Powell has spent the bulk of his Wolfpack career at center, and he has fared well in his first two seasons. But in the NBA, the 6-foot-9 Powell would be forced to battle against the likes of Tim Duncan, Antawn Jamison, Kenyon Martin, Dirk Nowitzki and Rasheed Wallace, just to name a few. Don't get me wrong: Powell has good handle and a deadly 3-point shot for a big man, but he still lacks the quickness and strength to earn a roster spot - let alone be a factor in the NBA.
To his credit, Powell has made tremendous strides at State. He finally harnessed a fragile combination of aggressiveness and maturity that was lacking in his first season. At the 2002 ACC Tournament, Powell sulked in the Pack's locker room following State's 86-82 semifinal WIN over Maryland. While teammates Julius Hodge and Anthony Grundy were exchanging high-fives with State fans who were looking forward to the Pack's first NCAA Tournament bid in over a decade, Powell was quietly walking toward the bowels of the Charlotte Coliseum.
But the '02-'03 campaign was different, especially as the year went on. Down the stretch Powell became the Pack's clutch player. He had 15 points and seven boards in a 75-67 win at UNC (a game in which he was also 7-for-7 from the free-throw line). He had 14 and eight in a three-point win at Clemson. Powell scored 18 points and pulled down eight rebounds against Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament, and then 16 more points in the semifinal win over Wake Forest. He then put State in a terrific position to capture its first ACC title in eons when he scored 26 points (to go along with another eight boards) in the heartbreaking 84-77 loss to Duke. And in the Pack's gut-wrenching loss to California in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Powell had 17 and nine.
Powell would finish the season averaging a solid 12.4 points and just over five rebounds per game - good numbers, but nothing stellar. To put it bluntly: he was the third-best player on the ACC's fourth-best team. By comparison, for as much as a disappointment the aforementioned Fuller has been in the NBA, he had quite the resume heading into it. It's easy to forget now, but Fuller was part of some fantastic head-to-head battles with then Wake Forest star Duncan, with Fuller winning many of them. Duncan is now on his way to perhaps another MVP season in the NBA (and a sure Hall of Fame career). Fuller improved perhaps more than any player in the history of the ACC, and he became a first-team all-conference star. But even he is fighting to make it back to the NBA.
A season ago, Powell was schooled by more experienced ACC big men such as Lonny Baxter, Carlos Boozer, Kris Lang and Darius Songaila. Those players were not around to push Powell around this year, yet he only slightly improved statistically. He needs to prove he can be one of the more dominant players in the ACC, and he has a chance to do that in '03-'04. If he were to leave early, he would not only have to compete for draft spots against players who have used up their eligibility, but also against early departures such as Kentucky's Marquis Estill, Georgia's Jarvis Hayes, Minnesota's Rick Rickert, Oregon's Luke Ridnour - and of course, 'Melo and King James.
Then there are the European players to contend with. For whatever reason, coaches in Europe - especially those in Eastern Europe - have done a marvelous job of preparing their big men to pass, dribble, shoot, score, lead and dunk - with a great sense of equal importance. American basketball players at a young age have historically been placed in positions relative to their size. If you were compact and quick - you got to be point guard. If you were skinny with a decent shot - you were a shooting guard. If you were bigger than everyone else - you got to be center. And once a kid was put at center, he was told not to move out from under the basket unless absolutely necessary. Europe has surpassed America in the area of developing big men. That's not to say that Powell doesn't have the potential to possess those same skills. It's just that many European players are already there, and they would be scooped up by NBA teams long before Powell would be.
Of course, all of this discussion could be for naught. There's still that little (or big) issue of money to deal with. Even a second-round pick is going to make more money than most of us will ever see in our lives; you certainly can't blame a kid for taking that chance. We would all think deeply about it.
But in the case of Josh Powell, a year or two of college ball could be the difference between becoming the next Tom Gugliotta (before the injuries) or becoming the next Omar Cook.