These traits turned Marquette's Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro into surprise NBA prospects

Dave Paulsen's phone started buzzing while he was watching Marquette's Tyler Kolek tear apart Xavier's defense for 20 points in the first half in a highly anticipated showdown on Jan. 15, 2023.

Paulsen, a Wausau native, recruited Kolek to George Mason so he intimately knew the 6-foot-3 guard's game. But watching Kolek destroy Xavier's pick-and-roll coverages, Paulsen had a revelation about the future.

“Tyler was just putting on a clinic," said Paulsen, now the coach at Holy Cross. "Just unbelievable game. That was the first time. I’m watching him and I was like, ‘This kid can play in the NBA.’ I’m, like, oh my God, the kid is a savant.

"The crazy thing was that day I got two phone calls from NBA scouts who I know, who started asking about him. And I said, can this kid play in the NBA? And one of the scouts goes, ‘Well, coach, he’s got a superpower. He’s the best passer I’ve seen so I think the answer is yes.' "

Stan Johnson's premonition about Oso Ighodaro's NBA trajectory came way before Ighodaro was partnering with Kolek on those pick-and-rolls that vexed defenses. Johnson was then an MU assistant, watching Ighodaro in gyms around the Phoenix area and trying to land him in the Golden Eagles' 2020 recruiting class. Ighodaro had been playing competitive basketball for only a few years.

"Everything with O was trending up," said Johnson, who left to coach Loyola Marymount before Ighodaro arrived at MU. "It was almost like he was hitting his stride at the right time.

"Here’s a kid that hadn’t played basketball all that long, or as much as those that have played for a long time. And you just look at the growth that he made in the short period of time that he had played the game. I thought that was interesting.

"I thought not only was that interesting, but for not having played very long, the one thing that he had was a tremendous feel for the game. Think about that. You take those two things: This guy is 6-10, hasn’t played all that much, has a great feel, has not even come close to coming into his own, he loves to work, and his character is unmatched. When you bottle up that combination, that kind of guy has a chance."

By the time Ighodaro signed with MU, he was the No. 81 recruit in the 2020 class in the 247 Sports Composite rankings. Kolek wasn't ranked at all, then wasn't widely viewed as an impact transfer when he left George Mason for the Golden Eagles after Paulsen was fired.

Nothing about Kolek and Ighodaro as high-schoolers screamed that they were future NBA players. But if you looked deep within them, you could see the traits that have helped them reach their dreams. Kolek and Ighodaro are both likely to be selected in this week's NBA draft, with Kolek seemingly a sure-fire first-rounder.

Oso Ighodaro, left, and Tyler Kolek played together at Marquette for three seasons. They will likely be in the NBA next season.
Oso Ighodaro, left, and Tyler Kolek played together at Marquette for three seasons. They will likely be in the NBA next season.

Stan Johnson and Dave Paulsen saw the love of basketball

Johnson has a key characteristic that he looks for in a recruit, and Ighodaro checked that box.

"The thing I want to understand is, does this guy love the game?" Johnson said. "Does he really love it? Meaning, is he going to work at it?

"He’s committed to the work required to be good. Every step of the way, I saw that. You don’t close the gap from not playing basketball and becoming who he was if you’re not committed to work."

The work never slowed down at MU. Ighodaro went from a skinny freshman who played just 38 total minutes to a key playmaker on a top-10 team.

Kolek's monomaniacal quest to improve was so intense that Paulsen had to put in some guardrails during their one season together.

"We needed him to score a ton," Paulsen said. "And we needed him to play 30-plus minutes a game. And our trainer was really worried that he was going to wear himself down.

"That’s a heavy load for an 18-year-old freshman, and she was big on that he needs to take a day off. So we’re like, Tyler you got to take a day off. ‘Yeah, yeah, Coach.’ And we had the surveillance cameras and there he is on Sunday in the gym. Thursday night, in the gym. Friday, the gym.

"So finally I had to go and say, Tyler, you can choose your day off, it can be Wednesday or Sunday next week. ‘Coach, we got a game on Wednesday.’ I said, 'Well, if I was you, I’d pick Sunday as your day off.' We literally had to threaten him with being suspended for a game for working too hard outside of practice. But that was the only thing that was going to keep him out of the gym."

Competitive fire is stoked in Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro

Kolek and Ighodaro have different on-court personas. Kolek is brash, while Ighodaro doesn't betray much emotion.

But there is a competitive fire within both of them.

Another detail that Johnson liked about Ighodaro as a recruit was that Ighodaro wasn't scared off because more heralded prospects Justin Lewis and Dawson Garcia were in his same class.

“Most guys would run from that situation," Johnson said. "And say, well, you got two guys that are at a similar position, blah, blah, blah. He didn’t flinch. So the third piece for me was he wasn’t afraid to compete. So, again, take a guy just learning how to play, hasn’t played all that much, has an unbelievable feel for the game, who is not afraid of competition."

Paulsen knew Kolek's mental makeup would make him a good player in the Atlantic 10 Conference. He later realized those qualities would push Kolek higher.

"I knew he’d be tough, smart and competitive in the A-10," Paulsen said. "But those attributes he has in spades, that’s why he’s going to be a first-round NBA draft choice.

"Because the measurables don’t necessarily say first-round NBA draft choice, right? But he’s just so darn tough and so competitive and so driven and so smart. Those things trump a guy who’s two or three inches taller or got a few inches on his vertical jump or can run a cone drill faster. Last I checked they didn’t put cones out there on the court in a NBA game."

Kolek and Ighodaro combined forces at MU

MU assistant Neill Berry was also part of Shaka Smart's staff at Texas when the Longhorns were recruiting Ighodaro.

Berry remembers watching Ighodaro play at a showcase tournament in Arizona.

"The cerebral-ness that he plays with to this day, you could see that in high school," Berry said. "Even then. Just the way he moved around the floor, he had real athleticism.

"He was a guy who, you could tell, he's got a lot of tools there to work with, for sure."

Everything came together when Smart was hired by MU in 2021. Ighodaro decided to stick around, Kolek was plucked out of the transfer portal and the duo started to realize the potential that was identified in them.

"Consistency," Berry said. "They are just incredibly consistent in everything they do. You know what you're getting from them.

"They are both internally driven and motivated. If you go to the gym between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., Oso's going to be in there working out. Go there there from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Tyler's going to be working out. They were maniacal with their work, their approach and their consistency.

"Both of them were extremely connected to Coach and bought into what he was preaching and how he was coaching. And they started driving the same message. It's not rocket science, it's not pixie dust. Them dudes ... they work and are obsessed with it."

Marquette's Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro are expected to get picked in the NBA draft.
Marquette's Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro are expected to get picked in the NBA draft.

Preaching the word to NBA scouts and decision-makers

Berry, Paulsen and Johnson have fielded many calls over the last few months from NBA personnel who are gathering intelligence on Kolek and Ighodaro.

Teams are concerned that Kolek will be overmatched physically, but Paulsen just goes back to the qualities that drew the coach's attention.

"The things that you can’t quantify in the combine in Chicago, which are the things that win in my opinion, he is elite at all those un-measurables," Paulsen said. "The basketball IQ, the feel, the toughness, the competitiveness, the chip on the shoulder, the work ethic.

"He’s the elite of the elite in those intangibles. And clearly he’s a heck of a leader and a heck of a connector in what he’s done at Marquette. I can’t speak for Shaka and the staff, but I’d say he was the heart and soul of that team for the past few years.

"Those things carry the day. And he’s really, really skilled. He’s got that ability. I think anyone who’s bet against Tyler Kolek has lost a lot of bets. And I wouldn’t be the guy that bets against Tyler Kolek."

The big question about Ighodaro is if he can improve as a shooter after going 0 for 2 on three-pointers at MU.

"The cool thing about going to the NBA is every ounce of your time can be committed to the game and being in the gym," Johnson said. "He doesn’t have to worry about school and all the different things you have to do sometimes in college.

"If that’s your concern, I tell them you got no concern, because I think he’s going to answer that bell pretty shortly here."

Ighodaro has been preparing for the NBA draft in Los Angeles. One night his mom arranged for Johnson to be a surprise guest at dinner.

Ighodaro and Johnson talked about how far Ighodaro has come since those days as a raw recruit. They also talked about where Ighodaro is going.

"I told him it’s very rare that a guy can say he wants to accomplish something, a massive goal like he had, and to actually be in the moment of something and staring it down," Johnson said. "It was more that ... just how proud I was of him and what he’s been able to accomplish and how he carried himself and how he represented Marquette and his family.

"It’s been incredible. The best thing about him is that he’s got a lot more left. That’s kind of how we ended the conversation. 'You’ve got a lot more left in you and your best basketball is way ahead of you.' "

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: NBA draft prospects Tyler Kolek and Oso Ighodaro weren't big recruits