat on a two-way deal after being waived and is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, steals and blocks per game while shooting a career best 51.8% over 44 games and a career best 23 minutes per game.
Back in Charlotte, Cody Martin is also having his best NBA season, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game while shooting a career high 45.4% from two and remarkably, 41% from the three-point line.
was traded to the Chicago Bulls for fellow MWC alum Larry Nance Jr., in 31 games this season Jones is averaging pretty modest counting stats of 6.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and a career best 40.5% of his 1.2 three-point attempts per game across 17.2 minutes for the Bulls. These numbers don’t do justice to his impact this season for the resurgent Bulls. His athleticism and 7’ wingspan makes Jones a versatile defender off the bench and a capable small ball center option for head coach Billy Donovan in certain matchups.
During a workout at the Bulls practise facility while rehabbing from a bone bruise in his right knee that was going to keep him out for four-to-six weeks, Jones broke his right index finger and will be out for a further six-to-eight weeks unless he’s able to play with a splint on his non-shooting hand. The injuries are piling up for the Bulls, so having Jones back would be a boost for Chicago’s chances of not just making the playoffs, but perhaps making some noise whilst there.
Nance Jr. played college basketball for the Wyoming Cowboys, where he was considered one of the best big men in the MWC. He led the 2014-15 Cowboys to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002, going on to be selected with the 27th overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
The Portland Trail Blazers traded (fellow MWC alum) Derrick Jones Jr. and a 2022 first-round pick last Summer as part of a three-team deal netting Larry Nance Jr. from the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s been a frustrating season for Nance Jr., having only appeared in 37 games for the Blazers this season. His last appearance came on January 5 having missed 16 straight games due to a knee injury.
He was tradedat the deadline to the New Orleans Pelicans in a deal alongside C.J McCollum but underwent knee surgery and is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks. Nance Jr. could potentially return before the start of the playoffs (assuming the Pelicans make it) adding big man depth to a team in need, especially considering the uncertainty surrounding Zion Williamson.
Even though he has missed this season to injuries, it didn’t feel correct to not include the two-time NBA champion on this list.
Leonard is sidelined indefinitely after undergoing surgery to repair a partial tear of the ACL in his right knee in July. Leonard suffered the injury during Game 4 of the 2021 Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. In 52 games last season, Leonard averaged 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.6 steals.
The Clippers remain cautiously optimistic that Leonard may be able to return if they secure a playoff spot (they are currently 8th in the West) but in all likelihood the team is preparing to be without him for the duration of the season.
The 2-time NBA Champion and Finals MVP, five-time All-Star and two-time DPOY has been one of the elite players in the NBA for a number of seasons and the highest achieving former Mountain West Conference player in the NBA. On February 1, 2020 San Diego State retired Leonard’s number 15 jersey, making him the first Aztecs player to have his jersey raised to the rafters. It was the third number retirement in program history, after Michael Cage (44) and Milton “Milky” Phelps (22).
After opting out of his final year of his original contract, Leonard re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers on August 12, 2021 to a max deal four-year $176.3 million contract.