June 26, 2008

Steele's return crucial for Tide

Mark Gottfried has had a couple of chances to say it, but won't.

He can't. And he shouldn't.

It would probably come off like sour grapes if Alabama's basketball coach said that of the two players he could have lost in tonight's NBA Draft, the one the team needs most is staying in school. Considering draft hopeful Richard Hendrix averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds last season while Ronald Steele's stat line was covered with zeroes, such a remark might not look very smart, either.

But it's true.

Whatever results unfold for the 2008-09 Crimson Tide basketball campaign, Gottfried's squad will be better off than it would have been had Hendrix stayed and Steele bolted. Last week, Gottfried called the 6-foot-8 Hendrix a "20-10" guy, meaning someone who could have provided a 20-point, 10-rebound average had he returned. From his point guard position, Steele's scoring/assist production won't even approach those numbers.

But Steele's value isn't vested in the boxscore.

It's been a couple of years, yes, but Crimson Tide fans can surely still remember Steele's finest work. His ability to take the ball to the basket, then dish the ball once he draws a crowd, created easy points in the post. His court vision helped open the floor for his fellow guards. His shot selection was never questionable: Always looking for the assist first, yet as the deadliest shooter in crimson, he always took the shot when the points were needed most.

One of Gottfried's most common refrains about Steele is his ability to make the players around him a bit better. And as outstanding a season as Hendrix had for Alabama last year, he didn't do that. In fact, the team struggled at every position around him at one time or another, leaving Hendrix as the only consistent force on the roster. One dominant player couldn't carry UA last year, and wouldn't have this year, either. What this team needs is an elevation of play across the board. Alonzo Gee shot a woeful 23 percent from 3-point range in conference games last year. Jemison's production was marginal for a 23-minute player, and Senario Hillman's offensive game was spotty at best. If Steele's presence can again have a hand in the improvement of others, his value to the team becomes immeasurable.

It's not as if Hendrix won't be missed. He leaves a glaring hole in the paint for Alabama, one that may have to be filled by incoming five-star freshman Jamychal Green. Alabama's three returning post players - Demetrius Jemison, Yamene Coleman and Justin Knox - did little last year to inspire lofty projections about next year. Gottfried told assembled media on Tuesday that he has heard Hendrix should be picked in the early-to-mid second round range tonight. In other words, a guy who would have been the top post player in the Southeastern Conference this year will instead watch 40-50 players drafted in front of him so he can start a pro career from the end of a bench. Hendrix was ready to go, plain and simple - and if he sticks in the NBA long-term, his decision will have been the right one.

Steele's decision, fortunately for Gottfried, was also the right one. Having redshirted through last year and hobbled through the year before, nothing less than a full season in good health for Steele was going to impress the NBA. When Steele came off knee surgery and began practicing with the team in January, Gottfried noted he looked better than anyone on the floor. Still, he's not quite where was at his career peak as a sophomore. Reports from the NBA's Pre-Draft Camp in Orlando were that Steele's defense was rusty, and sources close to the Alabama program put Steele's game at around 85 percent these days.

Getting back that last 15 percent might be an ind

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