Pitt's Blair declares for NBA draft

PITTSBURGH -- DeJuan Blair guaranteed Pitt coach Jamie Dixon a year ago that he would play a full college career. One exceptional season changed all that.

Blair said Wednesday he will declare for the NBA draft and has begun hiring representatives, ending any possibility that the All-America center could return for his junior season.

Blair is projected as a mid- to late first-round pick, but his status could change -- for better or worse -- once he goes through the NBA's various pre-draft workouts. Blair plans to hire an agent within the next several weeks, and has retained Pittsburgh attorney James Cook to handle him in marketing and advertising matters.

Blair, the only Pitt player in the last 50 years to make first-team All-America, could have returned to Pitt next season if he didn't hire an agent or any other representative, but retaining Cook means Blair no longer has that option.

"There ain't no turning back," said Blair, who initially planned to leave his options open but decided only in the last few days that he was turning pro regardless. "I don't think you should have gone into this situation unless you know you're a first-round pick or not. I'm guaranteed of [being] a first-round pick, and I'm going to work hard to get to where I want to be. I control my destination and I'll be all right."

Asked what guarantees him of being a first-rounder with the draft 2½ months off and teams still evaluating talent, Blair said, "I'm an Internet freak and I go on all the draft boards, and nobody's got me going second round. That's almost guaranteed to me."

Only the day before, Dixon warned about relying on such mock drafts, saying, "They're largely inaccurate, but fun to talk about."

Blair's decision is a gamble partly because he has twice undergone reconstructive knee surgery, a red flag for NBA teams seeking durability in a league where teams play more than twice as many games per season as college teams do.

Also, his weight as been a problem in the past -- the 6-foot-7 Blair weighed more than 300 pounds in high school, but now is about 260.

"I had to do what's best for me," said Blair, who doesn't want to risk another knee injury in college. "No one else made the decision but me. ... I've heard all the downfalls about me being too big or me being too small. That's just motivation. ... I'm not going to tell them what I can do in the NBA, I'm going to show them what I can do."

Several dozen family members whispered words of encouragement as Blair spoke, with ex-teammates and former Pitt stars such as Brandin Knight and Sam Clancy gathered in a crowded interview room to hear his remarks.

"I think he's an NBA player," Dixon said of Blair, who grew up about a half-mile from Pitt's campus. "I told him that from the time we recruited him. I've always had a higher opinion of him than most scouting services and coaches and most media observers. I always thought of him as an NBA player."

Dixon and Blair met several times this week to discuss his status, and the coach passed on information he received from NBA general managers.

Blair is an in-between size for an NBA inside player, but is an instinctive rebounder -- he easily led major college players in offensive rebounding -- and he was not overmatched physically even against centers who were seven or eight inches taller.

Among the college season's signature moments was when the muscular Blair flipped UConn's 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet over his shoulder and to the court as the two contested a rebound. Blair joked that the NBA "is just bigger people, and every game is going to be like the UConn games."

"His size is not a hindrance in my mind," Dixon said. "It was just something he would overcome, as he had in high school and then college."

Blair averaged 15.7 points and 12.3 rebounds this season and was the Big East co-player of the year with Thabeet. Blair helped Pitt (31-5) to its first No. 1 national ranking, its first No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament and its first trip to the NCAA round of eight in 35 years.

"I've done everything an individual can do," Blair said. "I had a heck of an individual year and a heck of a team year. I got all-first team everything and I'm up for the Naismith and Wooden awards. ... I'm already up on top, I'm on top of the ladder and I can only climb back down [in college]. If your dream is in your face, why not go reach it?"

Pitt lost only to fellow Big East teams: Villanova twice, including the East regional final, plus Louisville, Providence and West Virginia, but now must replace fourth-fifths of its starting lineup. The Panthers also lose seniors Sam Young, Levance Fields and Tyrell Biggs, plus Blair, the biggest one-season talent hit they've taken since re-emerging as a Top 25 team eight seasons ago.

The Panthers haven't had an NBA first-round pick since guard Vonteego Cummings in 1999, but they could have two this year with Blair and Young.

Blair's predecessor at center, Aaron Gray, went through pre-draft workouts in 2006 but returned for his senior season. He was a second-round pick by the Chicago Bulls a year later.

Pitt sophomore center Chris Taft left after two seasons in 2005 and was projected as a first-round pick, but he slipped into the second round and is no longer in the league.

Cook, who has represented sports clients such as boxer Roy Jones Jr., projects Blair could go between the eighth and 20th picks in the first round.

"This smile of mine is going to be worth a million dollars," Blair said. "It's going to be cool."