Seeking a bailout, the Georgia junior guard broke an uneasy grin and looked to the teammate seated to his left.
“The spotlight on you, don’t look at me,” senior Chris Barnes said, smiling.
That spotlight will be on Leslie and Trey Thompkins for awhile, or at least until they make intentions official. It should have a defining effect on the next step for the Georgia men’s basketball program.
The Bulldogs took a positive move forward this past season, which ended in their first game in the NCAA tournament, with a 68-65 loss to Washington. But the fact the Bulldogs even earned their way there was a testament to their progress; it was the team’s first at-large berth in the NCAAs in nine years.
And the 21 wins were the program’s most since the 1996-97 season, when Tubby Smith was the coach.
The potential is there for the Bulldogs to even be better next year, but that would depend on Thompkins and Leslie coming back. That might be a longshot.
Thompkins, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, is projected as a mid first-round pick by the web site Draftexpress.com. Leslie is projected as a late first-round pick by NBAdraft.net.
Both players contemplated the jump last year, but returned. This year both are likely to at least test the waters – entering the draft without signing with an agent – since both have that option after not doing so last year.
Leslie and Thompkins were non-committal on their intentions after the loss to Washington. Head coach Mark Fox said he just hoped that each listened “to the right people” before making their decisions.
“Those decisions will have a great impact on our team,” Fox said. “They both could come back and we would have a great team. They both could leave and we would have a young team. One might stay, one might go. I don’t know.”
Whether or not the stars return, the Bulldogs figure to play a lot different this year.
Georgia employed a more deliberate, half-court style the past two seasons. But with the team’s strength becoming the perimeter players, a more up-tempo approach awaits.
“Jeremy Price is 275 pounds,” Fox said of the team’s starting center, a senior. “He’s a good basketball player. So there’s a way that we had to play with Jeremy on the floor. And I anticipate that you’ll see our style evolve as we get a little more mobile. But this year’s team had to play a certain way.”
Georgia may not have any option other than to field a smaller, quicker team, particularly if Thompkins leaves. Price and Barnes, the team’s other key post players, are both seniors.
The top incoming recruit is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a 6-7 wing player who is a consensus top 20 recruit nationally. He could step into Leslie’s spot, or team with him for a potent wing combination.
The rest of the starting backcourt returns. Gerald Robinson was the team’s third-leading scorer, but often had turnover issues. Dustin Ware, freed up being the primary point guard, emerged as a potent 3-point threat. Both will be seniors.
In the post, Marcus Thornton will need to take a larger role than he did as a freshman. The Buldlogs signed another pair of post players: 7-footer John Florveus, a junior college prospect, and 6-10 Tim Dixon, a high school prospect who played his first three seasons at Columbus’ Kendrick High School.
But for the moment all eyes will be on Thompkins and Leslie. College underclassmen have until April 24 to declare, and then May 7 to withdraw, as long as they haven’t signed with an agent.
The prospect of an NBA lockout also looms, but it’s not clear yet whether that would affect anybody’s decisions.
“If they do come back I’ll be happy. If they don’t I wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors and we have to move on,” Robinson said. “We’ll still have a great basketball team coming back. We have a good core of guys coming back, so I’ll feel confident either way.”