Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope puts in a layup in a game earlier this season. Caldwell-Pope led the Bulldogs in scoring and was named the SEC Player of the Year this season but is leaving Athens early for the NBA.
ATHENS — Since its season ended, and probably before that, the Georgia men’s basketball program had been holding its breath, knowing that next season and the foreseeable future would be charted by one decision.
It finally came down Monday, and it wasn’t what the Bulldogs wanted to hear.
But for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, it was a step he needed to make to pursue his dream.
Caldwell-Pope, the best player Georgia has had in some time, announced that he was leaving the team to enter the NBA draft, bypassing his junior and senior years.
“There’s no way around it. We’re losing a great player and a very productive player,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said, according to audio provided by UGA sports communications.
It’s hard to understate the blow it is to Georgia, which went 15-17 last season. Caldwell-Pope was the SEC Player of the Year this past season, and with him the Bulldogs would have entered the 2013-14 season as a contender in the SEC. But without him the Bulldogs will now face another uphill battle to make the NCAA or NIT tournaments.
“I want to thank the University of Georgia for all it has done for me,” Caldwell-Pope said in a statement released by the team. “I want to thank my coaches, teammates and fans for the love and support.”
Caldwell-Pope’s family requested that the player not be made available for further comment, according to UGA.
“I think he really wrestled with it, and I think it was really hard for him,” Fox said. “He had great support from his family. I think he went back and forth some. He took his time. He took his time. But it wasn’t easy. ... He’s got an opportunity to pursue his lifetime dream, so he’s decided to do that.”
The opinions on Caldwell-Pope’s draft stock have varied. ESPN.com analyst Chad Ford referred to him as a “big time sleeper” after Caldwell-Pope declared Monday. The website DraftExpress.com had him ranked as the No. 31 overall available prospect. But another website, NBAdraft.net, on Monday was projecting Caldwell-Pope to go 17th overall.
Fox said the decision-making process involved speaking to around 25 NBA teams. Caldwell-Pope also got feedback from the NBA advisory committee, which polls about 20 teams.
“And he obviously got lot of positive feedback,” Fox said.
Caldwell-Pope led Georgia in both scoring (18.5 points per game) and rebounding (7.1 per game), as well as steals (65 for the season). He was the first Georgia player to be SEC player of the year since Dominique Wilkins.
“This is twice in three years that we’ve had to deal with it,” Fox said, referring to the departures two years ago of Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. “I think we’re a little more equipped to deal with it.”
The Bulldogs are set to return six of their top eight scorers, including point guard Charles Mann, who made the SEC all-freshman team in 2013. Guard Kenny Gaines and small forward Brandon Morris, fellow members of last year’s recruiting class, also have potential. Forward Nemanja Djurisic, the team’s second-leading scorer at 7.9 points per game last year, will also return, along with forward Donte’ Williams, a rising senior.
The team adds basically four players for next year. Signees Juwan Parker (a shooting guard) and J.J. Frazier (a point guard) join the team this summer.
Forward Houston Kessler, who redshirted this year, will help with frontcourt depth. And forward Marcus Thornton returns from a knee injury.
Thornton has been granted a medical redshirt for this past season and will be a junior again next season.
“We recruited with the eye that this may happen,” Fox said. “Kenny Gaines I thought came here and had a lot of really good moments. Certainly he has a big opportunity in front of him. We signed Juwan Parker in the fall knowing that this was a possibility. If Kentavious had stayed it would have put us three-deep at that spot, but we knew this was a very likely possibility. So we’ll have those two guys that can play there. But it does leave us very young in the backcourt again.”
But Georgia still lacks a true low-post presence, and now the departure of Caldwell-Pope leaves an even bigger hole on the roster.
Georgia is coming off a season in which it went 15-17 overall and 9-9 in the SEC. It was the fifth losing season in the past six for the program, and the third in Fox’s four seasons.
Caldwell-Pope represented 30.4 percent of Georgia’s points this past season. His departure means the team is set to return a little less than 52 percent of its scoring off of last year’s team.
“The challenge now will be to get guys to accept and learn and be comfortable in roles that are bigger than would have been had he returned to school,” Fox said. “There’s going to have to be growing up on the job.”