PRODUCTS: Ray Allen (1994-96), Richard Hamilton (1997-99), Caron Butler (2001-02), Ben Gordon (2002-04), Emeka Okafor (2002-04), Charlie Villanueva (2004-05), Rudy Gay (2005-)
It was this same time last year that I was sitting across a table -- in the bowels of UConn's Gampel Pavilion -- from Charlie Villanueva, and couldn't help but stare at the two, prominent pieces of jewelry he was sporting: a 2004 national championship ring, on one hand, and a 2004 Final Four ring, dangling at the end of a long chain around his neck. He had spent just one season with the Huskies and was already a decorated individual.
Villanueva wasn't particularly prepared to enter the draft after his freshman year -- nor had he been a major part of UConn's title run -- but not being prepared for the NBA has long since been disqualified as a prerequisite for turning pro early. He would have been selected in the late first round on potential alone, yet opted to remain with the Huskies. When I asked Villaneuva to what extent he had actually considered leaving, he smirked and said, "At UConn, it's very hard to be a one-and-done player."
Why is that the case? Why do so many Huskies with NBA stardom in their sights -- from Ray Allen, to Rip Hamilton, to Caron Butler, to Ben Gordon, to Emeka Okafor to Villanueva -- resist the urge to make the jump at their first opportunity? The answer is Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun. Not because he restricts young players' progress, mind you, but because they've put faith in his wisdom when he's told them: You're not ready yet.
"I don't make things clear [that players shouldn't leave too early], but once you're into the program, you're into the program," Calhoun said. "Ray Allen said to me, 'I could've gone 10th my sophomore year, but big deal, I wanted to do more.' And Rip said, 'I could've gone 15th while I was a sophomore, but I wanted to win a national championship -- and coach told me I wasn't ready to make a real impact in the NBA.' For most of our kids, it's worked out pretty well."
The wisdom is backed up by results. Allen went No. 5 overall in the 1996 draft. Hamilton won a national title and saw his stock improve to No. 7 in 1999. Butler was selected at No. 10 by Miami in 2002. Okafor and Gordon were crowned national champs as juniors, then were taken as picks Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in the 2004 draft. Villanueva's sophomore season ended in a second-round exit from the NCAA tournament, but this April, he was selected No. 7 overall by the Toronto Raptors -- much higher than he would have gone in 2004.
Now, Villanueva's roommate from last season, sophomore Rudy Gay, is hoping to follow the same course. He was already viewed as UConn's best pro prospect -- ahead of Villanueva -- in 2004-05, but to no one's surprise, is back for another year of development under Calhoun.
Gay, a 6-foot-9 swingman, is the best athlete in college basketball, and already projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft. The team he'll lead has the goods to win a national title if -- and only if -- Gay develops into the dominating scorer everyone expects him to be. Had he blossomed into a superstar as a freshman, rather than a periodically amazing, more often passive physical specimen, Calhoun probably would have been comfortable letting Gay go.
"If a Carmelo-type year comes along," the coach said, "you need to take advantage of it [and turn pro]. But discounting something like that happening, what you need to do is, 1. Get yourself ready to help us win, and 1A. Let us get yourself ready to be a significant factor in the NBA."
Gay has bought into the message, saying, "[Calhoun's] been coaching longer than I've been born, so he knows the direction people need to take."
And why not be a believer? Trusting Calhoun, for a long line of Huskies, has been mutually beneficial.