Posted Apr 22, 2013 10:39 AM
Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is going to be an interesting case study in the run-up to the NBA Draft.
The 2012-13 Southeastern Conference player of the year is an intriguing prospect with decent size (6-foot-5), requisite athleticism and the ability to score, often in bunches. But in declaring for the draft earlier this week and giving up his final two seasons of eligibility, he runs the same risk many early entrants do. Having received mixed reviews from NBA teams — some consider him a first-round pick, but others see him falling to the second round — Caldwell-Pope will have to prove in the next two months he's worthy of the first round.
All it takes is one team to be convinced, and in the opinion of those who know KCP best, he's a high-character guy who isn't afraid of hard work. Those are two attributes that, combined with his versatile offensive game, will serve him well in interviews and workouts. But there are no guarantees.
Georgia coach Mark Fox has coached eight players who gave up eligibility for the Draft, so he's had a front-row seat to the process. Two years ago, Fox lost Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie after their junior seasons. Like Caldwell-Pope, their draft projections varied. Both wound up being chosen in the second round by the Los Angeles Clippers.
Leslie was waived in 2012 and, save for a 10-day contract he signed with the Utah Jazz in March, has kicked around the D-League since. Thompkins played all of 24 NBA games before being waived by the Clippers in March.
Could a similar fate befall Caldwell-Pope?
"There are two keys," Fox said. "First, how well will he do in workouts? If he doesn't work out well, he'll wind up on the wrong side of the [first-round] bubble. Second, it's going to depend on what team he ends up with. He has to go to a team that will allow him to continue to develop, to improve the same way he did for us."
Caldwell-Pope was a rare recruit for Georgia, the first McDonald's All-American signed by the program since 1992. But he didn't show up in Athens as a finished product. His charge after a freshman season in which he earned a spot on the SEC's All-Freshman team was to improve his jumper, especially from 3-point range, tack several points onto his free-throw percentage and shore up his defense.
He did all three, and as a young veteran on a largely inexperienced team, he became Georgia's primary scoring threat. Calling KCP a go-to guy doesn't even begin to cover his worth to his team. He averaged 18.5 points, 10.6 more than the Bulldogs' second-leading scorer. He was one of only nine players in Division I to score in double figures in every game. Caldwell-Pope was on the first page of every opposing team's scouting report, but none figured out how to shut him down.
His solution to the various defenses thrown at him this season was simple.
"Just being patient," KCP said. "Just letting the game come to me. Just taking open shots that they give me. And letting our offense work to my advantage."
"He was really good in our system," Fox said. "No matter how people tried to play him, he had the benefit of options."
Caldwell-Pope's improvement was predicated on his ability to make 3s. He shot 30 percent from behind the arc as a freshman, 37 percent as a sophomore. With the long ball a constant threat, defenses had to make sure Caldwell-Pope didn't get open shots. And if opponents tried to pressure him on the perimeter, he was just as capable of getting to the rim.
"He's tough to defend because of his ability to create his own shot as well as get shots out of their offense," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said after KCP scored 22 against the Crimson Tide. "He's explosive in transition. He rebounds, and typically he's guarding the best player on the other side of the ball as well."
"He's not a watcher," said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy. "The thing that I can't stand sometimes is guys watching the ball. He's always engaged in the game in all facets."
That included defense. Caldwell-Pope finished third in the SEC in steals as he used his length to get into passing lanes. The result was often a steal followed by a breakaway dunk.
"The thing I like about him is he'll accept challenges on the defensive side of the ball," said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, whose team lost twice to Georgia. "He's not one of the those guys that scores it, but then you've got to put him on a guy to try to hide him."
One other aspect of Caldwell-Pope's game stood out in his final college season. Dude was clutch. Consider that in SEC games, he scored 332 points, and nearly a third of them came in the final five minutes of games. He averaged 5.7 points in that span while shooting 67 percent from the field, 63 percent from 3 and 83 percent from the free-throw line.
Could Caldwell-Pope have benefitted from another season at Georgia? The consensus answer from NBA teams was yes. But he thought differently, and now he's going to put his belief in himself to the test.
Fox, who says he would have run Caldwell-Pope out the door had his NBA projections placed him as a top 15 pick, will always be wary of a borderline first-rounder taking a chance. The examples of Thompkins and Leslie are fresh in his mind. But he saw KCP evolve from a freshman with holes in his game to the SEC player of the year. That process took all of one summer, and it bodes well for his future as a pro.
"Ken is an NBA player," Fox said. "But he's going to have to get stronger. And he's going to have to learn the NBA game and its nuances. If he gets drafted by a team that will allow him to do that, he'll have a good career."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
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