Illinois never had a better pure playmaker than Deron Williams.
Better shooters? Sure, by the dozens. Better defenders? Derek Harper is still No 1. Better leaders? Put Williams alongside Bruce Douglas, whose assists record of 200 in 1985 was surpassed by the Texas junior.
So when Williams hired an agent last week, that took a chunk out of the nation''s runner-up team. Some call him irreplaceable. He was the motor that made a 37-2 team purr.
In offering thanks to many, Williams was especially thankful to coach Bruce Weber because "he put the ball in my hands and let me run the team. He showed confidence in me."
After coming on strong in the NCAA tournament, Williams is assured of becoming a multimillionaire. Even if he falls to No. 15, he''ll get a guaranteed three-year salary of more than $1 million a year. If he goes in the top 10, as he now believes, he''ll get a lot more.
"I put myself in a great position, and I can''t pass this up," he said.
No sane person can disagree.
But Williams isn''t the only quality playmaker leaving the college scene. Oklahoma State''s John Lucas and Kansas'' Aaron Miles are seniors. Signing up early are Wake Forest''s Chris Paul, Pittsburgh''s Carl Krauser and Washington''s Nate Robinson, and we''re waiting to hear from Carolina on Raymond Felton and from Georgia Tech on Jarrett Jack.
That''s the nature of college basketball. Much of the cream is skimmed off every year. Looking back, if you include preps, 108 players left early the last three years. And now, with almost a month remaining before the May 14 signup deadline, 24 of the nation''s best amateurs have announced their pro intentions. The number will run into the 30s before June 21, when those who haven''t hired agents can withdraw.
One more choice
With the aforementioned departures, Illinois remains one of the blessed teams ... IF Dee Brown returns.
Certainly no one will have a quarterback who is smarter, faster or more experienced. And even if his midrange game needs development, few returnees can match his junior statistics: 49.9 percent from the field and 43.9 percent on three-pointers.
The pro scouts who project Brown as a second-rounder – where the contracts are "make good" – want to see more of him as the director of traffic. We''ve witnessed some of that when Williams sat down. In fact, a year ago Williams missed three games with a fractured jaw, and Brown stepped forward with 22 assists in wins against Memphis, Missouri and Illinois-Chicago.
So Brown, if you''ll permit an overstatement, isn''t a secret. And there is a strong likelihood he''ll test the market, perhaps figuring his 2004-05 accomplishments will be difficult to match without Williams and Luther Head alongside.
We''ll learn more about his intentions in the next couple weeks, his possible departure becoming all the more troublesome because the junior college guards being courted by Weber probably will be committed by then.
"When Dee got real hot this season, we started looking at the junior colleges as a precautionary measure," Weber said. "I talk to Dee every day, and he should make a decision within the next few weeks. But the longer we go without knowing, the more difficult it would be to replace him. We''re running out of time."
For now, Brown is on the UI roster, and hot-shot prospect Brandon Rush is perhaps 50-50 between Illinois and the NBA (he''d be 100 percent NBA if he were a first-rounder), so let''s analyze how Weber''s third Illini team stacks up with Brown and without Rush.
Brian Randle, at 6-foot-7, projects as an outstanding defensive player and rebounder. Warren Carter, at 6-9, is a potential offensive whiz who is exposed when asked to guard a wing. Those two lankies could be platooned to allow Carter to defend the power forward while Randle guards the small forward.
"We''ve talked about flip-flopping them that way," Weber said Tuesday. "Carter has problems guarding quicker guys."
Unlike this season, when Weber started the same five every game, he could find himself adjusting the lineup, big or small, according to the opposition.
A foursome of Brown, Carter, Randle and James Augustine would be quick and imposing. That would allow Calvin Brock and Jamar Smith to challenge Rich McBride at the shooting guard and set up a competitive situation between Marcus Arnold, Shaun Pruitt and Charles Jackson up front.
What we''re projecting is a lot of competition at all positions except those occupied by Brown and Augustine. Randle needs to develop his midrange jumper. McBride must show his sophomore season was a minor glitch. Arnold is obliged to demonstrate better rebounding than he displayed at Illinois State.
But if Brown returns, Illinois projects as a Top 20 team that could, as the lineup takes shape, work its way up the ladder again.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.