July 8, 2009

Georgia Tech's hopes hinge on freshman Favors

This is part one in a weekly series on freshmen who must make a big impact next season for their teams to challenge for league titles and get to the NCAA tournament.

ATLANTA Derrick Favors was attending an Atlanta Hawks game this spring to get an up-close look at some of his favorite NBA stars. Little did he know he was about to become one of the night's biggest attractions.

During the game, fans started walking up to Favors a Georgia Tech signee and asking for his autograph. Although the nation's No. 3 prospect hasn't begun his college career, Favors already gets recognized almost anywhere he goes in his hometown. It's not unusual for a highly touted prospect from a small town to develop into a local celebrity, but Favors represents a special case because he has received the star treatment while living in a big city full of pro athletes.

"Sometimes I'm surprised," said Favors, a 6-foot-9 forward. "I might go somewhere and expect nobody to know me. All of a sudden, people start saying, 'There's Derrick Favors,' and ask for autographs or take pictures."

Imagine how much more attention Favors will receive if he gets Georgia Tech back to the NCAA tournament.

Tech has featured more peaks and valleys than the typical national power, at least in part because the school has had a number of star performers who left school early. For instance, in his lone season, Stephon Marbury helped the Yellow Jackets advance to the Sweet 16 in 1996 to end a two-year NCAA tournament drought. Georgia Tech wouldn't return to the tournament for five more seasons. Chris Bosh left after his freshman season and was the No. 4 pick in the 2003 draft. Tech's only winning season in the past four years came in 2006-07, when freshmen Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton helped the Jackets go 20-12; both left school after that season and were drafted in the first round.

Favors could develop into Tech's next "one-and-done" standout. Favors already is projected as the No. 2 pick in the 2010 NBA draft by draftexpress.com and the sixth overall selection by nbadraft.net.

While those projections make it seem likely Favors could follow the lead of Young and Crittenton, he says he doesn't know how many years he will stay in school. Favors says he will remain at Tech until he has expanded his game enough to make him adequately prepared for the NBA. Favors also wants to develop an NBA-ready body. He said he weighs close to 235 pounds and eventually would like to get up to 240.

"I don't want to go to the NBA and have people just forget about me," Favors said. "I want to be able to go to the NBA and have everybody remember me."

Highs and lows
Georgia Tech has gone through plenty of peaks (an appearance in the NCAA championship game in 2004) and valleys (a 2-14 ACC record last season) during Paul Hewitt's tenure. The return of four of the top six scorers and the arrival of the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class could have the Yellow Jackets on the rise again. Here's a look at Tech's year-by-year record since Hewitt's arrival:
2000-0117-138-8NCAA first round
2002-0316-157-9NIT third round
2003-0428-109-7NCAA runner-up
2004-0520-128-8NCAA second round
2006-0720-128-8NCAA first round
How long will that take?

"I have no idea," he said. "It depends on when I feel I'm ready to go, when I'm confident enough in my game to go. Strength-wise, I'm not ready right now. Maybe a year or two at Tech will get me ready. Skill-wise, I'm maybe a year away."

Michael Reddick, who coached Favors at South Atlanta High School, believes his star player already might be ready. Favors averaged 28.1 points and 13.3 rebounds as a senior while leading South Atlanta to its first state title. He had 38 points and 21 rebounds in the state championship game.

Favors also posted a team-high 18 points and matched a team high with eight rebounds while helping the East squad win 113-110 in the McDonald's All American Game.

"If [the NBA] didn't have the rule in there about being 19, I think he could be able to make that jump now and begin developing a pro game," Reddick said. "But going to college is a great thing for him. He needs to continue to get stronger. His size is incredible for a high school kid, being 17 years old. But he needs to continue to get stronger, continue to work on his conditioning and continue to work on his overall game to see how good he can be."

It will be equally interesting to see how good Tech can be once the Yellow Jackets add Favors to their lineup. Tech was 12-19 overall and 2-14 in the ACC last season, finishing last in the league. But the Jackets seem poised to contend for an NCAA bid with Favors.

The Jackets return four of their top six scorers and add Favors as part of the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class. Favors will team with junior Gani Lawal to give Tech two probable first-round draft picks in the frontcourt. Center Brad Sheehan and forward Zachery Peacock should be valuable complementary players. In the backcourt, point guard Iman Shumpert is a good distributor, and three other holdovers and two true freshmen will make for a deep unit. The big question is who will provide the outside shooting.

But this should be a frontcourt-oriented team. Lawal, a 6-9 forward, averaged 15.1 points and 9.5 rebounds last season to earn third-team All-ACC honors.

"He and Lawal will play well off each other," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said of Favors. "Lawal will have plenty of rebounding opportunities. He'll create space for Lawal because as good as Lawal is, Favors is at an even higher level."

Those kinds of expectations put quite a burden on any college freshman, particularly one who's playing in his hometown. But if Favors feels the pressure, he isn't letting it show.

Draft winds
Georgia Tech has had a recent history of players leaving early for the NBA. Here's a look:
YearPlayerDraft pickYears at Tech
2007Thaddeus YoungNo. 12 overallLeft after freshman season
2007Javaris CrittentonNo. 19 overallLeft after freshman season
2005Jarrett JackNo. 22 overallLeft after junior season
2003Chris BoshNo. 4 overallLeft after freshman season
2000Jason CollierNo. 15 overallCollege senior
1999Dion GloverNo. 20 overallLeft after sophomore season
1998Matt HarpringNo. 15 overallCollege senior
1996Stephon MarburyNo. 4 overallLeft after freshman season
"He doesn't let anything get to him or get to his head," said Favors' mother, Deandra Favors. "Sometimes I don't think it's all dawned on Derrick yet, how good and how big he really can be.

"I always tell him, 'If it's God's will, if it's meant to be, it will be.' He doesn't let [the pressure] get to him at all. I don't think he even realizes yet how good he is or could be."

Favors must have at least some idea. He certainly understands he has NBA potential. In fact, he chose Georgia Tech at least in part because of the Yellow Jackets' history of sending players to the pro ranks.

Tech has produced 14 first-round picks in the past 21 drafts, including five this decade. Lawal might have added to that list if he hadn't withdrawn his name from draft consideration last month.

"I've been watching Georgia Tech's skill development and how many guys they put in the NBA, almost every year," Favors said. "I think that's good for me."

But he hasn't allowed his status as a likely future lottery pick get to his head. He still realizes he has much to accomplish before he can start thinking about NBA glory.

"He has a maturity beyond his years when it comes to handling those kinds of situations," Reddick said. "He keeps it in stride. That's what's going to bode well for him down the line. A lot of times I see guys his age who get caught up in the hype. He kind of shies away from it. He doesn't bring attention to himself."

Favors figures to remain the center of attention as long as he stays at Tech. Even in a class that features four other top-135 prospects, Favors clearly is the headliner.

The freshman class also has 6-2 point guard Mfon Udofia (the No. 32 prospect in the nation), 6-4 shooting guard Glen Rice Jr. (No. 45), 6-7 power forward Kammeon Holsey (No. 82) and 6-6 small forward Brian Oliver (No. 135).

Favors isn't the most recognizable name in the class. That honor belongs to Rice, the son of former NBA sharpshooter Glen Rice. But he's clearly the group's biggest star. How many other incoming freshmen have been fielding autograph requests since their sophomore year in high school?

"He gets that all the time," Reddick said. "We were playing a game down in Macon against Rutland High School. I took him out of the game because we were up by about 50 or 60, and it was early in the fourth quarter. I'm on the court coaching and someone says, 'Coach, look.' I look around and there's about 30 people surrounding him trying to get his autograph. It's amazing."

Favors is about to enter an environment in which the games get a whole lot bigger and a whole lot closer.

And those autograph lines should get quite a bit longer.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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