MEN'S HOOPS: Time To Say "Thanks, David Lee!"

It's Senior Day for the University of Florida. Kentucky is the opponent for this nationally televised game on CBS and a packed Stephen C. O'Connell Center will erupt when David Lee's name is announced as Florida's only senior. The 6-9 power forward from St. Louis has been a good one, deserving of the love and attention he will get.

That Lee is the only senior really isn't a surprise. When he was part Coach Billy Donovan's heralded signing class of 2001, no one really expected more than one of the threesome of Lee, James White and Kwame Brown to actually stick around for all four years and most figured that Lee would be the one. Brown, because he was 6-11 and blessed with unusual skills and mobility for someone that big, was expected to be at Florida a year, two at the most. White and Lee, a couple of high flyers who had battled it out for the slam dunk championship at the McDonald's All-Star Game in Raleigh that spring, had NBA written all over them as well but of the two, only White frequently talked about making the jump to the play for pay ranks.

This was the top high school recruiting class in the country and it was expected to take the Florida Gators to at least one NCAA championship, maybe more. Now, four years later, there are no NCAA titles and only Lee is around to enjoy the Senior Day adulation.

Brown never made it to campus. Given the choice of NBA bucks and the college campus, the big man from Brunswick, Georgia opted for the money thrown at him by the Washington Wizards. He's been an NBA enigma, occasionally flashing glimpses of the kind of star power he projected when he came out of high school as the very first pick in the NBA draft in June of 2001. In the final year of his contract with the Wizards, he's starting to show that he'll eventually come around although it's highly doubtful he'll be in Washington after this season. To whispers that he's lazy and a problem in the locker, he's pretty much worn out his welcome with the Wiz.

For Brown, the hopes that he would come to Florida were wishful at best. From a very poor family with a mother on dialysis, he made the prudent choice from a financial standpoint to take the NBA money. Whether he ever develops any further or not, he's set for life and his mother is taken care of.

From a standpoint of player development, he certainly could have used the time in college, even if for one more year. He wasn't ready for the intensity of the pro game and it's said he never has learned how to properly manage all the time he has on his hands. More than one writer who follows the Wizards has at one time or another wondered out loud if perhaps too much time and too much money have created a bored Kwame Brown who no longer sees the need for motivation.

James White had a good freshman year at Florida but the Gators brought in Christian Drejer from Denmark, a heralded recruit who played the same small forward/shooting guard position, in the spring of 2002. White lost interest in the Gators and transferred to Cincinnati where he's had some good games but has never become the dominating player that everyone expected. He sat a year with the transfer so he's just a junior now and if he ever makes it to the NBA, it will likely be the free agent route. Had he gone to the NBA straight from high school, there was talk that he could be a lottery pick. He flirted with bolting Florida after his freshman year when he would have been chosen in the first round.

Then there is Lee. He had a nice freshman year, coming in off the bench to offer relief to Udonis Haslem and Matt Bonner for a Florida team that won 22 games. Teaming with Bonner on the front line in 2002, Lee had an outstanding sophomore year for a Gator team that won 24 games and made it to number one in the nation at one point in the season. Lee had a difficult junior year but he's rebounded to a fine senior season that has seen him average a double-double in SEC games.

Lee stands to go late first round/early second round in the NBA draft this June. Had he bolted for the NBA after his sophomore year, he was a lock to be a first rounder. Had he chosen to go directly from high school to the NBA, most experts believe he would have been taken in the first 20 picks.

Given what he knows now, Donovan might have taken a totally different route when putting together his signing class in 2001. Recently, at a media opportunity, Donovan talked openly about how his recruiting tactics have changed. He spends more time on the phone with coaches and scouts and if he believes the player he's recruiting is a first rounder, generally he looks elsewhere.

"If you know you're a first rounder, you ought to go on to the NBA," said Donovan whose recruiting is now geared more to players who need two or three years to develop their skills into those demanded by the NBA. This means that future classes at UF will be filled with solid players with a big upside but perhaps lacking that instant superstar. The recruiting trail the Gators are going has been blazed by Kentucky's Tubby Smith, who has done a marvelous job of recruiting excellent players who stay in school for four years. While there are three McDonald's All-Americans in the freshman class that will be taking the floor with the Wildcats Sunday, only one, 6-11 Randolph Morris, was really considered NBA first round material coming out of high school.

Morris played AAU ball in Atlanta with Dwight Howard, the high school phenom that the Orlando Magic took with the first overall pick in the draft. While Howard has had a brilliant rookie year in the NBA, Morris has been solid and only occasionally spectacular with Kentucky. Had Morris gone the NBA route last June, he would have been a lottery pick. Now, the longer that Morris or any college player stays in school, the more likely his position on the draft boards will drop.

"Once they're in college, they're under the microscope," he said. "If they don't dominate, then they can lose that chance and the longer they stay in school, the more money and the more opportunity they lose."

The perfect example is Duke's Shavlik Randolph. He's a junior at Duke now and a mere shell of the player he was expected to be when he finished his senior season at Raleigh's Broughton High School. When Randolph chose Duke over North Carolina, Florida and a date with the NBA lottery, he was expected to be a two or three-year Dookie at the most before going on to the pros. Because he was from an upper middle class family, money was never considered an object so Randolph was praised for taking the "high road" and choosing Duke.

The high road has resulted in a combination of injuries and exposure of too many flaws in Randolph's game. A continuous string of injuries has done its share of tanking Randolph's career. When he's healthy he's had a few outstanding games, but for the most part he's been a backup to Sheldon Williams. Every game that he's played he's been exposed for a lack of strength and endurance and any time he faces a quick opponent, he looks slow and uncoordinated. Even if he shows big in the NCAA Tournament and comes back with a great senior season, he's damaged goods now. His game has been dissected far too many times and the NBA team that does take him will be doing so as a reach. Forget lottery. Forget first round. Forget guaranteed money.

The same scouts who thought Randolph was a lock to be an NBA great three years ago have spent three years taking his game apart to the point that he's off the charts completely. That's the same fate that waits any high school player who opts for college over the NBA. It's the same fate that waits any player already in college who decides to stick around an extra year for his alma mammy.

Had David Lee chosen to go the NBA route out of high school scouts say he would have been taken in the first twenty picks. He could have been a first rounder after either of his first two years at UF even with his lack of a consistent jump shot at the time. A disappointing junior year made him look like free agent material at best, but with an SEC season that has been extraordinary, his stock is on the rise again. Though it's highly unlikely he will go sooner than the 24th pick in the first round, he's pretty much assured that he'll get drafted which will be a nice punctuation mark on his Florida career.

With the regular season over Sunday and only a few tournament games remaining, no one is betting on the Florida Gators to make a run for the NCAA championship. Although Lee will tell you that it wouldn't be wise to count the Gators out of anything, for Florida to make any kind of run he will have to step up his game even more than what he's shown in the past two months. If he is unable to do that no one will be more disappointed than David Lee but in reality, why should anyone be disappointed?

He's given us four good years and he could have easily never shown up, leaving Donovan and the Gators high and dry. He could have bolted after his first two years but he didn't do that either. He chose to stick around and if he hasn't met with your expectations then please understand he's not met with his own, either. He came here expecting to win a national championship and even though two of the three building blocks for that expected title bolted he's not the kind of kid to ever let that be an excuse.

The class that might have been would have been spectacular if they had all shown up. The fact that David Lee not only showed up but stuck around four years says plenty about him. The fact that he's built his draft stock back up after it went south also says plenty. You can argue all day that he could have been better at this or that, but no one can argue that he's played hard and done his best every time out on the floor, not can anyone argue that what he's done in the SEC games has been anything short out outstanding.

So when they call out his name in the pre-game, say "Thanks David Lee!"

That's what I'll be doing.

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