State, SEC Watch Varnado Test NBA Waters

He's made the first and simplest decision. Now Jarvis Varnado has another six weeks to prepare for the next, tougher choice, while everyone involved with Bulldog basketball—and equally all who will or might play Mississippi State next winter—wonders which way he ultimately jumps comes June.

Monday morning Mississippi State confirmed that Varnado had submitted his name to the National Basketball Association for early-entry in the 2009 draft.

Not that this news was especially surprising to anyone who has tracked the 6-9 center through and since his junior season. The only surprise would have been had Varnado not tossed his name into the NBA ring…with one stout string still attached.

"I just want to test the water, to see where I stand," Varnado said in the official release from MSU. "I'm not going to hire an agent, so I can have an opportunity to return." That opportunity runs through June 15, ten days before the 2009 draft.

Coach Rick Stansbury issued his own statement as well. "We are in full support of Jarvis and his father's decision to enter the NBA draft and test the waters. It will be a great opportunity for Jarvis to experience some workouts and gain knowledge of things he needs to work on."

If the 11th-year Bulldog coach comes across calm about the potential of losing his All-SEC center and record-setting shot blocker, well, it is because Stansbury has plenty of practical experience in such matters. Most notably with his best big men.

In 2002 then-sophomore center Mario Austin declared for the draft, then quickly withdrew to play one more season at State. In 2004 junior center Lawrence Roberts waited up to the last day to apply to the draft also, and he too pulled out later and came back for a senior season. As did 2007 junior Charles Rhodes, who came back for the upperclassman campaign and another SEC Western Division championship. In every case when these post players returned, State also returned to the NCAAs.

Varnado has enjoyed his own post-season experiences, most recently having led State to the '09 NCAAs with a 23-win campaign and run to the SEC Tournament title in Tampa. His junior season was by-far the most productive, as Varnado upgraded his scoring from 7.9 to 12.9 points, his rebounds from 7.8 to 8.8, and his blocked shots from 157 to 170. Both are MSU records and the latter figure is the new SEC season standard. With 394 swats for his three seasons Varnado needs just 19 more to set the league career record.

Varnado also ‘improved' from honorable mention All-SEC as a soph to first-team All-Conference this year, while defending his SEC Defensive Player of the Year status…the first repeat winner of that honor begun in 2004.

When Stansbury met with media two weeks ago he would only say that he had been talking with Jarvis and father Winston about the professional situation and all were "still gathering information" about his prospects. Privately, State staff expected him all along to submit for early consideration which allows Varnado to attend sanctioned tryouts where he can be evaluated more intensely by experts. His predecessors have gone through such processes and been encouraged to give college basketball another year. Varnado also has no academic worries that would force his hand.

What the outside experts will say is very likely to duplicate comments by State coaches—and for that matter fans and even media. That physically he must get stronger and at least a little heavier, and technically his offensive game needs marked improvement if he wants to earn a NBA paycheck. Neither might be as easy as it sounds though. While listed at 210 Varnado admitted to playing at or even under 205 in March. And given his stringy physique there seems few places he could practically put on any serious new pounds, which might not be best for his college game anyway as late-game endurance became an issue in the tournament week grind. Stronger, now, is always a realistic goal.

As for upgrading his offense, that would present an interesting challenge for player, coach, and team. While Varnado's scoring did go up five whole points, his accuracy dropped from 64% as a soph when he was a ‘fourth option' at that end of the court to under 55% when he was normally the first look on offense. In his defense, so to speak, Varnado was attempting a wider variety of shots than the year before when his baskets were primarily putbacks. He certainly showed more moves around the rim which allowed him to score going to either side and in traffic. At the same time the long-armed center actually had some of his own shots swatted by shorter defenders, showing just how much he needs to develop that part of the game.

Of course offense would almost surely not be what attracts professional respect for Varnado. No franchise would draft him to score points. It is the single remarkable skill Varnado demonstrates every game that has made him a player of national note. Even for his 6-9 height he has startlingly long arms that puts most shots within his reach already; combined with an uncanny sense of timing on when to jump, Varnado would go into a senior State season almost certain to break the NCAA blocks record (535, Wojciech Mydra of Louisiana-Monroe 1998-02).

Yet even this unteachable talent has to be projected into a pro perspective too. Would Varnado be able to block the shot of a veteran NBA big man who will be at least as tall and much stouter; or for that matter hold a defensive position in single matchups? These are questions Varnado will need to research, personally on a court, in tryouts over the next few weeks, before making his final decision. Such tryouts might affect tryouts for the World University Games, which Stansbury said Varnado was supposed to participate in, though there he would only be facing fellow collegians.

In one aspect Varnado is benefitting from good timing. Under lobbying by the ACC and other leagues, a NCAA panel has voted to shorten the period declared underclassmen have to back out or commit to the draft from six weeks to just one. If approved it would not go into effect until 2010, and the NBA has not signed-off on such an idea, but this signals to other underclassmen and even prepsters that things could be changing.

More immediately, Varnado's ultimate choice will change lots about the SEC for 2010. Should he return, as most close to State do anticipate for now, the Bulldogs would not just begin next season projected to add to their collection of Western Division titles. With Varnado and the rest of a veteran roster back, State would likely be favored to take the overall conference crown outright. Certainly Stansbury would be able to get the '10 team more in line with his best previous squads, which were built around physical post play and rebounding with overall intense defense. And while Varnado would have motivation to prove himself more productive in post-offense, with his personality it would seem doubtful he could become a ball-hog in the paint.

Not with a proven backcourt that itself should only improve as point guard Dee Bost goes from Freshman All-SEC to just plain All-Conference period; as maturing wingman Ravern Johnson improves the non-shooting parts of his game; and senior-to-be Barry Stewart balances things out between the two. The wild card in the equation is who joins Varnado on the baseline. While in many ways Phil Turner was the story of State's team in 2008-09 for both better and worse—fortunately more of the former—the key is Kodi Augustus.

The most spectacular all-around offensive talent on the roster and a true inside/outside threat, if his mindset develops to match the physical skills Augustus would be the perfect complement to Varnado and turn Mississippi State from a leading contender to a conceded favorite to take Stansbury's second SEC championship. And this doesn't even factor in another developing young forward-type talent, Romero Osby, who can be another sort of matchup headache for the opposition.

But then all these rosy—maroony?—projections literally center on just how deeply Varnado tests the proverbial waters. Where one program hopes he only dampens a toe, the rest of the league will be encouraging a full-length dive into the professional pool. Either way, an entire SEC is left holding its breath for the coming weeks.

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