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email Ehud Knoll

June 30

Short on surefire stars, bereft of franchise saviors, but home to arguably the most incredible story of the past 25 years.

The 2006 NBA draft had something for everyone: from rapid-fire trades to lottery bluffs; from mystery international players to 4-year college stars. However, June 28th, 2006 should be forever remembered as the day a young man named Renaldo Balkman defied the odds, turning a gamble on himself into a stunning Hollywood ending.

There is really no way to put this story in perspective. Sure, there have been college role players who crash-landed into the NBA draft, even the first round (remember Donnell Harvey? Paul Grant?). There have been draft-camp stars, first round reaches, and underclassmen who beat the odds. Still, the unique case of Balkman is so unusual, so unlike the others, it may well become legendary down the road.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Renaldo Balkman played three nondescript seasons at the University of South Carolina. He never played in the NCAA tournament, was not an all-SEC first teamer, and holds career averages of 7.4 points a game and 5.3 rebounds. In 38 games as a junior, Balkman started 22 times, was held scoreless four times, and made 4 of 13 three pointers as a small forward.

Balkman started gaining attention by being named NIT MVP, decided to test the NBA waters as an underclassman, then became the breakout star of the pre-draft workouts and camps. From a non-factor, Balkman climbed up the prospect rankings, and by the start of the week was considered a solid second round candidate.

However, the story went from somewhat interesting to magical at approximately 10 PM est on June 28, when the New York Knicks made Balkman the 20th pick of the NBA draft. The scrappy, position-less underdog from Tampa, Fla. wagered the rest of his NCAA eligibility on an unwavering belief in himself. Say all you want about the Knicks and their decision - the real story here is Balkman. It is unfortunate that in the draft aftermath, the national media seemed obsessed with cracking jokes at his expense, questioning the Knicks for drafting him, and completely missing the point of what just happened here.

In an age where so many basketball players are anointed stars at an early age, grow up immature and spoiled, and play out their pro careers with disinterest and a general malaise, here is the total antithesis of the modern athlete.

Here is a kid who turned himself from a college role player into a pro, a likely millionaire, and an NBA first round pick, in the course of a few months. He did it not with hype, but with unrelenting, infectious effort that had all the cynics at the pre-draft workouts singing his praises.

Sure, he may be out of the NBA in 3 years. So what? Plenty of college stars make only cameos in The League. If Balkman and his support team make sound financial decisions, his first contract (guaranteed for first-rounders) should go a long way towards financial security for him and his family. Having come this far on his own terms, it will be fascinating to see how Balkman does in summer league and as a highly scrutinized rookie.

One thing we already know - Balkman has made The Garden his personal playground before; who is anyone to bet against him to do it again?

With no college or pro basketball for the next few months, it is traditional this time of year to look into the crystal ball and make all sorts of predictions for next season, predictions that hopefully will be long-forgetten by November 2006. Instead, here are 5 observations about the season that was and the season forthcoming:

1) GATORS: The more you look back at the past season, the more it is clear that Florida was really, really good. Not just for this year - for any year. If you think 2005's UNC team would be a lock to win the title had all the underclassmen stayed, think again. The Gators suffered their six losses by 4, 6, 4, 4, 4, and 5 points, while last season's Tar Heels had four losses by 11, 13, 1, and 3 points. Each team would have a roster full of pro prospects. This would have been a championship game for the ages.

2) DIAPER DANDY: Greg Oden's wrist injury, if it heals fully, may be a blessing in disguise The pressure about to hit the Buckeye basketball program - likely in the middle of a run at a college football championship - would have been immense Anything less than an undefeated season, with each win by 20+, would have been considered a monumental failure. All kidding aside, even with Odon's status in the air, Ohio State basketball is headed for a wild ride that may not turn out the way their fans expect. Here's hoping they take it easy on a bunch of 18 year old kids who never promised they would be better than the 1996 Chicago Bulls.

3) MID-MAJOR: The MAC is in serious, serious need of some big non-conference wins. What once was the premier league for mid-majors has now taken a back seat to the Colonial, the Missouri Valley, the West Coast, and even the Patriot League.

4) DEMON DEACONS: It's hard to imagine Wake Forest being worse next season, but the Demon Deacons are losing 5 of their top 6 scorers. Help is on the way through recruiting, but it's not of the Tim Duncan/Chris Paul variety. This is a program that briefly ranked #1 in 2004-05. The ACC figures to be much better next season... The program is in serious need of a talent influx, before it is eclipsed by the likes of Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Virginia, something that seemed impossible just two years ago.

5) DRAFT PUZZLE: The inevitable parade of underclassmen declaring for the NBA draft has come and gone, along with the cries of "he should have stayed in school" and "he wasn't ready". Draft night is history, but the point bears repeating: there has never been, nor will there ever be, a foolproof method for NBA stardom.

There are 4-year college studs who become NBA stars (Tim Duncan, Steve Nash), and there are ones who don't (Shane Battier, Ed O'Bannon). There are underclassmen who make dubious draft decisions, yet still find their way to long and lucrative NBA careers (Troy Hudson, Mark Blount). There are guys who stick around an extra year, and lose their tournament hype (Corliss Williamson, Jalen Rose).

It is often lamented that the best underclassmen leave the college game too soon, denying their fans championships and Final 4's. Understand that this is a myth - Tim Duncan, Keith Van Horn, Shaquille O'Neal, and Alonzo Mourning combined to play 15 years of college ball, without any Final Fours to speak of. Charles Smith did not take Pittsburgh to the Final 4 in four seasons, Wayman Tisdale didn't do it at Oklahoma in his three, and Jon Koncak certainly didn't do it at SMU.

Oh, how we love to dream about the teams that might have been. The 2006 Tar Heels with May, McCants, Williams, and Felton. Duke with Luol Deng, Georgia Tech with Chris Bosh and Jarret Jack. The reality is, no matter how loaded a roster, only five players can be on the court at once. The last time a championship team returned a full roster and infused a bevy of big-time recruits was 1994.

That year, the team in question, North Carolina, nearly lost to 16-seed Liberty, before being felled by Boston College in the second round of the NCAA tournament. When an underclassman leaves a program, he is only taking away the daydreams of boosters and alumni, not the reality of an unpredictable season with ups, downs, and only one winner.

Ehud Knoll is a sfaff writer for EMAIL EHUD