Rickey Paulding learned a few things about certainty this season.
When Missouri finished its most up-and-down season 16-14, he found out that, in college basketball, it doesn’t exist.
After all, this pack of Tigers was supposed to be the team to carry Missouri to the Final Four but ended a disappointing season with a first-round loss in the National Invitation Tournament.
Throw dollar signs and fine print in the mix with the NBA Draft, and the only sure thing about basketball is that there are even fewer certainties at the next level.
“I think a lot of it is yet to be decided,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “A lot of what associates or attaches to a career legacy is a team’s success … but beyond that fact you have to acknowledge these kids have had spectacular careers.”
His team slipped from Final Four hopefuls to first-round-and-out NIT finishers. His scoring average slipped from 17.4 points to 15.3. Now all Paulding can hope is that his stock in June’s NBA Draft doesn’t suffer the same skid.
Jim Clibanoff, an independent scout who consults NBA teams on college prospects, said he believes Paulding has plenty of talent. He is just unsure of Paulding’s desire.
“They’ve got to demonstrate an element of hunger,” he said. “You didn’t see enough of that this year, where you could come away from a game and just say, ‘Wow, that guy played his tail off.’
Despite a rocky senior season for the Tigers, Paulding has time to dictate his NBA future in predraft workouts.
The first predraft camp is in Fordsmith, Va., in April, which Clibanoff said is the generally thought of as the camp for probable second-round picks.
He will have his last chance to show off for scouts at the June predraft camp in Chicago.
“A lot can change between now and the draft,” Clibanoff said. “For the draft, all you need is one team to like you. You don’t need the general consensus to say, ‘Yes, he’s a first-round pick.’
“By no means do I feel it’s impossible for him to regain his stock that he had prior to going into the season. He could have completely shot himself in the foot and inflicted his chance, but I’d be very surprised if he hurt himself that badly.”
One thing Paulding can’t control is the number of early draft entrants.
Clibanoff said most of them at the two-guard spot might push Paulding down in the selection order.
Playing more assertively and using his trademark athleticism, Paulding could make NBA scouts forget that his finale was less than up-to-par, Clibanoff said. His hesitation to take over some big-game situations and reserved personality keep Paulding from being a consensus first-round projection.
“At the next level, everyone has ability,” Clibanoff said. “It’s those guys who come with a work ethic that succeed.”
Some mock drafts project Paulding to be selected as early as 25th. According to hoopshype.com, the Boston Celtics could be looking for a first-round shooting guard with a resume like Paulding’s to fill the No. 25 selection. He is listed No. 46, though, by nbadraft.net.
Paulding looks poised to add his name to a list of 36 former Tigers selected in the NBA Draft. If he ever needed any guidance about the uncertainties of turning pro, Paulding has plenty of Tigers tales he can follow for reassurance.
In 2002, Kareem Rush expected a top-15 pick and even hoped for a lottery pick as one of the first 13 selections, but he went 20th to the Toronto Raptors, who traded him on draft night to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Mock drafts in The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated slated former Tiger Keyon Dooling as the No. 18 or No. 21 before the 2000 NBA Draft. The Los Angeles Clippers picked him 10th.
After being compared to Rush as a Missouri player for so long, the associations aren’t likely to end any time soon.
Much like Rush, Paulding’s potential blossomed early and then sagged in the spotlight. Many analysts considered Rush underrated and his signing a bargain.
Paulding started his sophomore season as the quiet understudy of junior star Rush.
Consistent play as Missouri’s sixth man for the first 16 games earned Paulding the spotlight.
By that season’s end, Paulding’s play outshined NBA-bound Rush, averaging 18.3 points in the NCAA Tournament. He was also named to the West Regional All-Tournament team.
After the Tigers lost to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, reporters hounded Rush with questions of his future at Missouri. To his astonishment, Paulding got his share of them, too.
By the end of the 2002 Draft, analysts rushed to raise Paulding’s chances as leaving after his junior year. A few days later, the Sporting News predicted Paulding as the No. 2 selection in the 2003 Draft.
A 36-point performance from Paulding against Marquette in the 2003 NCAA Tournament brought more of the same questions, but Paulding and his partner in Big 12 Conference clout, Missouri center Arthur Johnson, chose to finish their four years as Tigers.
Unfortunately for Paulding, he won’t know until June 24, the night of the NBA Draft at Madison Square Garden in New York, if that decision was best for his NBA stock.
Like Rush, Paulding earned preseason All-American status but could not earn the same postseason acclaim. Ballhandling and passing, Paulding’s biggest weaknesses, also plagued Rush.
Playing in the NBA changes more for an athlete than having an agent on speed dial. For Rush, the move shifted his fundamental focus, too.
Big 12 opponents scouted Rush as the Missouri small forward with a magic touch from outside, but he became backup to superstar shooting guard Kobe Bryant.
Paulding’s athleticism, one thing Rush didn’t have going for him, means he will be a dynamic building block for most clubs.
Peaking late in the season, Johnson built his average to 21.3 points with huge offensive outings against Oklahoma State (29 points) and Kansas (37 points).
He also reclaimed his rebounding dominance, passing Doug Smith as the Tigers’ all-time rebounding leader with eight rebounds against Texas Tech.
“He definitely helped himself,” Clibanoff said. “He’s got a chance if he spends the next X amount of weeks wisely, his stock could go up quite a bit.”
Johnson came to Columbia weighing almost 300 pounds; he trimmed down to 255 this season. Despite playing in the best shape of his career, Johnson needs to build muscle mass to make a bigger impact on front office talent-seekers.
“He can really turn some heads, coming in with a rock-solid physique,” Clibanoff said.
According to nbadraft.net, Johnson should go near the 37th pick.
Second-round territory, though, is even more murky water.
Although first-round picks each have a three-year contract promptly secured to their draft rank, players chosen after the first 29 are guaranteed nothing.
A trip to training camp and a chance to make the team’s roster are the big prizes for second-round selections. Their contract includes a one-year deal, but even that is not a sure thing.
If a second-round pick doesn’t make the team, his contract allows his club to choose whether to keep him or let him loose after the season.
Nick Van Exel is the only second-round selection in more than a decade to eventually play in an NBA All-Star game. Picked 37th in the 1993 NBA Draft after a collegiate career at Cincinnati, Van Exel is now a guard for the Golden State Warriors.
Although critics groan when they mull over Paulding’s and Johnson’s decisions to stay at Missouri for their senior season, Clibanoff said there was no clear indication they would have been taken in the first round of the 2003 Draft.
“I would not say that last year they were locks to be first-round picks, so I would not say they hurt themselves by coming back,” he said.
Rush and Dooling both left Missouri before their eligibility exhausted and found average success, but Snyder’s current senior crop is rare.
In an industry that looks the other way when kids start counting the days to sign NBA contracts before they are old enough to drive, four Tigers are on their way to collecting degrees this May. Paulding and Johnson are most likely headed for the NBA.
Even though their numbers suffered early this season, opting to stay and earn their MU degrees might prove the only bet worth putting money on.
The difference between Paulding and Johnson and the players entering this year’s draft a season or two early isn’t noticeable enough, Clibanoff said, to prove they missed their shot.
“What they did their senior year wasn’t probably what they expected to do in November,” Clibanoff said. “But they haven’t fallen off the radar screen. The difference between them and some guys rated above them is not so high that they’re going to make fools of themselves in camp situations.
“These guys are good enough, but do they separate themselves from the pack? That I can’t tell just yet. “