Stanford Men's Basketball is licking its collective Cardinal wound today, fresh off a blowout loss to Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The table appears set, however, for a better 2007-08 season with Stanford returning all five starters, 99.4% of its scoring, 98.2% of its rebounding and 97.3% of its minutes played this winter.
Several players yesterday after the loss lamented the loss of fifth-year senior point guard Carlton Weatherby and walk-on senior Chris Bobel, but the Cardinal's top 12 scorers are coming back next year. Six of their top seven players have at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Stanford also adds a redshirt sophomore next year in point guard Drew Shiller, who had to sit out this season after his transfer to The Farm, plus incoming freshman forward Josh Owens.
But there is an asterisk hanging over all of these projections. Seven-foot freshman Brook Lopez has been the hot subject of an early NBA departure the last several weeks. The talk began in earnest in late February, when he rode a streak of four straight games scoring 20 or more points for the Cardinal. Though worth the cyberink with which they appear on your web browser, a breadth of draft projections and gurus have dubbed Lopez a high pick in this June's NBA Draft, should he leave Stanford.
The freshman forward/center led Stanford in minutes (33) and scoring (18) in Thursday's 78-58 loss to Louisville, also tying for a team-high with seven rebounds. For the season, he averaged 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds. Lopez earned Pac-10 All-Freshman Team honors at the conclusion of the conference's regular season.
He did, however, score 14 of those 18 points in the season finale after halftime, at which point the game had long since been decided. Lopez was 2-of-6 shooting from the field in 16 minutes played in the first half, with two turnovers and three personal fouls, while his team was ripped to the tune of a 41-13 deficit - prior to picking up his third foul and heading to the bench.
Lopez unquestionably started the season slowly and finished furiously. Back surgery in September sidelined him during the last half of the summer and through the fall of practices. The freshman played his first game on November 28, logging four minutes against UC Davis. He scored 18 points his next time on the floor in a breakout performance off the bench in a big win over Texas Tech, but he did not match that scoring total again until January 25. On that day, Lopez recorded Stanford's first ever triple-double - also the only such feat accomplished in the Pac-10 this season. Against USC at Maples Pavilion, he scored 18 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 12 Trojan shots. The previous school record for blocks in a game was just six.
From that point forward, Lopez tore up the Pac-10. He averaged 8.7 points per game in his first 12 contests of the 2006-07 season, while the remaining 14 games (USC onward) saw him score at 16.0 ppg clip. In his final eight games of the year, Lopez averaged 17.6 points per game
His success did not necessarily go hand-in-hand with Stanford's, however. The Cardinal suffered its worst stretch of losing during Lopez' fabulous finish. Stanford lost five of its last six games and seven of its last 10, including Thursday's beatdown. Lopez scored in double figures 16 times this season, with 11 of those performances coming in his final 15 games, but Stanford was a mere 9-7 when he scored 10 or more points. When Lopez scored 20 or more points this season, his team suffered a 2-4 mark.
Following Thursday's season-ending loss, head coach Trent Johnson updated the assembled media on the role he will play in the coming days to talk with the seven-footer and his brother Robin Lopez about their future, along with their mother Deborah Ledford.
"I'm not going to put a date, whether it's tomorrow or a week from now," Johnson offered. "We'll get an opportunity to meet with their mom and meet with both Brook and Robin. It's probably more so Brook than it is Robin. Hopefully that will be before the week is out."
The results from Thursday, as well as the team's disappointing string of losses to close the season, ostensibly can weigh in favor of Brook Lopez staying at least another year at Stanford. Johnson diffused the notion that such emotions would be part of his conversation with the family.
"I don't concern myself much with ammunition," the coach countered. "I want to get as much information based off of what is best for the young man, so that he along with his family members can make an educated decision on his future."
"You know, this NBA is interesting because Brook is 18 years old," Johnson continued. "If you ask him one-on-one the thing he most wants to do, it is to enjoy playing the game. What's going on now puts a lot of young men in situations where they can't enjoy playing basketball because there are certain questions asked of them on a weekly basis which are probably not right. On the other side of that, I want what is best for him. If he is capable of being in a position where he can be one of the top 16 players drafted, them shame on anybody who would not want him to achieve that or who would not want that for him."
Whether Lopez is projected by enough NBA general managers as a consensus selection in the top half of the 2007 NBA Draft remains an open question, and it is not an absolute determination based on Lopez' abilities, upside or readiness. A bevy of exceptional underclassmen are found throughout the country in college basketball today, including the most talented freshman class in a couple of generations. A new NBA rule put into effect last year prevents high school players from jumping straight to the draft, which coincided with one of the most talented crops of high school seniors in years. Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Spencer Hawes and others should have started their pro careers this past fall but instead will be eligible for the draft for the first time this June.
The unique question for a Cardinal considering an early departure to the Association additionally weighs the value of his continued Stanford education. Only thrice in the school's history has a player left school early for the NBA Draft, and those student-athletes were all juniors. Brook Lopez is the first freshman to have any such opportunity realistic within his grasp, but he is also the son of a Stanford alumna who is a schoolteacher. Deborah Ledford's emphasis on giving her boys the best possible education is a prime reason why Brook and Robin Lopez are at Stanford today, and she has routinely advocated their four-year plan for a degree from The Farm before moving on to the NBA.
"A Stanford education in one year is probably like a lot of places in four years," Johnson adds. "Trust me; I know. I graduated from Boise State, so Brook and Robin Lopez are a helluva lot smarter than this coach right now."
Just 20 minutes after his head coach pontificated on the approaching decision for Brook Lopez, he spoke with The Bootleg before boarding the team bus to leave Lexington (Ky.). The acclaimed freshman spoke with surprisingly little equivocation when asked about the conversation he will have with his mother, brother and Johnson.
"I can't really see myself in the NBA next season," Lopez answered. "I'm really looking forward to coming back"
"We haven't really done anything in college yet. There's so much more we need to do," he added.
Lopez understands the areas he needs to improve, including offensive consistency. At his best, he looks like one of the best players in the country. At other times, he can disappear or play completely out of rhythm. The seven-footer also emphasizes the improvement he can make defensively. Lopez was taught stiff lessons late in the season, including Louisville big men David Padgett and Derrick Caracter combining for 28 points in 32 minutes. Two games earlier, the freshman was a lead matador in allowing Arizona's Ivan Radenovic to score 37 points in a victory over the Cardinal.
The NBA, however, drafts on what it expects to have and not necessarily what is ready today. Brook Lopez has a high upside still ahead of him, which will make the coming days and weeks difficult for him and his family. His statements immediately following an embarrassing end to his first season of college basketball may or may not hold, but they are early evidence that he remain on The Farm for at least his sophomore year.
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