While the first round of the NBA draft unfolded last Thursday night, Iowa State's Craig Brackins was on a flight from Chicago to Belgrade, Serbia, for the World University Games. He'd spent the previous nine days in Colorado Springs, Colo., first auditioning, then practicing with the 12-man U.S. team, and as he sat in Chicago's O'Hare airport a few minutes before boarding, with noises of gate agents in the background of his phone call, he sounded a bit torn. "It's cool that I'm representing the country," Brackins said, "but at the same time, there's the thought that, you know, I could be [in the draft] today. It almost seems like I traded that for this."
The 2009 draft was light on talent, especially in the post. NBA historians will likely look back at the procession of forwards given guaranteed contracts after Oklahoma's Blake Griffin came off the board -- Arizona's Jordan Hill at No. 8, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough at 13, Louisville's Earl Clark at 14, Gonzaga's Austin Daye at 15, Wake Forest's James Johnson at 16, USC's Taj Gibson at 26 and Missouri's DeMarre Carroll at 27 -- and laugh at how few became starters in the league. Brackins, a wiry 6-foot-10 forward who averaged 20.2 points and 9.5 rebounds last year as a sophomore, arguably has as polished an offensive game as anyone in the aforementioned group, and was considered a late-teens to early-20s prospect -- to the extent most scouts in the crowd in Colorado Springs seemed baffled about why he hadn't declared this season. Brackins, though, said the feedback he'd received was all over the board: "Some people said lottery, some said end of the first round," he said, "and I felt like it was such a big gap that I might as well go back for another year, prove myself and make it a sure thing."
Brackins had been faced with the "buzz dilemma": Playing away from the spotlight on a 15-17 Cyclones team, his game hadn't been fully picked apart yet, and NBA teams still weren't sure if his future was at the 3 or 4 position, but there were two numbers everyone could recite: 42 and 14 -- the numbers of points and rebounds, respectively, that he had against Kansas in a nationally televised game on Jan. 24. Brackins used his whole arsenal that day, inside and outside the arc. Jayhawks coach Bill Self said it was "as good a performance as probably I've ever [seen] an individual [have] against us," and called Brackins "the best player in the country today."
His name soon popped up on draft boards, and there was some thought that he'd make a move like the one UCLA's Russell Westbrook had the year before -- jumping from off the radar into the lottery due to a late surge of positive buzz. Standard draft logic says underexposed players must capitalize on hype, due to the fickle nature of NBA talent evaluators, but Brackins is banking on the fact that he's only played four seasons of high-level, organized basketball, and still has plenty of room to develop.
Brackins, who grew up in Palmdale, Calif., and never played high school basketball there due to academic issues, followed his first AAU coach -- current Cyclones assistant T.J. Otzelberger -- to Iowa State. Otzelberger was coaching for the Pump brothers' Pump 'N' Run program, which had four travel teams out of Los Angeles, and when Brackins arrived in 2005 he was placed on the worst team of the four. "Craig was an unknown back then," Otzelberger said, "and we were just like of like, 'Hey, here's another tall body we can take along with us for tournaments.'"
Brackins soon worked his way up to the end of the bench on Pump 'N' Run's elite team, but was only playing spot minutes behind guys such as Alex Stepheson (now at USC), Alex Jacobson (Arizona) and Blake Wallace (San Francisco), none of whom are considered major pro prospects at this point. A two-year prep school odyssey -- through Boys To Men Academy in Chicago and Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. -- followed, and Brackins emerged as the No. 20 overall prospect in the Class of 2007, and the biggest recruit of coach Greg McDermott's three-year tenure at Iowa State.
Whether the Cyclones can capitalize on having Brackins for another year remains to be seen. Otzelberger said Brackins told him he had "unfinished business" to attend to in Ames, and was hoping to have at least one NCAA tournament trip as part of his legacy at ISU, which hasn't made the Dance since 2005. The additions of four-star Chicago point guard Chris Colvin and three-star junior college small forward Marquis Gilstrap could help turn a team that went 4-10 in the Big 12 into one that could finish closer to .500 and be a longshot for an at-large bid to the NCAAs.
Brackins has become a recognizable figure in Ames -- in addition to being a star, 6-10 basketball player, he wore a fro-hawk last season, and likes to skate around campus on a Sector9 longboard -- and fans were understandably overjoyed this spring when he announced he'd be returning for another year. He said multiple fans approached him in the Des Moines airport at 6 a.m. on June 16, when he was on his way to Colorado Springs for the World University Games trials, just to thank him for his decision. Brackins told them, "You don't have to thank me! I'm glad to be back."
The morning after arriving in Colorado, Brackins had a scare. A stomach virus kept him out of a morning session of the U.S. trials, and he looked on from the sidelines, wearing skateboarding Vans rather than basketball Nikes. At one point while his teammates were scrimmaging, he got up, staggered out a back door of the gym, and threw up all over some concrete steps. But he managed to collect himself enough to participate in the night session, where, even in a weakened state, it was clear his diverse offensive skill set was something none of the other big men in camp (including Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, North Carolina's Deon Thompson and Purdue's JaJuan Johnson) could match. The next day, Brackins made the final cut for the U.S.' trip to Serbia. He spent the next week regaining his health, and he'll spend the next year living -- for better or worse -- with the decision he made.