Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Price Fixer

Greetings from Arizona, home of John McCain, Barry Goldwater, David Spade, Phil Mickelson (sorta), Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman!), Sandra Day O'Connor, Gavin Edwards, the Snakes, Cardinals, Suns and Coyotes and lots of old people, golf courses and Super Bowls (including one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history a little over a year ago).

University of Phoenix Stadium was the site of the New York Giants' upset of the Patriots in 2008, and it's the host of this year's West Regionals, where UConn is the No. 1 seed and looks to get by Purdue in a semifinal game on Thursday.

Much more on Purdue, the Huskies, etc. over the next couple of days. Today, we quickly turn our attention to A.J. Price -- who may be making himself a lot of money over the course of this NCAA tourney.

Players like Glen Rice, Glenn Robinson, David Robinson, even Derrick Rose and Stephen Curry last season made names for themselves with big NCAA tourney runs. UConn’s Ben Gordon in 2004, too.

“Ben had had a good year up to that point, not a special year,” recalled UConn assistant coach Andre LaFleur. “Going into the Big East tournament, there was no real talk about him being a lottery pick. Then, Marcus (Williams) and Emeka (Okafor) got hurt, and Ben caught fire. He carried that through into the six games of the NCAA tournament, and after that stretch he became the No. 3 pick in the draft.

“Postseason play gives you the opportunity to make a lot of movement. It’s like moving day in a golf tournament.”

Last year, an NBA Eastern Conference assistant general manager told UConn assistant Patrick Sellers that he would take Price with one of the top 18 picks in the 2008 draft. Then, Price tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee nine minutes into the Huskies’ first-round NCAA tourney game. Then came a long, grueling rehab, a rather slow start to this season and ... well, you know the rest of the story so far (and if you don't, read tomorrow's Register).

Now, Price is playing as well as he ever has – in every facet of the game. Not only is he shooting and distributing the ball extremely well, he’s directing traffic on the floor as well as any UConn point guard in recent memory.

“Marcus (Williams) ran the team, but I don’t think guys respected Marcus as much as they respect A.J.,” said Sellers. “Marcus was kind of a class clown, always clowning around. If A.J. tells them to jump over a wall, they jump.”

Price is very much focused on the task at hand – getting to the Final Four and winning a national title. His mother and biggest fan, Inga, says A.J. hasn’t even mentioned the NBA to her. And while agents are “coming out of the woodwork now,” according to Inga, she insists neither A.J. nor the family has thought much about choosing one.

“There’s plenty of time to deal with that after April 6,” Inga Price said. “Everything will take care of itself. That’s what we’ve been telling him all along.”

A mock draft on the draftexpress.com website has Price going in the second round, as the 38th pick overall. Last year’s 38th overall pick, Kyle Weaver, is earning $806,452 this season. But Sellers – who is well-connected with NBA scouts – says he has heard from virtually every team regarding Price.

A Western Conference source told Sellers shortly before the Marquette game that he thought Price would go near the top of the second round. Now, Sellers firmly believes Price has played his way into the first round.

“He’s getting stronger and stronger every day,” Sellers said. “I think he’ll be in the Top 20 somewhere.”

The difference in being chosen No. 38 and, say, No. 20, is about $500,000. This year’s 20th pick will earn $1,318,970, per the NBA’s rookie salary scale. A strong NCAA tournament showing could, indeed, put a good chunk of change in Price’s pocket.

Of course, a lot has to do with what other point guards are available. Spain’s Ricky Rubio, considered a sure-fire first-round pick, comes with an expensive buyout that could complicate things and keep him out of the draft. And it remains to be seen whether Memphis freshman Tyreke Evans, Syracuse sophomore Jonny Flynn and others decide to declare.

But one thing is certain: A.J. Price’s draft stock has risen considerably over the course of this season – and it could rise even more over the next couple of weeks.

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