Shortly before the college basketball season began, when the Big East Conference coaches didn't have the foresight to pick Pitt's DeJuan Blair as one of their 11 All-Big East candidates or three honorable mention candidates, the question was unthinkable. Blair to the NBA after the season? No way.
But now? After Blair took another step toward the Big East player of the year award with a 20-point, 18-rebound performance in No. 4 Pitt's 80-61 victory against DePaul last night at the Petersen Events Center? After he again showed why he belongs on the short list of national player of the year candidates?
The question is very thinkable.
Clearly, Blair will have a big decision to make after the season.
Speculation that Blair will leave after just two seasons at Pitt is natural. It happens when a guy goes for 20 points and 17 rebounds against Georgetown freshman Greg Monroe, the next big thing in the college game coming into the season. It happens when he has 23 points and 22 rebounds against Notre Dame's Luke Harangody, the reigning Big East player of the year. And it happens when he absolutely schools another player of the year candidate -- Connecticut 7-foot-3 giant Hasheem Thabeet -- for 22 points and 23 rebounds in a jewel of a Big Monday win at No. 1 Connecticut.
Blair's numbers last night would have dwarfed any of those if Pitt coach Jamie Dixon had allowed him to play more. DePaul's big people are young and much less talented. He popped for 32 points and 14 rebounds in a win against them Feb. 7. Last night, he scored Pitt's first seven points. He had his double-double with little more than eight minutes left in the first half. He had 16 points and 16 rebounds by halftime.
"Twenty and 18 in 23 minutes, that's pretty good," Blair said, looking at the final stats sheet.
"DeJuan is a special kid," DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright said. "It's like somebody got in a lab and kind of put him together. He uses his length. He has great hands. He kind of has a [Charles] Barkley-like body ...
"He just has a great feel for playing basketball."
Don't think the NBA scouts haven't noticed.
The speculation has Blair going in the second half of the first round of the June draft. His status only figures to grow if he keeps playing this well and Pitt keeps winning. It should be No. 1 when The Associated Press poll comes out tomorrow.
"That's something for everyone else to talk about, not us," Dixon said, making it clear a Blair-to-the-NBA discussion isn't high on his priority list with Pitt so close to a Big East regular-season championship and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"It's only speculation that's based on inaccurate and incomplete information at this point. The decisions are made in April, May and June about who's going to go and where they're going to be picked. Right now, there probably are 200 guys going to the NBA. There are more guys going in the first round than there are spots. It's not worth even talking about at this point."
Dixon is a coach, right?
The last thing any coach wants now is a distraction.
But Dixon is lucky. Blair is more mature and sensible than many college sophomores. He has handled the NBA questions with the same ease he grabs a rebound. Asked about the draft in Connecticut last week, he said, "The NBA is somewhere over there. We're here." Asked about it two weeks ago, he said, "Not even thinking about that. I'll worry about the future when it gets here, whenever that is. All I'm thinking about now is winning the Big East regular-season championship and the national championship."
Really, Dixon has nothing to worry about with this guy causing a distraction.
Notice, though, that Blair didn't say one way or the other what he will do after the season. He didn't take the LeSean McCoy approach. McCoy, Pitt's star running back, said last season that he was definitely coming back to Pitt in 2009, then changed his mind when he realized how much NFL money was out there for him.
Blair's situation is different. McCoy is more ready for the pros. His sport also is more brutal, more unforgiving. That's why it's hard to argue his decision to enter the NFL draft.
NBA scouts still have questions about Blair's height (6 feet 7), his shooting touch and his ability to be explosive enough to get his shot off against the bigger opponents he'll face in the NBA. Of course, at least some of those questions had to be answered by the way he took apart Thabeet.
Still, there's no question another year at Pitt would help Blair. But being ready for the NBA and being a first-round pick are two different things. This isn't an especially strong year for talent coming into the NBA. It's easy to imagine Blair going in the first round. In the '08 draft, players picked between No. 15 and No. 30 in the first round received guaranteed two-year contracts worth between $3.36 million and $1.95 million.
Emphasis on the word guaranteed.
How do you tell a kid to turn down that kind of money?
It is worth repeating:
Blair will have a big decision to make after the season.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .