Thursday, June 25, 2009
What Happened to Chase Budinger?
At some point in the third or fourth hour of tonight's draft, you'll hear the name "Chase Budinger" announced -- quite possibly by Adam Silver, who usually presides over the second round. As recently as a year ago, Budinger was projected as a possible lottery pick. In his first two years Arizona, Budinger averaged 16.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. But his fortunes as a prospect slipped during his junior campaign. CelticsHub's Bryan Roy has covered the Wildcats for The Daily Wildcat over the past couple of seasons. He filed this report for TrueHoop on Budinger's strange tenure in Tucson.
If your fantasy basketball league required every team to draft a crossbreed of Larry Bird and Napoleon Dynamite, your man is Chase Budinger, soon-to-be rookie from Arizona.
Chase Budinger: A long and winding road.
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Think Brendan Fraser in "Bedazzled.” The light-blond, lighter-skinned wing from Encinitas, Calif., looks like the ideal demographic for tetherball, Irish pubs and SPF 150 sunscreen.
Arizona's hot, dry desert sun did all it could to burn Budinger. From all the off-court uncertainties of Lute Olson's retirement, to the promising Wildcats that transferred or ripped up signed Letters of Intent - the appearance of these past three years weren't exactly Arizona's prettiest era for Budinger to showcase his upside.
In terms of athletic ability, the 6-foot-7 departing Wildcat was once described as the LeBron James of volleyball after a high school career that, had he kept playing, could have put him on USA Olympic team in 2008.
Instead, Budinger opted to pursue basketball for Lute Olson, who called Budinger the most talented athlete he ever coached. Coming from the Founder, Director and CEO of Point Guard U, the bar was sky-high. But these were his realistic and most basic goals to complete before the NBA came calling:
1) Beat his home state powerhouse UCLA.
2) Make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
3) Hone his raw athletic ability into NBA-ready talent.
Budinger arrived at Arizona surrounded by the modern-day Five Star Freshman Hype Hoopla. Fans anticipated that Budinger would restore the pre-2005 brand of Arizona basketball and eliminate the funk of underachieving, low-character players. (Related story: Marcus Williams and Mustafa Shakur both left for the NBA and graduated, respectively, after the 2006-2007 season.)
After individually satisfying freshman and sophomore seasons - he averaged 16.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as an underclassman - Budinger's team goals still left an empty pit in a hungry Wildcat Faithful's collective stomach. From 2006-2008, the Wildcats had:
1) Been embarrassed by UCLA (0-4 vs. the Bruins).
2) Lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament (both times).
3) Not seen Budinger lead them when it mattered most.
Fans wondered when Big-Game Budinger would arrive on campus. By 2009, the No. 34 Budinger jerseys were destined to hit the UA Bookstore's clearance rack regardless of his decision to turn pro this summer. The shot clock of expectations expired.
A senior season for Budinger would've meant the McDonald's All-American (he earned co-MVP honors with Kevin Durant) lost ground during his junior campaign. In the star-studded 2008 NBA Draft, projections listed Budinger as a late first-round to early second-round selection. A significantly weaker 2009 Draft meant Budinger could've just tread water and still moved up in the rankings.
There wasn't much water in the desert to tread. By his junior year, Arizona needed (and expected) Budinger to step up both as a leader and dominant force in the Pac-10 if it wanted any hope at continuing the school's most coveted statistic of 25 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Our first glimpse of it came after Arizona's embarrassing loss to UAB. After Jamelle Horne Superman-dove to commit a foul at halfcourt in a tie game with seconds left in regulation, the mood in the locker room was uncomfortably somber. Reporters pretended to scribble down notes and avoid eye contact while players showered and shot blank stares into the trophies along wall.
After Horne came out of the shower, a few of us headed over to ask: What the hell were you thinking? (He later said it was a miscommunication). Budinger, who watched the entire scene unfold, quickly told us to back off. It wasn't anything rude or out of line, Budinger just took a big brother role to Horne, a sophomore visually upset with unthinkable foul.
It showed a lot of guts and spoke volumes on Budinger's unspoken leadership part, I wrote the next day. Just like that, he became the guy that glued together a wounded and abandoned 2008-09 team that was "rocked to the core” after Olson suddenly retired days before the season.
Midway through the season, however, once Budinger suffered through his Second Annual "Where's Chase?” Midseason Shooting Slump when he averaged 10.5 points in a four-game span, fans couldn't help but wake up in a cold sweat, recalling recent Wildcats that derailed into the same trend. Those five-star high school recruits that never blossomed became weeds after four very, very dry years in the scorching desert.
Can't say I've seen anybody on campus wearing a Shakur jersey, or be willing to spend $75 on one.
Had the Budinger III failed, maybe you could give the kid a free pass from an obvious scapegoat: Arizona's brilliant back-to-back interim head coaches strategy. It's a sure-fire way to stun the growth and development of 18-year-old AAU phenoms that, in turn, develop everything but team leadership.
Then, all those what-ifs evaporated when Aubrey Coleman came to town and earned himself a future Christmas Card from the Budinger family.
The infamous Coleman Face Stomp 2009 broke Budinger out of his soft-spoken shell. After Houston's go-to guy slammed his foot into Budinger's courtside face after the whistle, Budinger sprung up with Mike Tyson-esque fury and fire.
Later that game, with under one minute to play, Arizona overcame a 10-point deficit to win in overtime. The pivotal (literally, Coleman planted his pivot foot into Budinger's left temple) moment saved the Wildcats' season, started an seven-game winning streak and put Arizona on the national radar for good reasons.
Budinger's decision to return for his junior season paid dividends. Sure we saw him put up lines like 20, 10, and five against teams like Oregon State, but it was his 20 points, eight rebounds and four steals against No. 5-seeded Utah in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament solidified his legacy at Arizona -- or at least, avoided a negative one. The Sweet 16 banner that gets raised into the McKale Center rafters will have Budinger's finger prints all over it.
After an exhausting three-year span of Olson, Kevin O'Neill and Russ Pennell, Budinger enters his second go-around of the summer pre-Draft workouts with his trifecta:
1) Killing UCLA at home. (84-72 win)
2) Reaching the Sweet 16 after barely earning an at-larg
e bid (No. 10 seed).
3) Developing the crucial mental game in pressure situations.
Beyond his final junior year line -- 18.0 points, 6.2 rebounds in 37.6 minutes per game -- Budinger picked up a missing intangible that would've set his professional ceiling at "D-League All-Star” if he hadn't returned to Arizona and met those goals after his sophomore season.
I'm no professional scout or basketball talent expert, but it's obvious that the mental part of Budinger's game was his missing component after watching two full seasons of his style. He needs confidence to knock down his jump shots.
His ballhandling skills are much improved. Budinger can use his length and ups as an oversized 2 or 3 in the NBA. Most importantly, he can use Arizona's adversities when the don't-take-it-personal business deals go through at the professional level.
It's been a crazy three years, symbolically parallel to a signature Arizona pool party, where students (yes of course, that includes athletes) have always showed off bronze bodies in the No. 34 jersey. Soon, a new Budinger jersey will once again be on "new items” rack. And that's something fans can be excited about.