October 5, 2007

Koufos is Ohio State's Oden encore

Kosta Koufos walks alone onto the Ohio State practice court, pounds the ball hard off the floor from his right hand to his left, passing it between his legs along the way. He jabs his left leg and shoulder toward an imaginary defender, then pulls back and sinks a 3-point jumper.

Big deal, right? Tennessee's Chris Lofton could do this while blindfolded, handcuffed and singing the opening aria from Rigoletto.

Thing is, Koufos stands nearly a foot taller than Lofton. No need to look that up. That makes Koufos a little over 7-1.

After watching him play open gym for a half-hour -- seeing him bank in a righthanded jump hook, land a lefthanded jump hook from the center of the lane, make at least four 3-pointers and run down a streaking forward on the break to swat a likely layup off the wall -- I reached a few conclusions.

1 Having relentlessly predicted the impending college stardom of Eric Gordon (Indiana), Kevin Love (UCLA), Michael Beasley (Kansas State), O.J. Mayo (Southern California) and Derrick Rose (Memphis), I have one more freshman to promote.

2. Last season, Ohio State brought in the best defensive center in a generation, Greg Oden. A year later, Thad Matta has recruited this country's most offensively skilled 7-footer since Kevin Garnett.

3. If he chooses to enter the 2008 draft, Koufos will hear his name called before any American player waiting to be summoned by commissioner David Stern.

That might mean Ohio State produces the NBA's No. 1 overall pick in consecutive years. It's kind of a blessed curse for the Buckeyes, who lost three freshmen to the 2007 draft, but not before Oden and point guard Mike Conley led them to the NCAA championship game.

Matta, of course, would love to keep Koufos awhile, though only so long as is prudent. Koufos is working so tenaciously that Ohio State associate head coach John Groce insists the only problem with this prized freshman is he could burn himself out.

Ohio State will be able to line up frequently with dangerous shooters at every position: Jamar Butler at point guard, freshman Jon Deibler at shooting guard, David Lighty at small forward, burgeoning draft prospect Othella Hunter at power forward and Koufos at center. With Matta's commitment to spreading the court, opposing big men will have little choice but to venture outside, away from the comfort of the lane.

There is some concern among scouts about whether Koufos is merely a workout wonder. Will he perform when the games count? He answered some of that this summer. American born and raised but of Greek descent, Koufos played with Greece in the U-18 European championships and was dominant. He turned down millions from a team in Greece's professional league to keep his commitment to Ohio State. It would be harder to say no to No. 1 in the NBA.

"I think he's going to be good in college," says one Western Conference scout, "but I think he'll be better in the NBA."

Koufos hasn't yet played a college game, of course. But he'll probably end up playing fewer than anyone imagined.


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