Eagles' Stuckey might soar to NBA next season
CHENEY, Wash. -- One hour before the tipoff of Eastern Washington's final home game of the season last Saturday, there was an unsettling quiet that shrouded the Reese Court exterior. The twilight sky, thick and metal-colored, was heavy with moisture and pensive indecision.
Stuckey's two-year career at EWU has been one long highlight film, played out in a league that's primarily radio-only. He's a statistical résumé few Division I players can match. In 2005-06, he finished eighth in the country with 24.3 ppg, becoming the first-ever Big Sky freshman to receive Player of the Year honors and only the 36th freshman in history to lead any conference in scoring. This year, Stuckey is fifth in Division I with 24.8 ppg, has been named conference player of the week three times and has led his team in scoring on 25 occasions.
But the 6-foot-5-inch sophomore point guard is the best college player you won't see during Championship Week, and last Saturday might have been Stuckey's last picture show in Cheney. Under the Big Sky's playoff system, only six of the nine league teams qualify and Eastern Washington was left out of the postseason picture, finishing its conference season with an 8-8 record (15-14 overall). If the increasing speculation about Stuckey's draft stock (and the number of NBA scouts following him around) is any indication, this game might have been Stuckey's last as an Eagle.
"I know he's drawing a lot of attention," said EWU head coach Mike Burns. "If Rodney is capable of being drafted ... it's something he has to pursue. If he has an opportunity, he has to seize it and that's the bottom line."
The 2006-07 Eagles allowed their opponents a league-worst 82.6 points, and yielded four 100-point games -- including a whopping 109 at Northern Arizona in regulation. Despite scoring 1.13 points per possession, the squad allowed a sieve-like 1.15 points per possession on defense. Only Utah (1.12) and Duquesne (1.14) are worse, and when the home crowd chanted "de-fense," it was more of a plea, a prayer.
"It's been effort-related at times," said Burns of EWU's leaky D. "We just lose focus defensively sometimes. But on the other side of things, we're in the top 10 in the country in scoring and field goal percentage, so we've tried to get the game going back and forth. In doing that, though, you're going to sacrifice some energy on the defensive side of the floor."
Eastern Washington's toxic combination of conquistador offense and matador defense didn't diminish pro interest in its star, who averaged a respectable 2.5 steals per game (currently tied for 15th in the country). Stuckey just looks like a NBA player, the way he confidently traverses the floor, appearing as if he already knows what's going to happen next. It often seems like he's just playing out a predetermined script, one in which he dominates the game. And once he makes it to the next level, his combination of a tough 50 Cent face and a wide Denzel Washington smile won't hurt his endorsement efforts when he's there.
But what really makes Stuckey marketable as a ballplayer is what happens when he leaves the ground. Nobody in the mid-majorsphere, and few in the power conferences or the pros, are as creatively skilled at redirecting and misdirecting once in the air -- his seemingly bottomless arsenal is full of dazzling up-and-under-and-up-agains, vertical and lateral pump-fakes and an assortment of jiggles and juggles.
"I've had all that since my high school years," Stuckey said of his airborne abilities. "The defender doesn't know what I'm going to do with the ball when I'm up there, so that's a real plus to have the ability to do that."
Despite having manchild basketball skills in high school -- leading the Kentwood High Conquerors to a Washington 4A state title in 2004 -- he was far more athlete than student. But now he sports a 3.5 grade-point average as a criminal justice major.
"Academic All-District 8 squad two years in a row," boasted his coach. "He's on there with Stanford guys, Pacific guys. If there's anything I'm most proud of, it's that. He's going to the NBA and will make a lot of money, but while he was here at Eastern Washington, he was a great student."
But as fate [and the Pac-10's policy for not accepting non-qualifiers] would have it, he enrolled at Eastern Washington, sat out a year, and was immediately handed the keys to the program.
"If he would have gone to a bigger school, perhaps he would have had to serve an apprenticeship," said Burns. "As soon as he was ready to play here, he got the ball, and it was like giving a great artist a blank canvas. We didn't give him many parameters on his ability to create great art, and he's painted a very pretty picture."
But if this was indeed Stuckey's last game as a collegian, he might have wanted to paint something different. The Eagles kept their then-dim playoff hopes alive in a typically up-tempo, high-scoring battle with an 80-72 victory over eighth-place Sacramento State. But Stuckey shot 4-for-13 from the floor and received 10 of his 18 points from the foul line. In the silence between foul shots, isolated shouts of "don't go, Rodney!" and "stay, Rodney, stay!" could be heard throughout the arena.
And in the student section, the EWU fans attempted to sway Stuckey with signage. "One More Year," read one posterboard, decorated with two "NBA"'s with prohibitive circle-slashes, as well as a late-January clipping from the student newspaper that included the quote: "I'm staying ... I'll be back for another year for sure."
"He told us he was staying," said a sign-holder. "But then there was this Sports Illustrated.com article yesterday that said he was probably going to declare. Now we're really nervous. We don't want him to go."
In the postgame news conference, Stuckey was inundated with questions about the NBA, not the Big Sky. Was this his last game here?
"I'm going to sit down with my family after the season and talk about it," he intoned repeatedly as the question was posed in as many different ways as possible.
And, in reference to his favorite NBA player and his cellphone endorsement, was he in Dwyane Wade's five myFaves plan yet?
"Naw, man, I ain't got that kind of phone," said Stuckey with a laugh. "I wish I did."
But later in the Reese Court corridors, Stuckey was asked to explain the distance between "I'm staying" in late January and "I'll probably declare for the draft" in late February. Had all the losing and the playoff uncertainty got to him, and was he ready to leave town in search of bigger and better things?
"Seriously, I think they mis-commented me or something, I didn't say that," said Stuckey. "I don't know what happened there. For now, I'm staying. I'm staying.
"I have to work on a lot of things, I need to work on my outside shot more, my ballhandling, how I handle different things. I just want to become a better player."
But as Stuckey walked away with a slight limp towards the training room for some ice, there was a small reminder of his ultimate and eventual goal. There on both of his socks, a tiny emblazoned NBA logo.
"It's always team over individual," said Burns later in a near-empty arena. "We've been very fortunate to have perhaps the best individual ever to play at this institution. Overall, it's been a difficult season and hasn't gone quite as we wanted it to."
Outside the building, one conclusion already had been resolved: A sky that had been so thick and wet before nightfall had unloaded a carpet of powder on the now-dark Eastern Washington campus. In a silence interrupted only by the scraping of shovels, Eagle fans dug out their cars from the snow, solemnly pondering the reality of a March without its favorite team, and an all-too inevitable future without its favorite star.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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