- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The black-rimmed glasses were a nice touch. So, too, was the sharp suit. But Georgia's Trey Thompkins didn't need to win over anyone with his presentation during Thursday's SEC media day.
He already has their attention. And he should. He was tabbed the SEC preseason player of the year for a reason -- he's the best big man in the conference and on his way toward being a candidate for an NBA draft lottery selection if he chooses to leave after his junior season in Athens.
But what might be the most telling aspect of why Thompkins should be successful is how he viewed his decision to put off declaring for the NBA draft this past spring.
"I wanted to come back to school because I felt like I owed it to the university," Thompkins said. "I didn't want to leave with a bad taste in my mouth and I didn't want to leave them with a bad taste in their mouth."
That's after he's endured a coaching change, consecutive losing records in conference play and consecutive sixth-place finishes in the SEC East.
"Trey has legit NBA size and has the ability to defend away from the basket," second-year Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "Trey is a complete player who scores inside and outside, and what I love about him is he doesn't care about that; he cares about winning and works like someone who wants to get better. He doesn't rest on his laurels. In five years, he should be taking you and I to dinner."
He'll be picking up the tab for Fox much sooner than that if he continues on his current trajectory.
Thompkins' numbers as a sophomore speak loudly -- 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, 27 double-figure games (not to mention a 21-point, 29-minute performance against Illinois despite getting his wisdom teeth extracted two days prior). But it's the way Thompkins has carried himself from the first day Fox met him that proves he can be special for the Bulldogs.
Georgia abruptly fired Dennis Felton during Thompkins' freshman season. Felton had scored a major coup in landing Thompkins out of Lithonia, Ga., by way of Oak Hill Academy (Va.) and the Wesleyan School in Norcross, Ga. Fox was a surprise hire, coming to the Southeast from Nevada. Fox, who had apprenticed under Trent Johnson in Reno, had coached players like Kirk Snyder, Nick Fazekas and most recently Luke Babbitt. Thompkins knew Babbitt from the summer league circuit.
"I didn't know [Fox]; all I knew was what Luke had told me so I wanted to see how he would react to me asking about [Luke]," Thompkins said.
"He was the only guy who was strong enough to ask me a question," Fox said of that first team meeting. "I said, 'Does anyone have a question?' He said, 'Yeah, I got one. I want to know how Luke Babbitt felt when you left Nevada?' I thought it was a great question."
Thompkins said he wanted to mess with Fox from the start. The icebreaker allowed Fox the open door to return the ribbing.
"Now we have a relationship where it's easy to work hard for him," Thompkins said. "How long did it take to play for him? It took a minute. He took us to Sanford Stadium and made us run our football stadium -- the whole team. We were a team full of issues, and he nipped that in the bud. That's when we knew he wasn't a joke."
Thompkins had blossomed onto the national scene the previous summer when he was one of the main post players utilized by Pitt coach Jamie Dixon when he coached the USA Under-19 gold-medal champions at the World Young Men's Championships in New Zealand. This past summer, he was one of the premier big men selected to scrimmage against the U.S. national team in Las Vegas and New York en route to the Americans' trip to Europe and eventually Turkey, where they won the gold medal at the FIBA World Championship.
"We needed that post presence on that team, and he gave it to us," Dixon said. "He was such a polite young man. I told Mark Fox after that summer that you will only have him for one season. I thought he'd be gone [to the NBA]. I'm not surprised that he is the SEC preseason player of the year. There are so few big men like him [currently in college basketball] that can score with their back to the basket and facing."
This past May, when former Kentucky forward DeMarcus Cousins was working out for the NBA draft, he was asked by ESPN.com who was the best big man in the SEC [not on Kentucky], and Cousins' quick answer was Thompkins.
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said so few teams had players like Cousins and/or Thompkins last season.
"They're a commodity," Horn said. "A special guy like Thompkins is hard to come by."
If Georgia is going to improve from five SEC wins to an SEC East title contender, a legit top-25 squad and a team that can not only get to the NCAA tournament but advance in it, Thompkins will need help. He'll need wing Travis Leslie as a skilled, complementary player inside, not just a spectacular athlete. Tennessee State transfer, guard Gerald Robinson Jr., who gives the Bulldogs a playmaker they lacked, and one-time Clemson signee, forward Marcus Thornton, need to have an impact, too.
But they're all looking to Thompkins to lead.
"I'm being more vocal; my teammates needed that," Thompkins said. "Every great team has a leader. I was usually a guy who kept his mouth quiet and shows with his action, but Coach Fox challenged me and so did my teammates.
"I like it because I know I can't have someone do something that I'm not going to do," Thompkins said. "If I want you to take an elbow in the mouth for our team, then I have to know you expect me to do the same. I want to do whatever we can to win."
There is no other team in the SEC with an expectation to make as large a leap this season as Georgia. And now that Thompkins has been tabbed as the preseason player of the year, the pressure is on him even more.
Georgia won three games in the SEC when Thompkins was a freshman. The Bulldogs knocked off tournament teams like Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida, and moved up incrementally to five SEC wins last season. The next leap would be to take Georgia to 10 to 11 wins and challenge for the SEC East title.
"I want it bad," Thompkins said. "I know what it feels like to be on the bottom. I know what it feels like to be in the middle and now I want to know what it feels like to be on top."
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.