Wilkins a New Man

ATHENS – Damien Wilkins will walk off campus a new man today.

Six years after he left Georgia to play in the NBA, Wilkins will leave class today as a graduate of the University of Georgia.

"This is very important to me," he said. "I have been trying to finish up for a long time now, and today is the last day of class."

Wilkins said he'd been trying to finish up the final class, a political science class, over the Internet, but said that he would get too distracted to complete the coursework. He decided to come back to Athens once and for all to finish up what he started at the beginning of this decade.

"I can't stand not to finish what I have started," he said. "Also, that degree is something that can't be taken away from me. I want it to show my kids. I also want to do some things after basketball. That ball won't bounce forever you know."

Still, the ball has bounced well for Wilkins over his NBA career. Five years into a career most didn't give much of a chance, Wilkins is closing in on almost 100 career starts, and plays most of the game for the Oklahoma City Thunder on an average night. He enters 2010 with one season remaining on his contract, making him one of several free agents available for next summer's market.

"Everyone is going to be trying to sign both me and LeBron next summer," Wilkins said with a chuckle. James' free agent signing will likely be the largest in NBA history. That's not to say Wilkins' new signing won't have plenty of zeros behind it. The former Georgia star pocketed a reported $3.1 million for the 2008-09 season alone. That begs the question – why come back to get a degree, when you are already a millionaire?

"It is more important than that," Wilkins said. "This could end at any moment. I have worked very hard for my basketball career – proving a lot of people wrong – but you never know when something could go wrong and it all be over."

Wilkins points to the salaries in the NBA and says that extra time and money on your hands can seriously test a player.

"Think about it. We have practice for about an hour and a half, and then we are off the rest of the day," he said. "We have a million dollars in the bank, and we are off the rest of the day. That's why your work will tell on you in the NBA. Anyone could sit around and do nothing the rest of the time, but you have to stay with it – and not just the superstars. Everyone in the NBA has to work – there are only 13 spots on the roster, and there aren't that many teams."

Count Wilkins among those who have worked. He was an undrafted free agent who signed with the then Seattle Supersonics. The Minnesota Timberwolves tried to sign him one year into his career, but the Sonics we too impressed to let him leave.

"Damien earned the respect of our players, coaches and fans," Sonics general manager Rick Sund said after signing Wilkins in 2005. "He improved as much in one season as any player we can remember."

Wilkins completed his first season in Oklahoma City this spring. The Supersonics moved to the Midwest after negotiations with Seattle for a new area fizzled. Wilkins says he likes his new home.

"It is a lot like Athens," Wilkins said of Oklahoma City. "I think Athens is exciting, and I think Oklahoma City is, too. It is us and the Sooners – we are both a big deal here."

Speaking of college basketball, Wilkins said the dismissal of Dennis Felton and the hiring of Mark Fox was "the first step" for Georgia basketball's future.

"The biggest thing is the players," he said. "Look at the team we had when I was there – that was a good team. But it seems since after we left they have been young for a long time."

The Bulldogs were put on probation after the Jim Harrick Era, but Felton never seemed to push the program out of the problematic time. The Bulldogs had a difficult time signing and retaining talent during the Felton Era.

"Yes we won the SEC Tournament, but we have been too young for too long," he said.

Wilkins said he will help Fox any way he can. That will start with helping at some of the Dawgs' camps, which start this weekend in Athens. The time in the Classic City will also give Wilkins time to walk around the campus he still loves.

"A lot of things have change, but I just remember college as the best time I have ever had in my life," he said. "I would love, love, to come back and do it all over again knowing what I know now."

Wilkins did come back and accomplish the one thing he has wanted for years – getting his degree and graduating from college.

"I have already ordered four diplomas," he admitted. "I want to make sure I have enough."

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