HOOPS: Q and A with Coach Billy Donovan on the NBA

BELLE GLADE --- It's been quite an offseason for Billy Donovan since his Gators defeated Kentucky to win Florida's first Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in school history. Donovan has hit the recruiting trail hard, landing commitments from three outstanding high school prospects: one who will be playing for the Gators in the 2006-2007 school year and two others who will join the following year.

He's still holding his breath about Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh who have declared for the NBA Draft, so it will be awhile before he knows what kind of team he will have next season.

Gator Country caught up with Donovan for ten minutes prior to the Florida basketball coach speaking to the Big Lake Gator Club as part of their annual Gator Gathering Tuesday night.

FB: Have you been forced to change the way you recruit because the NBA seems to be taking more and more kids out of high school or after one year of college based mostly on potential? Have you had to take an approach similar to what Tubby Smith has done at Kentucky, recruiting the bulk of your class with kids you know who are going to be there for the next four years? And how will the proposed NBA age limit change the way you recruit?

BD: I think Tubby does a tremendous job of recruiting, but the other thing I think is that you're going to end up getting --- if this age limit comes about and it's a 20 year old age limit that they're saying now --- you're going to see a lot of schools going back to recruiting guys who you know are only going to be there two years, then they go on to the NBA. Recruiting has gotten to the point with so many high school kids going that you almost feel that you need to go out and get the four-year player but with the way the rules might get set up, Lebron James is going to be in college unless there is some kind of high school exception to where some players can be drafted so it's almost like it could actually go backwards. Here's what doesn't change about recruiting. We still have to evaluate kids and do a good job of determining that they can play at our level. We will have to do a better job if kids coming out of high school know that all they have to do is a couple of years in college.

FB: I think Major League Baseball has the right idea. They can draft any kid out of high school and if the kid doesn't sign, then they can't touch him until he's 21. I think that the NBA could do something of that nature and it could bring some fairness into a process that's just way out of hand. What would you think about something similar to the baseball draft from the NBA?

BD: It's a fair rule (baseball) because what I think it does is balance everything out. It balances because it lets the school know how long they have the player for and then the league knows when the player is eligible and available to come back to the draft. So you know that you may lose a kid coming out of high school, which is unfortunate, but if your kid doesn't sign or isn't drafted, you know exactly how long you can work with him before he's eligible to be drafted again. It's unfortunate that you can make cases for quite a few kids who have gone out of high school and it just hasn't worked out, but there are others who have had it work out. You can make cases for guys who have stayed four years in college and it's really been great and you can make cases for guys who stayed four years in college and their stock over a period of time has really dropped. So there is no really clear cut definition of what's the best way to go. From a stability standpoint in college basketball, if we could work under the premise that we know how long we're going to get a young man to work with it would make things a lot easier. The difficult thing for us is that we constantly have to react to decisions that kids make. For example if (Anthony) Roberson and (Matt) Walsh both choose to go [to the NBA] we go from a team that might be ranked in the top ten in the country next season to a team that might not be ranked at all. You just don't know but at this point we're probably not going to find out until the last week of June exactly what they're going to do. We'll be waiting around not knowing what kind of team we'll have for another month or so, so I, as a coach, quite selfishly want some type of rule that when a kid comes in, you can't take him out for a set number of years and that give us a level of consistency … say over a three-year period that we don't have now but we could make adjustments from.

FB: If you look at the NBA, even in the playoffs, there are empty seats. I have a theory that I told Larry Conley: If people want to see high school basketball, then they'd much rather pay $5 to see the local team than $50 for a nosebleed ticket at an NBA arena. And yet the NBA keeps raising the price of tickets and the owners keep wondering why there are so many empty seats.

BD: I think that right now the salaries that they're paying these players have just gotten drastically out of control. Now I'm not one to ever be the one to decide who's being overpaid and who's underpaid. If someone's willing to pay you the amount of money that these guys are being paid, then I guess you're worth it. But what you're seeing is some of these franchises putting out so much revenue to get talent and personnel in that they better put fans in the seats or they can't pay these contracts. That's the difficult part. You've got players who are with franchises that aren't drawing very well but they have salaries that are escalating and that makes it very difficult on these owners and it makes it tough for fans to buy tickets and identify with their team. The sad thing is that most of the problems in sports seem to always come down to money. It's all a huge business right now and I'm afraid nothing is going to change really until you see the Kwame Browns or Lebron Jameses, the Kobe Bryants and Tracy McGradys … guys who eliminated college … start asking themselves, did not going to college take away something that I might have needed as a person? Forget about the money or the instant success that might or might not happen. Am I at a point right now where you know something: I'm missing something very important in my life right now. We automatically assume that because you have a pocket full of money that you're happy and all your problems go away, but sometimes it creates more problems.

FB: I believe that one thing that has hurt the NBA is that fans can't identify with players. I think there aren't many fans of say East Stroudsburg High School who follow one of that high school's kids in the NBA. But if you take the college example, when Michael Jordan or James Worthy went to the NBA every Carolina fan because a Bulls fan or a Lakers fan because that's where their college heroes went. When Mike Miller went to Orlando, Gator fans became Magic fans and now that he's in Memphis Gator fans follow him there. Gator fans are Heat fans because Udonis (Haslem) plays in Miami.

BD: I agree with it completely. These kids bounce around and when they get out of high school, the people from their home town who have watched them grow up will watch them play, but it's a lot easier for fans to identify with someone from a college who was there for four years. When you have a guy who may have only been in your program one or two years, it's easy to feel that you don't know him. Look at a guy like David Lee who stayed four years or a guy like Udonis Haslem who came up to Florida from Miami High, stayed four years, and now he's playing in the NBA in Miami. People in our state can identify with him, people who went to Florida identify with him. You can see in his case, in particular, that guys can identify better with the guy who stayed in college for four years. It's just a bigger potential fan base. I just realize, though, that in today's day and age, with the rules like they are, it's just not going to happen. Here's the thing that's tough. If a kid has the ability to be a first round draft pick and the league will take him, then the kid should go. The money is enormous and it is probably going to be your one shot. The NBA franchises view these kids who go to college on a harsher scale than the ones that come out of high school. It's like you get penalized the longer you stay in college because they look at all your deficiencies, your warts and the things you're weak at but then they look at a high school kid and say, well this kid has got great potential, but what does that mean? Here's a kid who's competed in college at a very high level and you know what? He's been out there every day where you can see him play and it's a shame that so many times that's held against him. We need to get back to the point where the NBA rewards kids who stay and play four years. We may get lucky and see that, but right now, a kid who has some ability says being in college is not a good thing for me. Somehow, that's got to change.

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At the Big Lake Gator Club Gathering, Donovan spoke only for about five minutes before answering a few questions from the crowd. He said he wanted to be brief so the crowd could have its first real chance to get to know Coach Meyer on an up front and personal basis. Donovan spoke proudly of his 2004-2005 team which won the SEC Tournament Championship and advanced into the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to a Villanova team that came within an eyelash of upsetting eventual national champion North Carolina.

"I thought our kids did a terrific job," said Donovan. "It was one of those seasons where I didn't know what to expect. I knew that Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee were all good players but I wasn't very certain with the kind of players we were going to surround them with, but I knew we were going to have to rely on a lot of freshmen."

He praised Corey Brewer and Al Horford, freshmen who became starters, and he spoke highly of fellow freshmen Taurean Green, who backed up Roberson at the point and played 23 minutes per game on average, and 6-11 Joakim Noah, whom Donovan says has great potential.

Donovan said the freshmen "changed the dynamics of our basketball team," noting that in the previous year, the team was a bit soft and lacked toughness. This year, he said the older players stepped it up in terms of leadership and the younger players brought enthusiasm, toughness and a willingness to push the older players to be better.

* * *

Donovan said that it will be almost a month before he knows what will happen with Walsh and Roberson. They will be able to start working out individually on May 19 for NBA teams so it will be at least a couple of weeks after that before they really begin to have an idea of their draft status.

"Right now we just have to wait and see," said Donovan. "Both players have to go through some individual workouts and probably by sometime in the middle of June I'll have at least some type of idea what the NBA teams think of those two kids, so we have to wait and see."

Because he is a fourth-year senior, David Lee has had no such restrictions. He's been working out for various teams with good reviews. Lee worked out Tuesday for the New Jersey Nets. Next in line will be the New York Knicks (Wednesday) and then the Boston Celtics (Thursday).

"I think David is going to play in the NBA," said Donovan. "Right now I would say he is a borderline first round pick. What it's going to come down to is how he works out. I would say that things for him right now are going very well."

The Gators will be playing in a tournament in November in New York that features North Carolina, Texas Tech and Villanova. The tournament will be nationally televised.

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