- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- In the short term, SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s decision to leave Georgia for the NBA was a devastating blow to coach Mark Fox’s program.
The sophomore was one of the conference’s most skilled and well-rounded players and yet the Bulldogs still failed to post a winning record -- the third time in Fox’s four seasons at Georgia where that was the case. However, Fox prefers to use Caldwell-Pope’s accomplishments and likely status as a first-round pick in Thursday’s NBA draft as confirmation of his pitch to recruits.
Fox inherited a mess when he took over for Dennis Felton in 2009, accepting leadership for a program that was not competitive on the floor, struggling to retain its best players -- much less place them in the NBA after productive college careers -- and in complete disarray academically. It was a problem that predated Felton as all of those problems existed on some level for more than a decade.
“When we started, it was all just about, ‘Take my word for it. We’re going to develop players and you can become a pro here.’ And ‘Take my word for it. You’re going to graduate,’ ” Fox said. “We couldn’t really show you anybody [who] was going pro, and we couldn’t really show you a great graduation record.”
When Fox took over, Georgia hadn’t had a single player drafted since Rashad Wright in 2004. The Bulldogs hadn’t had a first-round pick since Jarvis Hayes in 2003 and totaled only three first-rounders since 1990. But by the end of his second season, Fox’s staff had helped a pair of Felton recruits, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, develop into NBA draft picks -- with both players going in the second round of the 2011 draft and getting traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in draft-day trades.
Caldwell-Pope would give Fox his third NBA pick since completing his debut season at Georgia, a total that would tie Florida and Vanderbilt for second most among SEC programs in that timespan -- although well behind conference leader Kentucky’s 15.
And the Bulldogs have made significant progress in the classroom, as well. Georgia’s men’s basketball program scored a 990 on the NCAA’s most recent Academic Progress Rate (APR) report, ranking second in the SEC after posting one of the nation’s worst multi-year APR scores only a few years ago.
Further, every player who made it to his senior season under Fox at Georgia has earned a degree.
“So what’s been really important for us is to really establish some of those things, so now when we go in there, we’re not just blowing smoke and asking people to trust you,” Fox said. “You can actually show them that, ‘Hey, we do develop players and you can get drafted and you will earn a degree.’ That’s been really important.”
Fox can only hope the platform that Caldwell-Pope’s ascension has provided him will pay dividends on the recruiting trail, as that component remains something of a struggle. A young Georgia team leaned so heavily on his production last season, that ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford recently wrote that “Had Caldwell-Pope played on a team with more talent, I think he'd be mentioned in the same breath as [Kansas’ Ben] McLemore and [Indiana’s Victor] Oladipo,” two of the most highly-regarded prospects in Thursday’s draft.
Without Caldwell-Pope, Georgia will rely on still-developing youngsters like rising sophomores Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines and Brandon Morris for production. It remains to be seen whether Fox’s most recent signing class will provide much help, as ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep recently rated the group’s overall quality as a C, tying with three other programs for the lowest grade in the SEC.
In other words, Fox’s staff has reversed some of the most glaring problems facing the program, but it has not resulted in consistent on-court success or allowed the Bulldogs to land more of the top-tier talent in a fertile basketball state. Caldwell-Pope was the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with Georgia since 1992, and Fox needs to attract more players of that caliber if he is to become the coach who helps Georgia break out of the mediocrity that has marked most of its basketball history.
Because of the team’s youth and the strides the Bulldogs made over the course of the 2012-13 season, Georgia seemed to be on course to reach the NCAA tournament for the second time under Fox in 2014 if Caldwell-Pope had stayed for his junior season. Instead, while Fox is not back at square one like he was when Thompkins and Leslie entered the draft after their junior seasons, he knows that a number of youngsters must make significant strides if the Bulldogs are to return to the postseason soon.
“Had he been back, we thought we really would have been in terrific shape from the start,” Fox said. “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.
“That challenge, they’re going to have to do some growing up on the job. That’s what happens when you have early entries, so that will be one of the things that we have to wrestle with.”
SEC IN THE DRAFT
Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is projected as a first-round pick in this week’s NBA draft, which would raise the Bulldogs’ total of drafted players to three since Mark Fox took over as the team’s coach in 2009. Here is how the SEC has fared in the last three drafts since Fox arrived at Georgia:
1. Kentucky -- 15 players drafted (11 first round, four second round)
Highest: F Anthony Davis (Charlotte, 2012), G John Wall (Washington, 2010), both first overall
T2. Florida -- 3 (1, 2)
Highest: G Bradley Beal (Washington), third overall, 2012
T2. Vanderbilt -- 3 (2, 1)
Highest: G John Jenkins (Atlanta), 23rd overall, 2012
T4. Mississippi State -- 2 (1, 1)
Highest: F Arnett Moultrie (Philadelphia), 27th overall, 2012
T4. Georgia -- 2 (0, 2)
Highest: F Trey Thompkins (Detroit), 37th overall, 2011
T4. Missouri -- 2 (0, 2)
Highest: G Kim English (Detroit), 44th overall, 2012
T7. Tennessee -- 1 (1, 0)
Highest: F Tobias Harris (Milwaukee), 19th overall, 2011
T7. LSU -- (0, 1)
Highest: F Justin Hamilton (Miami), 45th overall, 2012
T7. Ole Miss -- 1 (0, 1)
Highest: G Terrico White (Detroit), 36th overall, 2010
T10. Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M -- None