NBA will wait for these talents

Ronny Turiaf never considered declaring for the NBA draft.

Got that? Never.

Turiaf doesn't know why his name continued to be on potential draft lists of players who were considering the draft, or included with those "on the fence" all the way down to Monday's deadline for underclassmen to declare.

The junior forward was even against putting out a statement through the Gonzaga sports information department Monday. But he was pushed to do so, and went along with the party line.

All the while, Turiaf was smart enough to know that he was likely a first-round pick, but not a lock.

"It never popped in my head, never," Turiaf said Monday from Spokane, Wash. "I always knew I was coming back for my senior year at Gonzaga."

And, so he will. And once again, the Zags will be a preseason top 25 team because of it.

Turiaf led Gonzaga with 15.7 points and was second on the team with 6.2 rebounds a game. But he had a penchant to get into foul problems in big games, none more costly or untimely than the three first-half fouls he picked up against Nevada in the Zags' second-round NCAA Tournament loss to the Wolf Pack. Turiaf would play only 15 minutes, scoring 13 points (five rebounds) in picking up four fouls.

"I've got a lot of work to do," Turiaf said. "Nobody knows how much pain and regret I have about that Nevada game. We strive to advance in March and what happened in that game (picking up too many fouls to be effective) will never leave my mind."

A talented frontline player from the time he arrived in the Northwest via France, Turiaf's game remains in the development stage. The French native has an improving offensive repertoire, but as the Gonzaga coaching staff says, he's got to be a more consistent rebounder. NBA personnel are in agreement, waiting to see him be as productive at both ends of the court on the backboard.

But, if he can put together a consistent, injury-free and less foul-prone senior season, he's got a shot to not only solidify a spot in the first round, but climb close to the lottery in 2005. But put his draft stock aside for a minute. Returning for his senior season also means Turiaf becomes a candidate for national player of the year honors -- if he has the dominant season those at Gonzaga expect from their returning leader in scoring and rebounding.

Yes, the odds are against him winning such honors, but Turiaf certainly could put together a first-team All-American season. And, if he does, he'll easily slide into NBA team's radars.

Turiaf will be the featured player at Gonzaga. He'll team with junior college transfer J.P. Batista, a power forward who'll be joined inside and by swingman Sean Mallon, incoming freshman Josh Heytvelt and 7-1 New Zealander Calum MacLeod.

The Zags are also loaded on the wings with Erroll Knight, Adam Morrison, Texas Tech transfer Nathan Doudney and freshman David Pendergraft. The question mark will be the strength at point guard with Blake Stepp gone. Freshman Pierre-Marie Altidor-Cespedes will compete with rising sophomore Derek Raivio for the starting job.

While this Gonzaga squad won't start out among the favorites to get to the Final Four (as some projected for last year's Zags), Turiaf and the staff are convinced that come March the Zags will be more than capable of advancing past the second round of the NCAAs for the first time since 2001.

Games at Missouri, likely Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City, Saint Louis at home and possibly Illinois in the John Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis will give the Zags and Turiaf plenty of early-season exposure. But the time for worrying about his draft position is over. His fourth year in college will most likely make him a lock for the first round, but his senior season also makes the Zags a lock for the first round of the NCAAs.

After that?

"You guys will be surprised by how much better we are in March once all the sophomores and freshmen melt together," Turiaf said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge of making my team better, improving as a basketball player and of course graduating."

Yes, the NBA will have to wait for Turiaf, who wasn't the only underclassman who made an intelligent and sound decision to skip the early-entry deadline.

Hakim Warrick, Jr., F, Syracuse: Warrick decided against declaring because he wants to become a better perimeter player and help Syracuse win another national title. If he does the first, the Orange may just do the second. Warrick, who would have gone in the first round had he declared, remains a likely mid-first round pick next season. But if he has a stellar senior season, there is a chance he could move up into the lottery. But his decision to stay out of this June's draft was one of the biggest moves by any potential early-entry candidate. Warrick is a possible national player of the year, probably one of the top two candidates for Big East preseason player of the year and could be the key to Syracuse getting back to the Final Four.

Wayne Simien, Jr., Kansas: Simien was among the first to make it clear he wasn't even considering leaving early. Which, for those in Lawrence, Kan., was great news. With Simien in the middle another season, the Jayhawks have yet another chance to win the national title. Simien got through last season relatively unscathed after an injury-plagued sophomore season. He is becoming a dominant big man in college, but NBA personnel still look at him as a mid-first-round pick who has the potential to move up if he has a banner senior season. Like Warrick, this goes down as one of the smartest moves among the players who didn't declare.

Raymond Felton, So.; Rashad McCants, So., North Carolina: Some NBA personnel love Felton's game, while others wonder if he'll ever become a consistent shooter. McCants is a big-time scorer and that alone will get him a serious look in the NBA. As for the Tar Heels? Well, Roy Williams couldn't be more pleased to see his point guard and leading scorer back for another season.

Without Felton, UNC wouldn't have a shot to win the ACC, let alone a national title. While the right team could have made him a lottery pick this spring, Felton wasn't a lock to even be picked in the teens. Felton would have had to play his way up teams' draft boards through individual workouts. Now, he's got another season in Carolina Blue to impress NBA scouts. This decision will prove to be the right one as Felton likely locks in his '05 lottery spot with a productive junior season.

Like Felton, the scouts weren't sold on McCants' total package. So, why not return to the Tar Heels -- who desperately need him as well to make a run in 2005. McCants' stock has been steady, and he'll likely be picked in the teens next June should he bypasses his senior season. There was no way he was going to jump any higher during workouts this month, so he made the right call by going back to Carolina.

Julius Hodge, Jr., N.C. State: Hodge is the reigning ACC player of the year, which on its own usually means the first round of any NBA draft. But that title wouldn't have guaranteed him a first-round draft spot. Why? NBA teams weren't sold on Hodge because of his thin frame. He can score and is considered a productive passer. But Hodge needs to get stronger and continue to be consistent to be a lock for the first round. A senior season in the weight room should add the bulk to make NBA teams fall in love with Hodge's skills. Oh, Herb Sendek was thrilled Hodge returned to Raleigh. But it shouldn't have been a surprise. Hodge did the right thing for his career by coming back to college.

Chris Paul, Fr., Wake Forest: Yes, the ACC was filled with underclassmen who made tough decisions this past month. But, Paul admitted that he never thought about making the jump to the NBA. He was candid in saying he needed to get stronger so he wouldn't get bumped off balanced when he drove in the lane. But, make no mistake, an NBA team would have picked him in the lottery had he made the jump after his ACC Rookie of the Year season. Scouts love his potential. And, if he leaves after his sophomore season, he has a chance to really climb in next year's lottery. But, Kudos to Paul for seeing that he wasn't ready to leave for the NBA. His presence means Wake Forest has a realistic shot to cut down the nets in St. Louis.

Bracey Wright, So., Indiana: There is no question Wright can score. And, NBA teams know it. But they're still not convinced Wright was worthy of a spot higher than the 20s in this year's draft. So, waiting until next season means he's got 30 more games and a realistic shot to move much higher in the '05 draft. Wright will get plenty of shots again next season. But he'll also have more help with Robert Vaden and D.J. White joining the Hoosiers. If Wright continues to put up monster numbers in Bloomington, he could consider leaving after his junior season. Had Wright decided to bolt after his sophomore season, Indiana wouldn't have had a shot to be competitive in the Big Ten. Another good decision for both player and team.

Paul Davis, So., Michigan State: There is a buzz around Davis, which has been there since he was a senior in high school. And even though he's a work in progress, Davis still garners plenty of interest because of his ability to score inside and out. Had he decided to leave after his sophomore season, Davis would have been projected no better than in the 20s this year. But a weakened 2005 draft means he could climb a lot higher if he's consistent for the Spartans next season. As for Michigan State, it returns much of the same parts from this past season, so if the Spartans can get off to a decent start, Davis should have a potential Big Ten player of the year season. Davis, however, is the key piece for the Spartans to make a run in the NCAAs because he causes so many matchup problems when he's on his game.

Chris Taft, Fr., Pittsburgh: Taft could have been a lottery pick this season. Yes, his breakout freshman season was that good. And NBA teams love his potential. So, it'll be hard for Jamie Dixon to keep Taft in a Pittsburgh uniform for four seasons ... let alone three. But Taft understood he wasn't ready to make the jump and returned for his sophomore season. He's the anchor inside for Dixon and next to point Carl Krauser is the key to the Panthers staying atop the Big East. Taft's ability to score in the post has NBA teams interested. NBA scouts don't expect Taft to fall out of lottery favor ... whenever he declares.

Channing Frye, Jr.; Hassan Adams, So., Arizona: The Wildcats lost another to the early-entry list, but it could have been much worse for a team that is sometimes too talented for its own good. Frye is likely a lottery pick whenever he declares, while Adams is one of those athletes that NBA teams covet. NBA teams will flock to Arizona next season to watch Adams and Frye.

Fry has got the low-post skills and the rebounding prowess to keep the NBA teams high atop the draft interested. But he understood earlier this season that he wasn't ready to make the jump. He wasn't satisfied with his season, let alone the Wildcats' first-round flameout in the NCAA Tournament. Few around Arizona thought he would make it through four years without being tempted to go to the NBA. But he did and he should be rewarded next season as a lottery pick and potentially by being the Pac-10 player of the year.

Adams, meanwhile, is the type of player who doesn't have a true position -- but he's a player who can do a little bit of everything. He could have tested the draft process and likely would have been a first-round pick. But he wouldn't have been a lock, making his decision to stay at Arizona a smart one. He's got a chance to climb higher if he can improve his fundamentals. He needs to work on his consistency as both a ballhandler and shooter.

Chris Thomas, Jr.; Torin Francis, So., Notre Dame: There was no testing the water this year for Thomas, who tried to stay in the draft a year ago but couldn't get a guarantee he would be a first-round pick. So, the point guard will make it a complete four-year stay in South Bend ... knowing he's a first-round pick next June. Knowing he wouldn't have gone higher than the 20s next month, Thomas returned for a senior season that should include an NCAA Tournament berth. Thomas has a chance to move up into the teens next year, mainly because of the number of point guards who entered this June's draft. This spring's decision was an easy one for Thomas, who apparently didn't sweat trying to leave after his failed attempt a year ago.

In the case of Francis, a back injury kept him from finishing his sophomore season, so making the jump would have made no sense after this season. His return means the Irish have a shot to get back and advance in the NCAAs. Francis is more likely a four-year player for Mike Brey, but whenever he enters the draft, he's a got a legit shot to move into the middle of the first round.

Charlie Villanueva, Fr.; Josh Boone, Fr., Connecticut: Villanueva arrived last summer in Storrs with all the hype out of high school. Boone? Not so much. But both would have been first-round picks next month had they decided to leave after helping the Huskies win the national championship.

So, why did Villanueva stay? He wasn't going to be a high first-round pick. He needs UConn as much as it needs him. If he can become more of a focal point next season, it'll increase his draft status in 2005 and beyond. Still, there was some pressure outside of Storrs for him to declare. But he was well-advised by returning to Connecticut. Now, the Huskies have a chance to make another deep run in 2005 and Villanueva will be one of the primary options. His stock can only go up as he gets even more touches and learns to play consistent defense.

Boone, meanwhile, wasn't ready for the NBA. He knew it. NBA teams are convinced of it. But they still would have drafted him in the first round based on his potential. That won't change in 2005 if he continues to be productive on the offensive and defensive glass. Boone hasn't even scratched the surface of his potential. But he remains on NBA teams' radar as one of the top big men to watch in the coming seasons.

Francisco Garcia, So., Louisville: In December, Garcia was not only a potential player of the year, but on every NBA team's radar. But he tended to fade as the season wore on and that turned off some NBA teams. He still would have likely been chosen in the first round, but wasn't a lock to go higher than the 20s. Garcia needed to go back to Louisville. He'll be just as featured in Pitino's offense in 2005. He's got a shot to climb higher in the draft after his junior season. But NBA teams want to see him get stronger and handle the season-long punishment.

Sean Banks, Fr.; Rodney Carney, So., Memphis: Banks was ESPN.com's pick for national freshman of the year. Pretty nice credentials to have when it comes to that key word: potential. And, without him, Memphis probably doesn't make the NCAAs. But while Banks would have been slotted in the first round had he elected to declare, his the first round is so crowded with high school seniors that his slot would have been tough to pin point. By coming back and helping Memphis get back to the NCAAs, Banks has a shot to really surge on draft boards in 2005.

Carney is on NBA scouts' radar screens because he's one of the top athletes in college basketball. He's the type of player who shines in individual workouts. But NBA teams want to see him develop as a more consistent rebounder next season. He can score and will continue to get more touches next season. Carney and Banks give Memphis two of the least appreciated players in the college game.

Jason Maxiell, Jr., Cincinnati: Maxiell may have been tempted to declare after averaging nearly 14 points and close to seven rebounds a game. But Maxiell is smart enough to realize he would have been lost somewhere in the first round, possibly slipping into the second. He's got a chance to improve his stock as a senior. He'll have plenty of competition for player of the year in Conference USA (see: Louisville's Garcia and Memphis' Banks). But if he has a big-time senior season there's no reason why he can't play himself into the middle of the first round and make the decision to return one of the most intelligent moves of this lot.

Andrew Bogut, Fr., Utah: Bogut could still bolt for Europe and a lucrative professional contract. But the Aussie's plan to stay out of the NBA draft was prudent. He could have been a late lottery pick, but that was a tenuous prediction. Some teams liked him enough to put that tag on him while others were holding out to see him play at least another season. If he can be more consistent inside, he's got a real shot to lock to be a lottery selection in 2005. If he returns to Utah and doesn't play professionally overseas, the Utes have a shot to win the Mountain West. Utah will be somewhere in the middle of the MWC pack if he doesn't return.

Kennedy Winston, So., Alabama: A breakout NCAA Tournament didn't change Winston's mind. And, Mark Gottfried was thrilled when he didn't have to sweat out the early-entry deadline this season. Winston told the Alabama staff during the season that he didn't have plans to declare. He could have been in the first round with his 17 points and 5.5 rebounds a game. Instead, he'll land in the first round in 2005, barring a reduction in his skills. Winston's decision was a prudent one considering he can make more cash for himself in 2005 and possibly be the SEC player of the year. If he does, the Tide will sail into the NCAA Tournament.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.