St. Paul, Minn. — Custodians were sweeping confetti off the floor of Williams Arena when morning visitors filed into the University of Minnesota's basketball home. The confetti remained from the previous night's raucous celebration of the women's team's trip to the Final Four. The visitors had arrived for a less celebratory occassion: to mark the end of the Gophers' short-lived Humphries Era.
Kris Humphries thrilled Gopher boosters last summer when he announced he would attend the U of M. This winter, he was the shining star on a disappointing team that finished tied for last in the Big Ten Conference. Now, Humphries is using his single stellar season as a springboard to the pros. He says he feels certain about it as a career move, but also feels some sadness about those he's leaving behind at the university.
"I know this is a big step. I'll approach it the same way I approached the transition from high school to college. I'll continue to give maximum effort to achieve goals that I've set for myself. I couldn't have gotten to this point without the support I've gotten from my coaches, teammates, mentors, fans, and family. I'm grateful for their support and grateful for their confidence in me. My teammates and coaching staff have helped me grow as a player and as a person and for that I thank them," he said.
U of M Coach Dan Monson says Humphries showed this season that he has the skills to succeed as a pro.
"He came in here and led the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding. That's never been done. I've never seen a kid as physically ready to rebound the basketball as him. He can finish around the basket, he can go outside. He can score and rebound and he'll do it at the next level like he did here," Monson said.
Humphries was Minnesota's 2003 High School Player of the Year at Hopkins High. He says he came to the U of M last fall with no timetable for turning pro, but adds that he told Monson he planned to leave college whenever he felt ready for the NBA.
Losing its dominant player is generally not a good omen for a basketball team, especially one that struggled as badly as the Gophers did this season. Monson was reluctant to talk much about the Gophers' future, saying he wanted to keep the day's focus on Humphries. But the coach agreed that Humphries' early departure was not unexpected.
"I don't think anybody's here going 'Oh, my gosh! Kris has turned pro today!' We knew when we had him that it was our job to get him ready as soon as possible. This isn't something that we didn't know was a possibility," he said.
Actually, it's the second straight spring the Gophers have had an all-conference power forward leave school early for the NBA draft. Last year it was Rick Rickert of Duluth, who left after his sophomore year. In the spring of 2000, center Joel Przybilla of Monticello also left after his sophomore season. Przybilla has spent four rather undistinguished seasons in the NBA.
Rickert was deemed unprepared for the league and spent this season trying to hone his game on a professional team in Slovenia.
Humphries has been working out recently with Trent Tucker, who spent 12 years playing in the NBA after winning All-America honors for the Gophers in 1982. Tucker says Humphries is better prepared for a pro career than Przybilla and Rickert were. He says Humphries is one of the rare big men adept at attacking the basket from either the right or left side.
"He likes to use that one-bounce, pullup jump shot going to his left hand. And most guys -- you don't see big guys doing that. So I think that can be a huge element to his game that can help him get his offense going," Tucker said.
By turning pro after his freshman year, Humphries fuels a trend toward top athletes spending less time in college. Several of the NBA's best players, including Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, did not attend college at all. A recent court decision has opened the door for college football players, such as Minneapolis native Larry Fitzgerald, to also forego college eligibility in pursuit of pro careers.
Monson says coaches can no longer build a basketball program around the expectation that players will stay in school for four years.
Humphries says he plans to continue work toward his bachelor's degree while playing pro basketball. His freshman year departure, though, is the latest evidence that top college athletes and the universities they attend are making use of one another for shorter bursts of time.