Nick Collison and the NBA draft are mutually inclusive. Collison will be a first-round selection next June. The only question is how long the Kansas University senior will have to wait before Commissioner David Stern calls his name.
"I think I could be a lottery pick," Collison said. "The only thing I can do is have a real good year."
Collison already has had three real good years in a Kansas uniform, but his fourth might have to be really, really good in order to push him into the lottery pick stratosphere.
Pro scouts love Collison's remarkable consistency, deceptive athleticism, uncommon court sense, superior shooting skills and unwavering work ethic. What they want to see from the 6-foot-9, 255-pounder from Iowa Falls, Iowa, is improved strength, because many of the power forwards in the NBA will make him look like a rowboat in a hurricane.
Collison learned all about the muscle factor last summer when he was an alternate on the USA World Championship Team. Although he did not play in games, Collison did take part in all the pre-World Championship practices, and, since all the other players were pros, he was able to gauge his state of NBA readiness.
"They're a lot more physical," Collison said. "You still get fouls when you're out of position, but those guys are so strong they can hold you off with one arm."
As the lone collegian among the play-for-pay athletes, Collison often found himself treated like a fraternity pledge. For instance, he had to go get them lunch a couple of times. Still, "they were good guys," he said.
More important, Collison realized that every repetition, every minute on the practice floor, put him that much closer to realizing his goal of playing in the NBA, even if he was not going to be able to perform in the World Championships.
"I wasn't even thinking I wasn't going to play," Collison said. "It did a lot for my confidence. It was fun."
The fun quotient helped tip the scales last April when Collison toyed with skipping his senior season, as teammate Drew Gooden did. While Gooden knew all along he would turn pro, Collison wavered.
Everyone knew Gooden would be a top five selection in the NBA draft and an immediate pro starter. Collison, however, envisioned himself sitting mostly on the bench and the 81-game season turning into an interminable bore.
"I thought about it a lot," Collison said, "and I thought it would be more fun to play as a senior than to be a rookie in the NBA."
Collison did it the right way Â he waited and evaluated Â and once he made his decision, he made no second guesses.
"I think it was right for me to come back," he said. "I think I'll be in a better position to come out next year."
Obviously, if Collison suffers a serious injury his NBA stock will plummet and he'll be kicking himself, but he has displayed remarkable durability during his three seasons with the Jayhawks. During that span, Kansas has had 104 regular-season and postseason games, and Collison has played in every one of them, averaging 13.4 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Gooden made a quantum leap from his sophomore to junior years. In fact, Gooden's emergence as a player-of-the-year caliber performer overshadowed Collison's improvement during the 2001-2002 season.
Collison boosted his scoring average from 14.0 as a soph to 15.6 and his rebounding average from 6.7 to 8.3. At the same time, Gooden had hiked his scoring average to 19.8 from 15.8 and his rebounding from 8.4 to 11.4.
Putting it another way, Collison's scoring-rebounding numbers as a junior were strikingly similar to Gooden's sophomore stats. That doesn't mean, of course, that Collison is a year behind Gooden on the breakthrough scale. It does show, however, the possibility exists.
No doubt Collison's numbers would increase in direct proportion to additional time on the floor. He averaged fewer minutes (26.8) than any of last year's starters, primarily because he led the Jayhawks in fouls (108) and disqualifications (six).
Still, Collison committed five fewer fouls than he had during his sophomore year when he played in four fewer games, so it is reasonable to assume he'll continue to foul less and play more. Nevertheless, Collison is destined to become only the third KU player Â Danny Manning and Darnell Valentine are the others Â to finish his career with more than 400 fouls.
Final Four key
Regardless, the bottom line isn't numbers. It's qualifying for the NCAA Final Four and giving your team an opportunity to capture a national championship.
"I think we have as good a shot as anybody," Collison said. "Hopefully, we can make big steps. But that's so far ahead."