Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 6/1/12
MINNEAPOLIS After Kim English's junior year at Missouri, the basketball program was in chaos. The team had wildly underperformed in the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round to Cincinnati, and after repeated assurances that he'd remain with the Tigers, coach Mike Anderson announced on March 23 that he'd accepted the head coach position at Arkansas. Then, a little more than a week after Anderson's departure, English announced he'd declared for the NBA draft. He reportedly made the decision before Missouri hired its next coach, Frank Haith, but the information leaked on the same day as the official announcement of the hire. It looked to all the world like a protest of the school's choice, a coach who'd struggled to find success in seven seasons at Miami. English's scoring averaged had dropped by 4.0 points that season, making it his worst yet. Why else would he have entertained the idea of going pro? Looking back, it's almost laughable. English, who never hired an agent, didn't take long to withdraw his name. Instead of bolting at the least opportune point in his college career, the guard remained at Missouri for his senior season. It's the best decision he could have made, the perfect example how much a year can mean to a player with an outside shot at the NBA. The tale of Kim English turned out to be a success story. After struggling under Anderson, English quickly formed a close relationship with Haith, and the two worked to figure out how to ensure the struggles of the guard's junior season would not carry over to 2011-12. "When Coach Haith came in, we just sat down and looked at all my Synergy clips from my junior year, seeing why I struggled," English said Friday at the Minnesota Timberwolves' predraft workouts. "We just got in the lab and fixed it. He did a great job getting us all to buy in, and I was thrilled that I got to finish my college career at Missouri." "He was a huge reason I came back, and I mean, I just wouldn't have gotten drafted if I'd have stayed in (the draft in 2011)." English's senior season was the perfect confluence of factors. A new coach and an altered approach led him to post the best numbers of his career; he averaged 14.5 points, 33.6 minutes and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 52.1 percent from the field. (That shooting percentage was a 12.8 percentage-point increase from his next-best season.) In addition, English's Tigers surged to national prominence and finished the season ranked third in the country. If only he'd known then what he does know, English would never have entertained the idea of leaving. But that's the biggest question such players, ones who have no chance at going one-and-done but should have a shot to be drafted, face: How do you decide if and when to leave when there are so many possible risks and rewards? The players present at the Timberwolves' draft workouts this week have a wide range of stories that show just how difficult the decision to stay another year can be, and not everyone's circumstances were as perfect as English's. Take Orlando Johnson, a guard out of UC Santa Barbara. He declared for the 2011 draft after his junior year, but like English, eventually withdrew his name. Although other factors likely contributed to that decision, Johnson said his return was predicated most on his desire to graduate. "I went back for the reason that I wanted to graduate," Johnson said. "I thought that was big to me and big to my family, and I made a promise to them that I was going to keep. I fulfilled that, finished last March. I'm very happy with the decision, going back to school and getting my degree." It's the noblest of reasons, but for Johnson, it may not have had the payoff he'd hoped on the court. After averaging 21.1 points and 6.2 rebounds his junior year, Johnson was unable to replicate that performance and finished last season averaging 19.7 points and 5.8 rebounds. Johnson's 45.1 percent field goal shooting was also the worst of his career at USCB, and though his production drop-off might not kill his draft chances, it can't have helped. And then there's Robbie Hummel, the 23-year-old Purdue forward who tore his ACL twice, once at the end of his junior year and again before what should have been his senior season. Those are the kind of injuries that cause a player to second-guess himself, to wonder what could have been, and as successful as Hummel was in his freshman and sophomore years, it's hard to blame him. Every time a player decides to play another season in college, he's entertaining the possibility of suffering a career-ending or career-altering injury before he ever once is paid to play. That was Hummel's situation, and the aftermath of those injuries is still haunting him as he gets what might be his final shot to make an NBA team. "You can't really do anything about it," Hummel said of the injuries. "Obviously, it's unfortunate what happened, hurting my knee twice, but it's just something you've got to move on from. I'm here now. That's really what's important." In his senior season, Hummel averaged the most points, rebounds and minutes of his career, but his shooting accuracy decreased from 45.6 percent to 41.7 percent. No matter how good his numbers are, Hummel's name still carries an asterisk in general managers' notebooks, and injuries like his can obscure even the best numbers. Although he might not have been the perfect candidate to go pro after his junior or even sophomore seasons, from where he stands now, it's hard not to wonder what Hummel could have avoided by doing so. For these young players, especially later-round picks, so much is a question mark. Another year can be the best decision, or it might be the biggest mistake of a career. It all comes down to such minute factors, to tiny adjustments or the most infinitesimal of drop-offs. But though the future can be so dangerous to players who assume they have a chance, it can also be the savior of those who never imagined they would. Until March 16, Kyle O'Quinn was nobody. He was a forward at Norfolk State, a team that had never made an NCAA tournament appearance until it beat second-seeded Missouri, 86-84, in the round of 64. Now, O'Quinn is working out for NBA teams across the country after his 26-point performance in that one game catapulted him to relevance. "It helped it a lot," O'Quinn said of the win. "I probably wouldn't be here sitting and talking to you." Scott Machado also got a taste of March Madness for the first time this season, but it wasn't Iona's loss in the First Four to Brigham Young that earned him these workout invites. Instead, it was a season in which everything came together, he said. Machado led the nation in assists per game, with 9.9, a marked improvement over his average of 7.8 the season before. That final year was the time the guard needed to get his game to where it needed to be, and now he's a fixture on the draft workout circuit. For every Kyle O'Quinn and Scott Machado, there are hundreds of other players who never broke out, who failed to ascend above irrelevance. But it's those success stories, decisions like the ones that paid off for English and might haunt Hummel and Johnson, that show how narrow the margins can be. This is about improvement, yes, and a love of the game. It's about an education and another shot to play with a beloved college team. But really, all those factors are just the trappings, and these decisions are based on risks and rewards. Sometimes, the risks pay off. Other times, they're traps. And every once in a while, we get our fairy tales. Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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