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The expression on Omar Cooks face said it all. St. Johns had just gone toe-to-toe with the No. 4 ranked Kansas Jayhawks in the teams second game last season and the freshman point guard wore his heart on his sleeve. Losing was not supposed to be part of the equation.
But that loss, which could have been a moral victory for many, was just the first in a long line for the Red Storm, which finished the year one game below .500, failing to make the postseason for the first time in four years.
And now, weeks after the dust has settled from what can only be deemed a disappointing season for St. Johns, Cook may well be turning his eyes toward the NBA, a potential move that has sent shockwaves through the St. Johns Athletic Department.
When the season ended, Cook said he had every intention of returning to finish the job he started. But the allure of the NBA and the specter of yet another abysmal season on the horizon seem to have forced Cook to weigh his options, at the very least.
And I, for one, can not blame him for it. As competitive a player as he is, I can understand why Cook would not want to come back to a team that may not get any better. Then, of course, there is the money.
A first round draft pick in the NBA gets a guaranteed contract, money in the bank regardless of what team he plays for, even if he doesnt see any playing time at all in his rookie season. Thats something that must be hard to turn away from, like holding a winning lottery ticket and not cashing it in for a full year. I couldnt do it. In fact, Id be out the door so fast you couldnt catch me.
Its not that cut and dry, Ill grant you that. The chances are that if Cook makes himself eligible for the NBA draft, he would not be selected until late in the first round or even in the second round, something that would certainly hurt his wallet if he were to come out after next season, when presumably, his stock would be much higher.
No one is saying Cook cant play in the NBA now. Hardly. In fact, one scout I talked to this week seemed ready to draft him, so high was he on the Brooklyn native. But that really doesnt mean anything come draft day.
There is a wealth of talented point guards in the NBA, I mean a vat of guys who seldom see the court during anything but garbage time, but can hang with the best on any given day.
Just look at Cooks predecessor at St. Johns, Erick Barkley. He stayed at St. Johns for two years until he was all but forced out by two NCAA investigations and made himself eligible for last years draft.
Unlike Cook, 19, Barkley was a 22-year-old sophomore who everyone knew was going to go pro. He led his team to two NCAA tournaments, including one Elite Eight appearance, but still was a low first round pick, going to the guard-heavy Portland TrailBlazers.
Injury and being third on the depth chart kept Barkley on the bench most of the year. And then Portland went out and got Rod Strickland for the stretch run, pushing Barkley even further down on the ladder.
Cook could find himself in a similar situation. Not many late first round picks find themselves in a starting role the next season. Of course, Cook is also a much different player than Barkley, a bigger, stronger point guard whose main asset is his play-making ability, not his scoring.
Cook could certainly benefit from another year at St. Johns. Even if the team doesnt improve, he surely will.
He led the nation in assists this year, breaking Mark Jacksons single-game school record in the process, on a team in which he had few options to pass to.
His two best targets were shooting guard Willie Shaw and forward Anthony Glover. Shaw started hot, but cooled when teams keyed on him, while Glover started very slowly, only coming on late in the year.
His other teammates were limited at best. Alpha Bangura and Kyle Cuffe had flashes, but both were inconsistent and Sharif Fordham was a defensive specialist. Donald Emanuel showed improvement, but was not the answer in the low post, where Mohammed Diakite and Abe Keita hardly scored at all.
In order to keep Cook, head coach Mike Jarvis certainly has to get more talent into the fold, something the coach is committed to doing. Even so, the potential of an improved team still might not be enough to convince Cook to return.
The ironic thing is that this might not be an issue at all had Darius Miles come to St. Johns last year. The East St. Louis product, a friend of Cooks, originally committed to St. Johns, but instead opted for the NBA, where he is currently playing for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Miles would have been the perfect complement for Cook, a big man who can score, the perfect target for all of Cooks bullet passes that were so often fumbled this season.
The decision is up to Cook and Cook alone, but its effect will be long-lasting, not just on his future, but on that of the St. Johns Red Storm. His premature departure can only hurt the team of which he is currently a member.
Still, I cant blame him if he goes.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.
©2001 Community Newspaper Group
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