GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Bradley Beal saw the NBA draft projections with his name listed among the top five picks, which would have been the realization of his lifelong dream.
But Florida's 6-foot-3 freshman guard still felt the pull of Gainesville.
Potentially playing for a national championship for a coach he likes and respects was a powerful counterbalance to beginning his professional career as one of the top players in the country. For two weeks he agonized over the decision, but eventually the NBA won -- barely.
"Making this decision was probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life," Beal said Friday. "It was hard to just tell coach [Billy Donovan] in the face that I was going to enter the draft. Just the feeling, like the emotion that I had, it was worse than losing to Louisville.
"This place is great. I loved this year, I had a great year here and my teammates were great, coaches were great. Just the school in general is just great. People treat you right here, and just everything about this place is beautiful. I'm real sad that I have to give it up for something else, but I believe that there's bigger things that I have to accomplish in my life."
Beal's decision involved consultations with his family, several former AAU coaches and Donovan, who supplied Beal with information from the NBA regarding his potential draft status. Beal and Donovan met several times, once in a conference room at Florida's basketball facility where Beal compiled a pros and cons list of leaving versus staying.
There were some sleepless nights. Some mornings Beal would wake up, turn on ESPN's "SportsCenter" and see highlights of NBA games and be sure that's where he wanted to be. Other times he pictured himself playing alongside Patric Young and Kenny Boynton -- both of whom decided to return to UF -- for another season.
Beal didn't allow anyone to influence his decision, and he said nobody tried. His parents told him they'd support whatever he decided. Donovan, as he does with every player who has considered leaving UF early, gave him information but never made an argument for Beal's return.
Donovan was impressed with how Beal handled the process.
"I have to say maybe moreso than any player that I've coached, he may have been as mature as anybody I've been around for his age in terms of how he was looking at this decision and at this process," Donovan said. "All the things that I would have wanted him to look at when it came time to make this decision, he definitely did.
"I think it was well thought out by him, I don't think that he was influenced by anybody. I think that he had great support by his family, I think he had great support here, and people really gave him space to make a decision."
On the surface it appears to be a no-brainer. In his latest mock draft, ESPN Insider's Chad Ford predicts Beal, who averaged 14.8 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game, will be selected fifth by Toronto. Other mock drafts have Beal going as high as No. 3 to New Orleans.
And those projections are spot on, Donovan said, because he believes Beal has the potential to become a big-time NBA player.
"The kind of player I think he can be is like Ray Allen," Donovan said. "That's who I think he can be. And I don't think Brad necessarily shot the ball this year like he's capable of, but he is a great shooter and I've seen him enough. But he to me can be a Ray Allen kind of player. Brad is going to be a scorer in the NBA. He's going to be a guy that they're going to run plays for to get him shots and to make plays.
"Besides his basketball ability, the one thing I admire about him more than anything else from the time he stepped foot on this campus, he has been a great teammate, he has been really unselfish, he has worked incredibly hard. Winning is very, very important to him. Chemistry on the team is very important to him."
Those were some of the reasons why Beal considered returning. The Gators lost one senior -- point guard Erving Walker -- and little-used reserve forward Walter Pitchford is transferring. But the bulk of last season's team that reached the Elite Eight is returning, including three starters: Young (10.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Boynton (team-high 15.9 ppg), and forward Erik Murphy (10.5 ppg, 42.1 percent from 3-point range). Injured forward Will Yeguete, UF's best defender and third-leading rebounder (6.3 per game), also returns, as do several key reserves.
Having Beal would make the Gators -- especially if they were to land recruit Anthony Bennett in May -- a preseason top-five team and one of the favorites to win the national title. That was the main reason Beal considered putting the NBA off for another year.
"I think the team next year, they'd have been terrific and it was really hard for me to turn down," Beal said. "I know we're more than capable [of winning the national title]. We could have done it this year. We just fell short. I believe next year we could have been more than capable of doing that."
Despite that, Beal believes the best decision was for him to leave -- and it was supported by his coach and teammates.
"Really, it was just the right time for me," Beal said. "Coach just told me, he said whenever I decide, whatever I decide just make sure you're at peace with it. When it came down to it, I just wanted to make sure that I was comfortable telling coach and just comfortable with my decision and I was 100 percent, and there's no looking back now."