Pitt's Blair grabbing NBA scouts' attention
By John Grupp
Published: Sunday, February 22, 2009
DeJuan Blair's teammates jokingly called him "the Terminator" this week because his bloodied left eye made him resemble the cyborg assassin.
Only time will tell if Blair repeats the sci-fi movie's most famous line: "I'll be back."
Blair, who didn't even make the 14-man All-Big East preseason team, has developed into one of the leading candidates for conference player of the year, a possible All-American and — if he declares — a likely first-round pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
The sophomore center admits he spies the NBA mock draft boards out of curiosity once in a while, but he said his attention remains locked on No. 4 Pitt's bid to reach the Final Four in Detroit.
"I'll read the (mock drafts)," Blair said. "But that ain't nothing. I'm not worried about that right now. I'm worried about Pitt and this team. I'm worried about Pitt and the Final Four and the Big East championship and the regular-season championship. I ain't worried about nothing else. I'm worried about New York and Detroit."
With his dominating performances against some of the top centers in the nation, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Blair's stock is soaring. ESPN.com's mock draft called Blair "the hottest name out there" — and that was before his 22-point, 23-rebound effort Monday at top-ranked Connecticut.
"Blair proved to me that there isn't many of him out there," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "I know (2008 No. 5 overall pick) Kevin Love got a great deal of publicity in college, but Blair is just a heckuva basketball player."
There were about 17 NBA scouts at the UConn game, when Blair dominated 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet — a universal top-five pick. Blair's only misfortune was catching an elbow in the eye that broke a blood vessel.
Blair, whose eye is fine, is projected to be drafted in the mid-teens to the low-20s. He ranks ahead of teammate Sam Young, a projected late first-rounder, on most draft boards.
"Right now, (Blair) is in the middle of the first round of the draft," said an NBA scout, who requested anonymity because he isn't authorized to talk about specific prospects. "It's a weak draft. I would say all signs point to him coming out."
Another NBA scout, who works for an Eastern Conference team, calls Blair "a one-of-a-kind player" who should be a high lottery pick.
"I'd say he's four to 10 (overall)," said the scout, who also requested anonymity. "After what he did the other night (against Connecticut), what more needs to be said. The kid is for real. He plays best in the biggest games. He destroyed Georgetown. He destroyed Connecticut.
"He needs a free-throw coach, and when he gets paid, he needs to hire a cook/nutritionist, because he's two cheeseburgers away from 350. But to me, those are the only two concerns. Sure, I'd like to see him extend his range to 16-17 feet, but everything else I've seen him do."
After the season, Blair says he will confer with the people most important to him — his family and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon — about his future plans.
"I'll sit down with coach Dixon and see what he thinks," Blair said. "He's the man of it. But I will see how this thing grows out.
"I'm a sophomore, and I read all the time on the Internet or the blogs, a lot of people say I should stay another year or do this and do that. But I never listen to people."
While NBA scouts believe Blair would be a first-round pick if he declares, there also is the belief he should return for his junior season to work on facets of his game he needs to improve for the pro level — mid-range jump shot, ball-handling, etc.
The Early Entry Eligibility deadline for the 2009 NBA Draft is April 26 — four days after Blair's 20th birthday.
Former Pitt star Charles Smith, who has seen Blair play since his days at Schenley, knows all about early entry candidates. He has spoken with countless possible draft picks when he worked as a Regional Representative of Player Programs for the NBA Players Association.
Two years ago, he spent a couple of days with Aaron Gray at the NBA Rookie Camp when the 7-foot then-junior at Pitt was considering declaring for the draft. Gray returned for his senior year and was picked in the second round (49th overall) as a third-team All-American.
"There are a lot of factors involved," Smith said. "Where is he financially• Where might he end up in the draft• It's not an easy decision.
"Is he going to be a 6-6 power forward in the NBA• Will he last at that height and that position• Should he stay and enhance his skills and learn to put the ball on the floor a little more• He might have a jump shot, but how often have we seen it• I'm not saying he can't learn to do those things. But when the time comes, you sit down and look at those things."
The lure of being a first-round pick is the guaranteed contract. Second-rounders aren't assured of anything.
Last year's 16th overall pick, Florida's Marreese Speights, signed for two years for about $2.6 million. The No. 26 pick, IUPUI's George Hill, inked a two-year deal worth approximately $2.53 million.
Blair could be the second high-profile Pitt athlete to leave as a sophomore, following running back LeSean McCoy, who departed to the NFL.
Save for Chris Taft, who turned pro after his sophomore season, Pitt has avoided losing underclassmen to the NBA Draft.
Gray flirted after his junior season in 2005-06. Young, a 6-6 small forward, could have turned pro, but he stayed for his senior season, largely due to the bad taste from Pitt's second-round loss to Michigan State in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
In the same manner, losing underclassmen to the pros is something the truly elite programs — a station to which Pitt aspires — cope with on an annual basis. Defending national champion Kansas lost five players - one sophomore, two juniors and two seniors — to last year's NBA Draft.
Blair said Pitt's success in March will play a big role in his decision. He hinted if Pitt wins its first NCAA title, he would almost certainly turn pro.
"Of course," he said. "You've done everything you wanted to do. Of course that would (have an impact)."
Blair, along with Marquette senior guard Jerel McNeal, last year's winner; junior forward Luke Harangody of Notre Dame; and Thabeet, is considered a leading candidate for the Big East Player of the Year. Blair also could be playing his way onto an All-America team.
"I think he's one of the top 15 players in the country," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who called the UConn game and worked with Blair at the Amare Stoudemire's Big Man camp this summer in Phoenix. "He's relentless. He's an energetic player that never stops and that counts for a lot."
Dom Berardinelli, a regional scout for the Court Report, an NBA scouting service, has mixed emotions. A former Pitt player and regular at all home games, Berardinelli wants to see Blair play for his alma mater for one more season. The scout in him, however, isn't so optimistic.
"I thought — like everyone else — he would have to play three years," Berardinelli said. "I didn't think he'd improve so much so soon. The last game I wrote a report on, Notre Dame, there was a strong feeling (from other scouts) that he was leaving.
"I'm being selfish. I want to see the kid at Pitt for another year. But they are saying he's ready now."
So, will Blair say "I'll be back" or "Hasta la vista, baby?"
Only time will tell.
The next level
Here's DeJuan Blair's projected spot in the 2009 NBA Draft, if he declares early:
Mock draft: Overall pick
New Sport Draft: 16th
Hoops Report: 21st
Sports Fantasy Guide: 23rd
Draft Review: 26th
Draft Empire: 27th