June 24, 2013
By Alex Marcheschi
OhioBobcats.com Staff Writer
D.J. Cooper had no shortage of fans in Athens when he was leading the Bobcats on the hardwood, but a fondness for him seems to be growing rapidly now, past the friendly confines of the Convo.
The point guard is gaining admirers in high places - places like NBA front offices.
Cooper has worked out for the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trailblazers, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic so far on his path to the NBA Draft (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN), and the feedback Cooper has received is encouraging.
"Teams like me, they're impressed with my passing skills and my ability to guard bigger guards," Cooper said.
And he's not alone in that thought.
Pundits and draft experts from around the country are chiming in on Cooper's draft chances.
ESPN NBA Draft Insider Chad Ford addressed Cooper during his SportsNation webchat on June 19.
"[Cooper is] a sleeper. Has worked out really well," wrote Ford. "Some teams have him ranked highly on their analytics scores. Interesting prospect as a second round pick."
Ford is a respected draft expert, and while his thoughts on Cooper aren't a golden ticket by any means, they are significant.
ESPNChicago.com columnist Jon Greenberg, an established NBA writer and Ohio University alumnus, spoke of the influence that Ford's thoughts could potentially carry.
"Guys in the front offices do read Chad Ford, it carries some kind of weight," Greenberg said.
Cooper is clearly getting noticed, and it's due in large part to a gift that hoops fanatics from Chicago to Athens have admired for almost a decade.
A Vision From The Start
If there's one skill that separates Cooper from the field of prospects, it's his court vision, which begets his pinpoint passing accuracy.
It's no secret.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas even went as far as to name him the best passer in the NCAA last January.
"Cooper can score, he can dish, does a great job off the pick and roll and always seems to make the right decision," Bilas said. "He can absolutely pass it, but more important than that, he can absolutely play. He's among the best point guards in the country."
Praise like that adds to Cooper's confidence, but he needs little help in that department.
Although there's no cockiness in his game, he assures himself that he can make the best play in the building.
"I play with confidence in my vision," Cooper said. "Whenever I'm on the court, I feel confident in my ability."
Cooper has been playing at an elite level for a significant portion of his playing career.
His widely-acclaimed accomplishment of being the only NCAA player to record at least 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals in a career is jaw-dropping. He's the all-time leader in assists, steals, 3-pointers made, games started and games played for the Bobcats.
And he was impressing people before he even put on a Bobcat jersey.
"I have a friend who covers high school sports for the Chicago Sun-Times," Greenberg said. "He said when D.J. was here, he legitimately could've been the best player in the state during his senior year."
Someone else who realized D.J.'s talent early on was his high school coach, Ken Stevenson.
During Cooper's senior year at Seton Academy in South Holland, Ill., Stevenson coached the Sting to the 2009 Illinois Class 2A state title.
"The year that we won state, D.J. didn't score a lot of points in that game, but he had double-digit assists and just his presence on the floor really got us going," said Stevenson. "If he has to score, he can, too. He can score 26 points if you need him to."
Bobcat fans know exactly what he's talking about.
It's blissfully familiar, unlike Cooper's life on the NBA Draft circuit.
He's been working out in unfamiliar places, honing his craft and body for the rigors of the National Basketball Association. He's been traveling across the country in hopes of earning a roster spot in the world's greatest basketball league.
"It's a different experience. It's all new to me," Cooper said. "It's a lot of traveling, going from state to state and competing for a job."
The Draft Profile
The attention is somewhat new, but Cooper and the Bobcats got a taste of big time exposure thanks to Ohio's Sweet 16 run in 2012. Ohio took down Michigan on the way to the regional semifinals, and Cooper matched up against one of the point guards ranked ahead of him in this year's mock drafts: Trey Burke.
In the game, Cooper outplayed Burke en route to a 65-60 victory, as he finished the game with 21 points, five assists, and three turnovers, compared to Burke's 16 points, five assists and two turnovers.
"I think about [the Michigan game], but that was two years ago," said Cooper. "Last year [Burke] had a pretty big year. It just gives me a sense of confidence that I can play with anybody."
Many pundits and Bobcat fans agree with that sentiment.
Stevenson and Greenberg are clearly believers.
"D.J. sees the floor about as well as any guard there is in the country. It's the thing that makes him great as a player," Stevenson said.
Greenberg echoed him, saying, "If you watch him play, he's fearless. His passing is ridiculous. He is an NBA level point guard."
While draft experts continue to heap praise on Cooper, there are some question marks in his game that Cooper must answer in order to achieve his dream.
Critics delve into the point guard's lack of size, but Cooper doesn't see it as an issue. He's listed at an even six feet, but he trusts his skills.
While his shooting percentage wasn't his strength at Ohio, his ability to hit the deep, clutch shot is uncanny. The confidence that he earned while playing in big games for the Bobcats is coming in handy during these workouts.
"Every time I step into an NBA practice facility, I realize that I have a chance to prove that I belong and that size doesn't matter," said Cooper. "You just have to make sure you're in great shape and that you compete well. I feel like that'll get me drafted."
Achieving The Ultimate Goal
The chance to fulfill a lifelong dream certainly drives Cooper, but the opportunity to provide for his recently-born son gives him extra motivation to make it to the NBA, or any professional league for that matter.
"I want to be able to provide a living and financial stability for my son," he said. "If I don't get drafted, I'm pretty sure that I'll be on a summer league team and I'll just have to prove myself again."
Although there's no guarantee Cooper will be selected, there's no denying that his stock is as high as it's ever been.
For now, Cooper is left to await his fate, which has three potential paths: getting drafted, playing in the NBA Development League or playing professionally overseas.
"You can play in the D-League, and if you light it up and teams need you, you're going to play in the NBA," said Greenberg. "Or you can go to Europe and make guaranteed money, but risk exposure. But, look at somebody like Anthony Parker. He had a great run in Israel and came back and signed a bunch of NBA deals."
NBA comparisons to Cooper have been thrown around by many.
ESPN's Dan Dakich once tweeted that Cooper has the chance to, "blow up like Steph Curry did a few years ago."
It just so happens that D.J. has worked out for Curry's Warriors, who took the NBA Playoffs by storm this past year.
Cooper himself says that his court vision is "most definitely" NBA quality, and he compares his game to that of the game's world-class competitors.
"I feel like I have similarities with everyone, a little bit of Chris Paul, maybe Rondo and Jason Kidd," said Cooper. "The older J-Kidd, the pass first point guard."
Those comparisons may be lofty, but the confidence behind them is encouraging.
D.J. has the package to make it.
He realizes it, and so does Greenberg.
"He's fast, he has pretty long arms, he can do everything. The fact that he is a pass-first point guard, I think he could definitely play in the NBA."
No one in Bobcat Nation would be surprised if Cooper's name is on an NBA roster this fall. He possesses the ability to leave a lasting impression with his skills, and his legacy remains in all of his former gyms.
"Everywhere he has gone, he's left an imprint," said Stevenson. "If the right team gets him, who knows what could happen."
There seems to be a general idea that all Cooper needs is a shot at the big time to prove himself.
"I've told people before," said Stevenson. "You better be ware of D.J. Cooper."
Alex Marcheschi will serve as the OhioBobcats.com staff writer during the 2013-14 season. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @BobcatFeatures.