Mike Dunleavy has a simple pitch for why Melvin Frazier should make Tulane history on Thursday night.
Frazier, a New Orleans native who could become the first Green Wave player ever taken in the opening round of the NBA draft, can lock down anyone on the perimeter, as Dunleavy told all of the NBA executives he spoke to in the past few months.
“The first thing I say is, 'Well, you should have some interest in him if you think you might need a guy that can guard Steph Curry and Klay Thompson,' ” Dunleavy said. “'If you’re in need of a guy like that, then you should start taking a look right now.' ”
That is close to a mic drop.
Curry and Thompson, considered the best shooting tandem in NBA history, have guided Golden State to three NBA championships in the past four seasons while exhibiting virtually unlimited range. But after coaching Frazier the past two years, Dunleavy sees unlimited defensive potential.
Frazier is a 6-foot-6 athletic freak with a vertical jump of 40.5 inches. His wing span of 7-foot-2, as measured at the NBA pre-draft combine, was longer than some of the 7-footers there. He also has been freakishly interested in defense since high school, a characteristic that could propel him to the top edge of draft projections that generally have him going anywhere from pick No. 25 (late in the first round) to 40 (early in the second).
He led the American Athletic Conference in steals in 2016-17 and finished second this past season. He was on top of the league for steals in conference games both seasons.
“My number one priority is defense,” he said. “It’s something I like to do, and it comes naturally to me. I’m always active, getting everyone engaged. Defense really wins games, and defense starts offense. I don’t really care about scoring. I know whatever team I can go to, I can impact it with defense from day one.”
Dunleavy believes Frazier can defy the projection and go as high as No. 15.
“All the places he’s worked out, he’s had really good workouts,” Dunleavy said. “Initially I was thinking end of the first round, but (teams) higher up in the food chain are in position to take him. They know that night in and night out, this guy’s a two-way player. He peppers the stat sheet.”
The potential was there from the start — ESPN.com rated him a 4-star recruit coming out of Higgins High on the West Bank — but it took Frazier three years to blossom offensively at Tulane. He arrived with raw skills and the tendency to play out of control when he signed with former coach Ed Conroy, choosing the Green Wave over Arkansas, among others.
Starting 10 times as a freshman, Frazier averaged 5.2 points, shooting 40.1 percent from the floor, 28.6 percent on 3-pointers and 51.6 percent on free throws.
“I knew it would get frustrating for him when things got in the half-court, but he always competed in practice and always competed on the defensive end,” Conroy said. “There’s an unselfishness there that’s not common. He accepted coaching. He played too fast, but he always saw the game. He could play one play ahead.”
Frazier started all 30 games as a sophomore after Dunleavy replaced Conroy, more than doubling his scoring to 11.5 points per game. He improved his shooting to 43.8 percent overall and 66.7 percent from the free-throw line, though he hit only 28 of 106 3-pointers (26.4 percent).
This past season was transformative. He averaged 22 points in his first five games, hitting 43 of 60 shots (71.7 percent). Then, in a blowout loss at North Carolina in December, he scored a career high 27 points, including a one-handed jam when he lost one defender by dribbling behind his back and elevated between two others for a spectacular finish.
Before sustaining a painful chest contusion against Temple in February that limited him for the next couple of weeks, Frazier was scoring 16.9 points per game and connecting on 39.7 percent of his 3-pointers. He finished the season with averages of 15.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 steals, ranking second in the American Athletic Conference to teammate Samir Sehic in field-goal percentage (.556).
Frazier’s outwardly aloof demeanor masks his intensity. When scouts asked Dunleavy whether he had to pare down his notoriously large playbook for him, the coach said absolutely not.
“He understood what we were telling him to do and how we were trying to do it,” Dunleavy said. “His (basketball) IQ is good. There were times we’d be in a group and say something and not know if he (was) paying attention. Two months later, he’d bring up what I said. The answer was yeah, he was paying attention.”
The buzz around Frazier has only increased since he declared for the draft. He drew rave reviews for his performance on the first day of the NBA’s pre-draft camp in Chicago, prompting his agent, Thad Foucher (who also represents Anthony Davis), to shut him down for the rest of the camp because he already had proven himself.
“We felt like he would light up the combine like a Christmas tree,” Dunleavy said. “He did virtually everything I said he could do and made people take notice. I feel pretty confident he is going to be a first-round pick.”
The last Tulane player drafted was Jerald Honeycutt, who went to Milwaukee with the 38th pick in 1997. Frazier needs to go at least eight picks higher to break that first-round barrier.
No matter where Frazier is drafted, he knows what one of his first investments will be. A Ford Mustang devotee, he will upgrade the 2008 GT he drives.
“I’m a big Ford guy,” he said. “It’s going to be Mustang, that’s for sure.”