- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia coach Mark Fox wished SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope well Monday after the sophomore guard announced that he will skip his final two seasons of college to enter the NBA draft.
“I think he went back and forth some and he took his time,” Fox said. “He took his time, but it wasn’t easy. Even today, in thanking me today and he’s very appreciative of his experience that he’s had at Georgia. He really has enjoyed playing here and he’s got an opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream and he’s chosen to do that.”
ESPN’s Chad Ford ranks Caldwell-Pope as the No. 21 overall prospect and No. 6 shooting guard in the June draft and projects him as a mid-first-round selection. Fox said he believed Caldwell-Pope weighed the proper information before making his decision.
“He went as far as to investigate what life would be like if he’s a guy that’s drafted and is placed in the D-League,” Fox said. “He’s researched this thing very, very well, very deeply and I thought he handled it very well to be honest with you.”
But Caldwell-Pope’s departure likely lowers the ceiling for Fox’s club in 2013-14, much like when juniors Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie entered the 2011 draft and the Bulldogs slipped from 21-12 and a spot in the NCAA tournament to 15-17 the following season.
Few players across the country were more valuable to their teams than Caldwell-Pope was to Georgia last season, so there was reason to believe that the Bulldogs (15-17, 9-9 SEC) might take a step forward to possibly contend for a spot in next season's NCAA tournament, if he had opted to stay. Instead, Fox knows a number of players must step up their production considerably to fortify the array of areas in which Caldwell-Pope could affect a game.
“Had he been back, we thought we really would have been in terrific shape from the start. The challenge now will be to get guys to accept and learn and be comfortable in roles that are bigger than they would have been had he returned to school,” Fox said. “That challenge, they’re going to have to do some growing up on the job. That’s what happens when you have early entries and so that will be one of the things that we have to wrestle with.”
At 18.5 points per game, Caldwell-Pope averaged 10.6 more than the next closest Bulldog -- sophomore forward Nemanja Djurisic (7.9 ppg). Caldwell-Pope and Djurisic were among five Bulldogs who averaged at least five points per game, along with Charles Mann (6.7 ppg), Donte Williams (5.1 ppg) and Vincent Williams (5 ppg), with Djurisic, Mann and Donte Williams all set to return next season.
“Kenny Gaines I thought came here last year and had I think a lot of really good moments and certainly he has a big opportunity in front of him,” Fox said. “We signed Juwan Parker in the fall knowing that this was a possibility, which had Kentavious stayed would have put us three deep at that spot. But we knew that 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. There’s no way around it.”
Fox also revealed some positive news for the Bulldogs, announcing that forward Marcus Thornton -- who played in just nine games last season before sitting out the rest of the year with ongoing knee problems -- was granted a medical redshirt and will retain a season of eligibility. Fox said Thornton might be able to return to the practice court Monday afternoon if cleared by the team’s training staff.
The Bulldogs might also add scholarship players to the roster during basketball’s spring signing period, and Fox said his staff still has “quite a few” players on its radar for those slots.
But it will be highly difficult for Fox’s staff to attract a player in Caldwell-Pope’s class -- he was Georgia’s first McDonald’s All-American signee in 20 years -- likely leaving the remaining Bulldogs with a daunting responsibility if they are to remain a competitive team.
“Charles and Kenny both really in the last month of the year played with a different mentality and started to learn from the great example that Kentavious was. So those guys will have to step forward a little bit,” Fox said. “I think Nemi and Donte will be our most experienced guys and are going to have to be more vocal than what they’ve been. But that’s one of the challenges when you lose guys early, especially a guy that was the leader of your team.”
5dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough