|Wesley Witherspoon was projected as a first-round pick at this time last year, his junior season. (Getty Images)|
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- John Calipari's final recruiting class at Memphis featured four prospects whose lives have gone four wildly different directions.
Tyreke Evans, the most heralded of the group, is now in the NBA -- rich, famous, a one-and-done star turned Rookie of the Year. Angel Garcia left campus in the middle of last season to pursue a professional career overseas. Matt Simpkins is reportedly in jail. And then there's Wesley Witherspoon, a 6-foot-9 forward who is sitting in a chair next to me here at the Larry O. Finch Center.
He's the lone Class of 2008 signee still on campus.
It's not by choice.
"I would've never guessed I'd be here four years," Witherspoon says. "But I'm here and I'm going to take it for what it's worth."
Sometimes players pretend this was always the plan -- that they wanted to fully enjoy the college experience, earn their degrees, climb as high up every school-record list they can and be a kid for as long as possible. Wesley Witherspoon is not one of those players. He's not here to lie to you. Or to me. Sure, he enjoys college like most people enjoy college once they've settled in and made friends. But does he want to be here? On this campus? In this chair talking to a college basketball writer like me? No, no and no. He'd rather be in the NBA with 'Reke.'
And that's where he figured he would be by now.
That is, in fact, where most figured he'd be by now.
Witherspoon had a typical freshman season and a breakthrough sophomore season. This time last year, he was projected as a first-round pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and identified publicly by his coach, Josh Pastner, as Memphis' leader and best player. That meant Witherspoon was, according to Pastner, the leader and best player on a team ranked in every preseason poll.
"And that was 100 percent a mistake on my part because I put too much pressure on him," Pastner admits. "The reason I said it is because he had separated himself in practice and was better than everybody else. But I should not have put that pressure on him. It was undue pressure.
"I put too many expectations on him, and I shouldn't have done that -- especially not in a city like this where everybody cares so much and it's so intense."
What Pastner learned is that you can rarely force such titles on players before they're ready, and Witherspoon wasn't ready. He didn't handle the spotlight well. He was terrible in a nationally televised loss to Kansas in December that led to the decision to have arthroscopic surgery on an aching knee. Witherspoon missed two games post-surgery, returned and was terrible in a nationally televised loss to Georgetown. He then played the next five games, was impressive only against Lipscomb, then was suspended after an embarrassing loss to SMU for mocking an assistant coach.
On the team bus.
After the road loss.
Was it a sign that Witherspoon is a bad guy?
It's more likely that Witherspoon simply crumbled under the pressure because his season wasn't going the way it was supposed to go. It was January. Witherspoon had spent two months being injured or unimpressive. The NBA had never been farther away.
Meanwhile, Memphis was arguably worse -- a four-loss team with no quality wins going nowhere under a second-year coach who, at times, seemed overwhelmed. Pastner took a lot of criticism, but he's built to take it. Witherspoon took much of the rest. He's not built for that at all.
"It was hard on him," Pastner said. "I felt for him. I really did."
All in all, Witherspoon missed 12 games last season because of a suspension or injury. He was merely a reserve by March, and some around town went so far as to say Memphis was better without Witherspoon, and that Pastner should force him out of the program despite there being no academic or legal issues. Others thought Witherspoon would just leave on his own, transfer or take the best overseas contract he could get. But neither of things happened. Pastner wasn't going to dismiss a player for being disappointing on the court and little more than immature off of it, and Witherspoon wasn't going to leave under those circumstances. So here he is in this chair next to me at the Larry O. Finch Center, talking about life and basketball and how much he learned over the past 12 months.
"I went from being at the top of the totem pole to pretty much at the bottom," Witherspoon says. "It was a tough transition. It was tough. Really tough. Just a humbling experience for me."
Fast-forward to the present and Pastner is no longer calling Witherspoon his best player, and neither is anybody else. There are four Tigers -- Joe Jackson, Will Barton, Adonis Thomas and Tarik Black -- practically guaranteed to start for the team ranked ninth in the CBSSports.com Preseason Top 25 (and one), and Witherspoon isn't one of them. He might start. But he might not. And, either way, he's no longer found in the first round of any relevant mock drafts -- which is not to suggest this season can't go well.
"I think Wesley is our X-Factor," Pastner says, point being that the lone four-year Tiger could be the difference between an early loss or a deep run, perhaps a run that extends into April. Truth be told, it's impossible to know for sure. But know this: Witherspoon is still long, still talented and still a versatile forward capable of impressing scouts and dominating games again. The physical tools remain and his troubled knees are mostly cooperating. Now it's just a matter of doing it -- of getting on the court and consistently being good in whatever role Pastner asks him to play.
"My whole thing with Wesley is that I just want him to play to his potential, be a good teammate and a positive guy," Pastner said. "I'm not asking him to be hero anymore. He doesn't need to lead the whole team. He just needs to lead himself."