AUSTIN — Stars line the walls inside Cooley Pavilion, lording over those who step foot onto the hardwood below.

There’s Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant grasping his 2017 NBA Finals most valuable player trophy. Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge lurks just below KD, outfitted in his Western Conference All-Star uniform. About 15 feet to the right, a radiant Tristan Thompson poses with the golden Larry O’Brien Trophy he helped deliver to Cleveland in 2016.

Their omnipresence is both a reminder and a challenge: Respect those who came before, and aim to be better.

For freshman prodigy Mo Bamba, the two-dimensional giants served as fuel. He wanted to earn a spot among them, to become worthy of the wall.


“Every day in practice you see those guys on the wall,” Bamba said. “You think, what can I do to separate myself and be on that wall myself? It’s pretty good company.”

Bamba is the next in a recent line of one-and-done Texas big men. Durant, Thompson, Jarrett Allen and Myles Turner all turned pro after one season in burnt orange, and the league is fast becoming populated by players who once called the Forty Acres home.

Take a peek around the NBA you’ll find Longhorns dotting the landscape. The big men range from West Coast (Durant) to East Coast (Allen), from the South (Aldridge) to the Midwest (Turner, Thompson).

Bamba will likely become the 11th Longhorn active in the NBA when he debuts next season, joining the aforementioned players plus D.J. Augustin (Orlando), Avery Bradley (L.A. Clippers), Cory Joseph (Indiana), Isaiah Taylor (Atlanta), and P.J. Tucker (Houston).

Getting players onto NBA rosters is vital for any major college program, and despite a string of lackluster seasons, UT has consistency produced worthy professionals. Look no further than these NBA playoffs.

Seven former Longhorns played in the NBA postseason, and three — Durant, Tucker, Thompson — are still fighting for a spot in the NBA Finals. The smart money is on a Golden State repeat, meaning another grand moment on the sport’s biggest stage for Durant.

That sort of representation and visibility is invaluable to coach Shaka Smart’s program. Texas may never grow into a sanctuary for five-star recruits like Duke and Kentucky, but all that alumni success sends an enticing message to the nation’s top prospects.

When you have Time magazine touting Durant as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and when you have a top-five NBA draft pick like Bamba praising Smart, recruits take notice. Those happenings elevate the program.

“He’s a player’s coach,” Bamba said. “Really loves his players, gets to know them. Guys will do anything for him, run through a wall for him.

“My message would be, if you want to have a great relationship with your coach and you want to be told the truth and you don’t want to be babied, I think you should come to Texas and play for coach Smart.”

UT can tout its connection to Durant, a nine-time All-Star and 2014 NBA MVP, because that bond is genuine. Durant returns to Austin often, and he recently donated $3 million to help renovate Cooley.

“Kevin Durant has an incredibly strong and personal connection with not only our basketball program, but the University of Texas as a whole,” Smart said. “Each time I’ve had the opportunity to visit with Kevin, I’ve been impressed with his genuine appreciation for his time, growth and development at Texas. This gift means a great deal to our entire university, but it’s more of a reflection of how the relationships that Kevin built while at Texas remain true to this day.”

Bamba envisions himself maintaining a close relationship at the school, even if his time there was short lived. And that relationship, too, should extremely advantageous for UT basketball.

“Austin is easily one of the greatest cities in America,” Bamba said. “It’s part of the reason why I wanted to come down to Texas as opposed to anywhere else. I can easily see myself being (like Durant). This is a special place, it’s a different kind of energy here. It’s somewhere I can consider a second home.”

Nick Moyle is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of his stories here. | [email protected] | @NRMoyle