COLORADO SPRINGS – Aaron Gordon and Billy Donovan had reactions unlike the majority of those who follow college basketball did immediately after it was reported on April 16 that Marcus Smart was going to play a sophomore season at Oklahoma State.
The wide-spread assumption was that the 6-foot-4, 220-pound point guard, after earning Big 12 Conference Player of the Year and All-American honors for his fabulous freshman performance in Stillwater, was going wrap his arms around the opportunity to be among top five or so selections in the June 27 NBA Draft.
As a top-five selection, and maybe even the No. 1 overall choice, he would have been making $2 million-plus out of the gate as a rookie and would be on the league’s proverbial yellow brick road toward that “second contract” and the mega-millions that tag along with it.
For the typical teen-aged hoopster, it was much more than logical choice – it was the smart decision.
But it wasn’t the Marcus Smart decision.
“It really didn’t surprise me much,” Gordon, a teammate of Smart’s on the USA squad that won the FIBA U18 gold medal in Brazil last summer, said Tuesday night after a practice for the U19 team on which the soon-to-be Arizona freshman is again teamed with Smart.
“Maybe it surprised a lot of people. But he’s a winner and there is no way he want to go out (of college) the way things ended last season (with a loss to Oregon in the NCAA Championships Round of 64).”
Donovan, who is coaching Smart again after being at the helm of the U18 squad a year ago, approaches the “is he going or staying?” speculation a lot differently than most who assume any kid with a chance at the really big NBA bucks isn’t going to stick around collecting scholarship checks and living in dorms any longer than he has to “because of the Florida guys,” the Gators’ coach said.
He was alluding to Joaquin Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, who, after leading the Gators to the 2006 national crown, elected to bypass NBA lottery selection wealth to return to Gainesville for another season in which they helped their program become the first to win back-to-back titles since Duke in 1991-92.
“I know a lot of people said he made a ‘mistake’ (by delaying the opportunity to become instantly rich in the traditional sense of the word),” Donovan continued, in between practice sessions this week at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
“But he’s a great kid and, at the end of the day, he has to do what makes him happy. It was great for college basketball. And I’m sure it made Travis Ford happy, too.”
It seems as if it made the Oklahoma State coach something approaching speechless – and a bit misty-eyed – as well.
“He kept telling me ‘you have to do what is best for you and I’ll support you even if you decide to leave’,” Smart said of Ford, after another practice in which he demonstrated why he could be the most dynamic, and dominant, hoopster to play two college seasons in a long while.
“When I told him (that he was returning to Stillwater), I know he was at least a little surprised.”
In fact, “he nearly cried,” Smart added, smiling.
His decision was the result of a multitude of factors other than just the opportunity to go much deeper into the NCAA tourney than the Cowboys did last March.
Mainly, “I wanted to just enjoy being a ‘kid’ longer,” he said, “without the stress (that comes, as many – in and out of basketball – that comes from no longer being a “kid”).
“Most people (who were already what kind of suit he would be wearing in Brooklyn on draft night) assumed it would be about the dollar signs. But I just enjoy being in college and playing college basketball.”
JAHLIL OKAFOR of Chicago Whitney Young High is one of two 17-year-olds (along with Justise Winslow of Houston St. John’s) on Team USA’s 12-player roster that was scheduled to head to Washington, DC Wednesday evening for four days of workouts before departing for Prague on Sunday and the June 27-July 7 FIBA World Championships.
He has long since been identified as the best center, and possibly the best overall prospect, in the prep Class of 2014.
Okafor could have gone a long way in solidifying the former and removing “possibly” as a qualifier in the latter with impressive performances during the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp (June 11-15 in Charlottesville, VA) and LeBron James Skills Academy (July 5-8 in Las Vegas).
The overwhelming bulk of the top seniors-to-be were going to be at one, the other or – for the most part – both.
Okafor relished both opportunities – as he does playing for his Nike-sponsored travel club, the Mac Irvin Fire, during tournaments later next month in Augusta, SC, and Las Vegas.
“It was a little tough (knowing he wouldn’t be at the NBPA and LeBron James event),” Okafor said after Monday’s second practice session.
“But talking to my dad (Chuck Okafor) and high school coach (Tyrone Slaughter) convinced me that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Playing with these guys, playing for these coaches (Donovan and Shaka Smart of VCU and Tony Bennett of Virginia, who are assisting him) and representing my country – it’s all great.”
THE TEAM scrimmaged (per international rules, 10-minute quarters) a group of local (Air Force Academy, College of Colorado and Pueblo College) players Tuesday night, with Smart, Nigel Williams-Goss (a freshman-to-be at Washington) and Rasheed Sulaimon (who started at Duke as a freshman) on the perimeter, and Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee) and Montrezl Harrell (Louisville) up front.
We should freely assumed that most of the squads Team USA will face in the Czech Republic will have spent more time preparing for its full-court pressure than the pick-up squad it scrimmaged.
That conceded, the full-court pressure applied Tuesday night – with Smart, Williams-Goss and another active and tenacious defender, Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette) – looked like it’s going to prove very disruptive in Prague.
“This squad,” Donovan said, “is way ahead of last year’s team, defensively, at the same time.”
Sulaimon has been playing with left wrist and lower palm bandaged.
There is a huge blister on the hand.
“I got it when the hand skidded on the floor (during practice),” he said, smiling while showing off the wound.
That will teach those Duke guys and their all-out hustle.