Up, up, up. . . . Nobody can say exactly how high.
All anyone can say is the obvious: UCLA’s dramatic rush into the Final Four has focused a spotlight on Tyus Edney, Ed O’Bannon and George Zidek, highlighted their strengths, diminished their perceived weaknesses and made them all juicier NBA draft candidates.
“The more games we win, the more their values go up in the NBA draft,” sophomore guard Cameron Dollar said. “I kid around with George, Tyus and Ed, telling them, ‘Hey, we’re going to put you all in another tax bracket.’ ”
All three seniors emphasize that their only goal right now is to beat Oklahoma State on Saturday, then win again Monday in the national championship game, and get another banner for Pauley Pavilion’s rafters.
“I don’t really care that I’m getting good exposure for the NBA right now,” Zidek said. “Because I can just tell you that the feeling of your team winning and going farther and farther in the NCAA tournament is superior to anything individually.”
But they agree that the chance to perform--and succeed--on national television, against other top-flight players, probably has increased their value.
The consensus, at least among the UCLA coaches, is that O’Bannon, a candidate for national player of the year, already had established himself as a top-10 pick before the tournament, and that the four tournament victories have only solidified his status.
“He’s a terrific player,” said Jerry West, Laker executive vice president, choosing not to predict how high in the first round O’Bannon might go. “If you watch him, you can’t help but like him.
“Leadership is one of the most overrated words I’ve ever heard. There are just certain people players seem to follow. It has nothing to do with screaming and hollering, it has something do with playing consistently and at a very high level. And he does those things. I’ve always been intrigued, but this year he’s really stepped forward.”
But Edney and Zidek, the point guard from Long Beach and the center from the Czech Republic, began the tournament with lesser NBA profiles and larger question marks.
Was Edney too small, at 5 feet 10 and 152 pounds, to have a major impact on games, despite his speed and quickness? And could the plodding Zidek, despite his 7-foot frame, hold his own against quicker, stronger post players?
For Edney, with the 90-foot mad dash to beat the clock and save UCLA’s season against Missouri in the second round, with his flying drives for baskets straight at Mississippi State shot blocker Erick Dampier, with his three-point shot at the halftime buzzer against Connecticut last Saturday, the West Regional was a showcase.
“Everybody knew (about) this little entity down here, Tyus Edney, but I don’t think anybody ever knew him,” Coach Jim Harrick said. “People now are saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’
“He might’ve elevated himself from a second-round to a first-round draft choice, maybe. I’ll tell you what I like about him and what the NBA coaches and scouts have told me what they like about Edney: No. 1, pushing it up the floor. No. 2, he can make 80-, 70-, 60-, 50-, 40-foot passes as well as anybody. The catch and the dunk is not the play, (it’s) the pass to the perfect spot. . . . That’s Tyus Edney.”
One worry pro scouts have always had about Edney is his ability to withstand the rigors of an 82-game schedule, banging against big NBA bodies night after night.
But Bruin assistant coach Mark Gottfried, pointing out that Edney has gone through UCLA’s 17-game winning stretch relatively unscathed, said the NBA should focus on Edney’s ability to dominate a game with his speed.
“I wouldn’t really care about his size if I know the guy can score and the guy can pass and he’s got great feet and he’s got a big heart,” Gottfried said. “I don’t care if he’s 4-foot-2, he helps UCLA win.
“I look at Elliott Perry and Dana Barros and Bobby Hurley, Darrick Martin from here. If those guys are in the league, you’ve got to be kidding me. . . . Tyus Edney has been sensational here.”
Edney knows his draft potential is tied to UCLA’s run at the title.
“It definitely is a goal of mine to try to be drafted in the first round,” he said. “I’m just trying to concentrate on this team and trying to win, and I think that will come.”
West said: “Obviously, the bigger the better. But in our league today, a lot of little people have been successful.”
Zidek, pegged as an iffy NBA prospect in mid-season, has a chance to lift UCLA into the title game--and, not coincidentally, raise his draft status immeasurably--Saturday, in a matchup with 7-foot Oklahoma State senior Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, a battle Zidek’s teammates call “Big Country vs. Foreign Country.”
Zidek barely played his first two seasons and often plays less than half the game because UCLA’s speed lineup has been so successful, but he already has had one major challenge, against Dampier, and responded by holding Dampier to only four shots.
“I think the Dampier game, he made some money,” Gottfried said. “You’re talking a big guy who can score, has got a great attitude, and will work harder than anybody else in the history of your franchise.”
Said Harrick, “It seems to me, most times in the NBA they look at what they can’t do. I’ll tell you what he can do: He can shoot.
“I see some guys in the NBA that can’t score, that just push people around. And I’m going to tell you something: He will be physical. He is not afraid. He’ll be as strong as anybody. I think what he did against Dampier wakes their eyes up, lets them notice.”