When Tony Harris joined the Vols as a freshman in 1997, he anticipated playing one season in Knoxville, then jumping to the NBA. He wound up staying four years at UT and never making an NBA roster.
When Tyler Smith joined the Vols as a transfer from Iowa in 2007, he expected to spend one season in Knoxville, then bolt for the NBA. At a news conference earlier today he confirmed that he'll be staying three years.
When Scotty Hopson joined the Vols as a heralded signee in 2008, he viewed Knoxville as a one-year stopover on his way to the NBA. After an up-and-down freshman season, he's back for one more year ... at least.
Harris, Smith and Hopson arrived with big reputations and big plans. But things changed. Reality set in. In other words, life happened.
Smith understands better than most how dramatically things can change. When he arrived on The Hill in the summer of 2007 he had an ailing father and a two-year-old son. His father is now deceased and his son is now four. His dream is still to play in the NBA but the sense of urgency is gone. He postponed his dream last June and he postponed it again today.
One reason for the postponement is obvious: Tyler needs another year of seasoning before he's ready for the NBA. Most draft projections had him going in Round 2.
After speaking with some NBA insiders, Vol head coach Bruce Pearl conceded that Smith's chance to be a first-round draft pick was "possible but not locked down."
As Smith noted: "I wasn't really happy with where I was going." As a result, he's not going anywhere.
A second reason for postponing his pro career is that he may be leaving a better situation at Tennessee than he encounters in the NBA. The Vols return their top 10 players from a 2008-09 team that won 21 games and qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
"We've got a great team coming back," Smith said. "A lot of guys have grown up. I think we have a great chance of making something special."
There's a much greater chance now that Tyler is returning. He was the backbone of the team in 2008-09 and should be again in 2009-10.
"I continue to be impressed by Tyler," Pearl said. "He went through the process. He had some terrific workouts with a number of NBA teams. He trained extremely hard."
Knowing Smith's work ethic and determination, Tennessee's coach has no doubt that the 6-7, 215-pounder is NBA material.
"Tyler would make a team," Pearl said. "He would just put a coach in a position where he would have no choice but to keep him. But so often it's not whether you can make the league; it's whether you can stay in the league."
All of the effort Smith put into his NBA workouts didn't make him significantly more attractive to pro scouts but it surely made him a significantly better college player. Tennessee should reap the benefits of that in the season ahead.
"This was a good process for Tyler," Pearl said. "He knows now exactly what he has to do, and he's going to be able to bring that back to his teammates."
Perhaps Smith will have a banner senior season, lead Tennessee to an SEC championship and a nice run in the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps he'll win over NBA scouts who question his ability to play on the perimeter and be a first-round pick in June of 2010.
Then again, maybe not. As Tony Harris discovered, things don't always go according to plan. Dreams change, and so do priorities.