Tate | The one that got away | Sport

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Less than 15 months ago, a frustrated upstart in Illinois made what turned out to be a life-changing $8 million decision.

Seeing little likelihood of extensive basketball minutes at Illinois, Brandin Podziemski chose the transfer portal, and when he landed in Santa Clara, he performed so spectacularly that he shared West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors with Gonzaga great Drew Timme.

Making it to pro spring workouts, he shot up the draft board and was selected No. 19 overall by the Golden State Warriors during the first round of the June 22 NBA draft.

That gave him a guaranteed three-year contract, which NBA rules allow for a 20 percent variance either way on the $8 million.

In 33 years since Kendall Gill was drafted No. 5 in 1990, only two Illini have gone higher: No. 3 Deron Williams in 2005 and No. 11 Meyers Leonard in 2012. This was a great one.

Lost in the shuffle

Yes, the questions nag. And grudges. How could such an amazing talent escape the clutches of Brad Underwood? How could a team that lacks long range shooting miss a 44 percent bomber? Has the menacing presence of Terrence Shannon Jr. and Mathew Mayer chased him away?

First of all, Podziemski left in mid-April last year. Shannon arrived later and Mayer did not enter the portal until May 2nd.

But a clear-thinking Podziemski saw the writing on the wall and later acknowledged that it was clear he wasn’t at the forefront of Underwood’s thinking. He left almost unnoticed on a Big Ten championship team that lost veterans Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Alfonso Plummer, and traded Jacob Grandison, Omar Payne, Andre Curbelo and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk.

All eight members of the final section played more minutes than Podziemski did during the 2021-22 season for the Illini, as did classmates Luke Goode and RJ Melendez and then-sophomore Coleman Hawkins.

Podziemski’s only notable contribution came at Northwestern when, with Illinois trailing 46-40 in the final eight minutes, he hit a layup and a three-pointer to spark a 59-56 comeback win. Four days later, in an 80-67 loss to Wisconsin, he didn’t play at all. Those field goals at Northwestern were two of eight he produced all season as he averaged just over four minutes in 16 of the 33 games.

The road to Illinois

Questions have always surrounded Podziemski and his relationship with basketball. Pushed by his father, John Podziemski, he concentrated on pitching until the eighth grade and had the looks of a promising southpaw pitcher.

But he personally preferred basketball in high school, even though scouts avoided his so-so competition at St. John’s Northwestern Academy in Wisconsin. He was tough and competitive, but he didn’t have overwhelming athleticism.

With the COVID-19 restrictions partly to blame, he had no scholarship offers in September 2020. Word circulated that his summer AAU team had shaky relations with the Badger staff, meaning he was open to offers.

Still, in his own words, Podziemski “didn’t play well that summer” and recalled Antonio Curro, a travel show organizer, judging him with the comment, “You’re not good enough.”

Overnight, he got serious, changed his practice routine and caught fire, averaging 35.1 points as a high school senior and earning Wisconsin Player of the Year honors.

Still, doubts were raised about whether late offers from Kansas and Kentucky were serious, and he opted to sign with Illinois. But, as noted above, Underwood had a Big Ten championship crew operating around Cockburn, so he languished as a plebe.

Closing argument

Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek apparently knows how to develop pros. Just a year earlier, 6-foot-6 Jalen Williams was the NBA’s No. 12 pick.

With Williams gone, Sendek Podziemski landed and put the ball in his hands … for 460 shot attempts. The left player played 36 minutes per game, hit 81 of 185 three-pointers (43.8 percent), averaged 19.9 points and 8.8 rebounds and dished out 117 assists.

Meanwhile, in the more defense-oriented Big Ten, Shannon launched 360 field goals and Mayer 327 for an Illinois team woefully lacking in three-point accuracy (30.9 percent).

My final analysis of “the one that got away” is as follows: (1) Athletes often make big leaps in their second season, and Podziemski represents a breakthrough squared off; (2) there hadn’t been any strong practices that suggested he was on the brink, and (3) he found a school willing to cut him loose, which might not have happened with Shannon-Mayer-Hawkins emphasis on Illinois.

Now he’ll be looking for shots on a veteran NBA team with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, a trio that averaged 68.4 points for the Warriors last season.

There are questions, but with him there always are.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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