Caldwell-Pope steps into Wilkins territory

semerson@macon.comMarch 12, 2013 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There is now further confirmation that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a once-in-a-generation player for the Georgia men’s basketball team. Now the question is how much further he can lead the Bulldogs and how much longer he’ll be around.

Caldwell-Pope, the star guard from Greenville, was named the SEC player of the year by the conference coaches. That put him in elite company. The last Georgia player to be named men’s basketball player of the year was Dominique Wilkins, by the media in 1981.

“I was really shocked,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We had a lot of great players on the floor. I was just really shocked that I won. Now that I won, it’s a joyous feeling.”

A look at the statistics shows it shouldn’t quite be shocking news. The well-rounded Caldwell-Pope ranks in the SEC’s top 10 in a bevy of categories, from scoring (second with 18 points per game) to rebounding (eighth with 6.9 per game) to steals (third at 2.1 per game) to 3-pointers (second at 2.5 per game).

Much of it is because Caldwell-Pope has had to do so much on a Georgia team that for much of the season didn’t give him much help. But as his teammates improved this year, so did Caldwell-Pope, lifting the team to a surprising 9-9 record in SEC play.

“He’s an important piece to our team. He would probably be the first person to tell you that he’s not the only part of our team,” head coach Mark Fox said. “But he has, at a very young age, as a sophomore, had to be a very good example and a leader. And that’s important as many young players as we have around him.”

In the short term, the Bulldogs are looking to Caldwell-Pope to lead them when they begin play in the SEC tournament Thursday.

In the long term, they’re hoping Caldwell-Pope will be around next year to lead an NCAA tournament run.

Caldwell-Pope, a sophomore, didn’t want to talk about the future Tuesday.

“I’m really trying not to worry about that right now,” he said. “We’ve got the SEC tournament to worry about. And I’ve just got that on my mind right now.”

It wasn’t a surprising answer for Caldwell-Pope, who is shy and soft-spoken. His more outgoing teammate, freshman forward Brandon Morris, admitted there has been some locker-room lobbying.

“We try to slide our two cents in and slide in our little side-talk and try to get him to come back,” Morris said, smiling. “But at the end of the day it’s his decision.”

Two years ago, the Bulldogs were stung by the early departures of Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, who each had a year of eligibility remaining. This time, Fox is trying to handle it the same way, by not publicly pushing his star player in either direction.

“This is Kentavious’ life and career we’re talking about,” Fox said. “So I take that very seriously. I’ll make sure that Kentavious has accurate information from the right sources. And he has been very focused on his season.

“We have had conversations about this for the last year. He knows that I will get him that information. And we’ll discuss things at the right time. It’s not something that has to be done anytime soon. He’s aware of that, and he’s just trying to play basketball.”

Caldwell-Pope’s draft projections aren’t very high at the moment. The web site Draft Express rates him as the No. 41 overall prospect. Another website, NBAdraft.net, projects him as the 30th pick overall, the final pick of the first round, while Hoops World projects him going No. 29 overall.

“He’s the player of the year as a sophomore, and he can get a lot better,” Fox said. “There’s a lot of things he can improve on, and I’m not gonna list them now because I know LSU, they could watch your interview here. He’s learning so much. And he’s so much better right now than he was two months ago. He’s gonna continue to improve, and he’s not gonna peak as a player until he’s 25 or 26 years old.”

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