The Wonder Years
One-and-done NBA players ponder what might’ve been with another year of college.
by Jonathan Santiago / @ITSjonsantiago
Over the last decade, the one-and-done player has become common within the game of college basketball. Due to the NBA Draft’s minimum age requirement, the most talented high school players typically opt only for their freshmen year of college. Then it’s off to the pros for greener pastures, literally and figuratively.
But what if they didn’t leave so soon?
Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh left Georgia Tech after one season. He didn’t enjoy the same kind of success fellow ’03 draft-mate Carmelo Anthony did, who won the National Title. Instead, Bosh and his fellow Yellow Jackets finished the regular season at a subpar 16-15 and danced not in the NCAA Tournament, but rather the NIT.
Bosh did enough individually his lone college season to solidify his draft stock and made the decision to hang up his Yellow Jackets uniform for good. But then a funny thing happened.
Georgia Tech started winning.
“When I was there we were just too young,” Bosh said of his lone season at Tech. “The talent was there. We just hadn’t blossomed yet.”
Following Bosh’s departure, they earned a birth as a three seed in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, which they failed to qualify for the previous two seasons. And they made the most out of their seeding, getting all the way to the National Championship game.
Unfortunately for Tech, they ran into the UConn Huskies, that season’s college basketball powerhouse. Anchored in the post by current New Orleans Hornets center Emeka Okafor, the Huskies defeated the Bosh-less Yellow Jackets handedly, 82-73.
“I think we definitely would’ve won it with him,” said Jarrett Jack, Bosh’s teammate on both the Raptors and Yellow Jackets. “He would’ve been the thing we needed to carry us to the title.”
In Bosh’s rookie year, Okafor became the best college big man in the country, earning All-American honors and the Pete Newell Big Man Award. His outstanding effort on offense and defense was the driving force behind UConn’s victory over Georgia Tech. Had Bosh been around, could it have been a different story?
“Me and a couple of my friends went to the National Championship because I had to see my guys play,” Bosh said. “When we ended up losing everybody was like, ‘Man if you were here, we would’ve won!’
“But you know it’s always fun to think about,” continued Bosh, who grinned while reminiscing over what could’ve been. “Because I feel we had one of the best teams in the country.”
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love experienced more success in one season at UCLA than Bosh did at Georgia Tech.
A lot more.
A highly touted recruit out of Oregon, Love was regarded as the nation’s best center going into his freshman year. Not since the days of Bill Walton or Lew Alcindor had UCLA landed such a talent to anchor the post.
In the previous two seasons, the Bruins made the Final Four in back-to-back tries, led primarily by their guard play. Love’s presence in the middle seemed like the missing piece to UCLA’s championship aspirations.
But then there was Memphis, led by another soon-to-be one-and-done prospect, to stop Love and his Bruins right in their tracks.
“I think we definitely would’ve been the favorite to win it the next year,” Love said, speculating on what might’ve been had he stayed another season. “We would’ve been competing against (North) Carolina for their spot.”
Though he averaged a double-double, Love was one of two young UCLA players who had just begun to scratch the surface of his potential. Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook was a relative unknown prior to the departure of current Denver Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo.
But after emerging as a key player in UCLA’s ’07-08 season, Westbrook headed toward the exits of Pauley Pavilion, essentially making Love’s decision to go pro that much simpler.
“You know Russell had already kind of made up his mind,” Love said of his former college roommate’s decision to declare for the NBA Draft. “He was going to leave after that year. So it had been in my mind that if he was going to leave, I was going to leave too.”
After leading the Memphis Tigers past Love’s UCLA Bruins, Derrick Rose bounced for the NBA also, leaving a hole at guard for Head Coach John Calipari’s team.
No worries for Calipari though, always the master pitchman. He had another talented High-School All-American ready to pounce on the opportunity to shine.
Sacramento Kings rookie guard Tyreke Evans arrived at the University of Memphis with big shoes to fill. Not only did Rose leave for the NBA, but so did established upperclassmen Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey.
Yet Evans had no trouble picking up the slack, at one point leading the Tigers to a 27-game winning streak. But a team driven by one-man, let alone a freshman, can only go so far as Evans’ Tigers fell in the Sweet Sixteen to Missouri. At that point, it seemed paper work was the only formality keeping Evans from making his NBA dreams a reality.
“After the Missouri game he actually told me to go,” Evans said of his former Head Coach’s advice. “He didn’t say ‘stay one more year.’ He thought I was ready. When he told me I should leave, it put a little smile on my face coming from him.”
But had he chosen to stay, help was on its way. Well it was, until Calipari decided to leave Memphis and take Kentucky’s vacant head coaching job.
“A lot of people wonder if I would’ve left with Cal if I stayed another year,” Evans said of hearsay surrounding his collegiate status. “I think I would’ve stayed with Coach Pas (Josh Pastner) because I wouldn’t have wanted to sit out a year (for transferring). Of course, one of my goals was to get to the NBA and I didn’t want anything holding me back from that.”
Though the Wildcats would go on to lose in last weekend’s Elite Eight to West Virginia, Calipari’s Kentucky team was perhaps the most star-studded bunch of freshmen since Michigan’s Fab Five. Throw in Kansas’ Xavier Henry, who committed to Memphis but changed his mind, DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall and could things have worked out if Evans and Calipari both stayed?
“That just probably wouldn’t be fair,” Evans said with a grin of playing on a team featuring both he and Wall. “I don’t think we would’ve lost a game if we did play together.”
We can only imagine.
Jonathan Santiago also co-hosts the weekly Davis Sports Deli Podcast, which can be found here.