David Cloninger

Fascinating and frustrating, former USC player an unlikely NBA first-round pick

It’s fascinating trivia, because of how long it’s been and how unusual the answer is.

Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier are bidding Thursday to become the first South Carolina players drafted by the NBA since 2006. The man who last did it wore his hair long, was renowned for his ferocious athleticism and played 221 NBA games as one of the unlikeliest first-round picks in league history.

Renaldo Balkman wasn’t the most enigmatic player USC’s ever had, but he’s in the conversation. The MVP of the 2006 NIT, the 6-foot-8 Balkman parlayed his postseason success into an NBA career.

“A chance at the NBA? Yes. I didn’t think he was a surefire NBA player,” his coach at USC, Dave Odom, said. “Given his height and weight, strength, that kind of thing, he was solid. Because he was not a natural jump-shooter, I thought that may be his eventual downfall at the NBA level.

“He did a lot with what he had, though. An awful lot.”

New York called Balkman’s name with the 20th overall pick. The Knicks were going through more of their perpetual struggles, having fired coach Larry Brown less than a week before and replacing him with team president Isiah Thomas.

Odom said Thomas visited Columbia to discuss Balkman, who had finished a solid year at Madison Square Garden with his MVP performance in the NIT. Many things were discussed – Balkman was a hustle player, tough as they come, forever bursting with energy … but could drive a coach crazy with inconsistency.

“Sometimes he was trifling to deal with early on in his career, and other times it was just fascinating to watch his skills at work and what he could do,” Odom said. “He would have two to three practices, two to three games in a row that were all-SEC like, and then you think we’re past the difficult times. And then there would be heartbreak for a day or two.”

That season summed it up. Balkman led the Gamecocks in rebounding and steals while ranking fourth in scoring and second in blocks. In a Feb. 14 win over Alabama, he exploded for 28 points and 16 boards.

Balkman scored 10 points over his next three games, all USC losses. He recovered to play a spectacular SEC tournament, helping the Gamecocks to an appearance in the championship game and within two points of the title and automatic NCAA tournament bid. That instead went to Florida, which went on to win the NCAA tournament.

USC again settled for the NIT, a sour feeling after it had won it the year before and had most of its pieces returning. The Gamecocks stormed through the tournament and Balkman played well, saving his best for the Garden. He scored 33 points with 20 rebounds in wins over Louisville and Michigan.

Thomas liked how Balkman dove after every loose ball and his 7-1 wingspan beckoned to a team that needed defense. He also agreed with Odom – as exasperating as Balkman could sometimes be, you couldn’t help but like him. He was a magnetic personality.

Still, picking him in the first round was shocking. Balkman wound up playing 133 games for the Knicks over two seasons before being traded to Denver; he was traded back to the Knicks in the 2010-11 season. He went on to play overseas ball – where he was infamously banned for life from the Philippine Basketball Association after attempting to choke a teammate during a game – and now has an AAU team in Florida.

It was a decent career, due to its length. In terms of production, though, Knicks fans often cite it as a draft disaster, especially considering the next player chosen (Rajon Rondo).

Yet he was a guy who gave himself a chance at an NBA career after attending four high schools and did more than enough well at USC to overcome the rough spots. Odom still calls Balkman one of his favorite players and opined on why the Knicks took him when they did.

“I don’t think it was a lock that they were going to take him, but I think what happened is enough of the players they would have taken ahead of him weren’t on the board,” Odom said. “He was a fascinating kid, and when it’s all said and done, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a player’s development, considering where he came from to where he was when he left the program. He’s just a wonderful kid and I’m really proud of him.”

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LONG TIME COMING

South Carolina’s NBA Draft picks by year:

1951

Jim Slaughter (31, Tri-Cities)

1965

Jim Fox (67, Cincinnati)

1968

Gary Gregor (8, Phoenix)

Skip Harlicka (13, Atlanta)

Jack Thompson (33, Baltimore)

1971

John Roche (14, Phoenix)

Tom Owens (58, Houston)

1972

Tom Riker (8, New York)

1973

Kevin Joyce (11, Golden State)

1974

Brian Winters (12, L.A. Lakers)

1975

Tom Boswell (17, Boston)

1976

Alex English (23, Milwaukee)

Mike Dunleavy (99, Philadelphia)

1979

Cedrick Hordges (49, Chicago)

1985

Mike Brittain (29, San Antonio)

1994

Jamie Watson (47, Utah)

1998

Ryan Stack (48, Cleveland)

2006

Renaldo Balkman (20, New York)

NBA Draft history

A rundown of the players picked in the 2006 Draft:

Pick

Team

Player

School/Country

1

TOR

Andrea Bargnani

Italy

2

CHI

LaMarcus Aldridge

Texas

3

CHA

Adam Morrison

Gonzaga

4

POR

Tyrus Thomas

Louisiana State

5

ATL

Shelden Williams

Duke

6

MIN

Brandon Roy

Washington

7

BOS

Randy Foye

Villanova

8

HOU

Rudy Gay

Connecticut

9

GSW

Patrick O'Bryant

Bradley

10

SEA

Mouhamed Sene

Senegal

11

ORL

J.J. Redick

Duke

12

NOK

Hilton Armstrong

Connecticut

13

PHI

Thabo Sefolosha

Switzerland

14

UTA

Ronnie Brewer

Arkansas

15

NOK

Cedric Simmons

North Carolina State

16

CHI

Rodney Carney

Memphis

17

IND

Shawne Williams

Memphis

18

WAS

Oleksiy Pecherov

Ukraine

19

SAC

Quincy Douby

Rutgers

20

NYK

Renaldo Balkman

South Carolina

21

PHO

Rajon Rondo

Kentucky

22

NJN

Marcus Williams

Connecticut

23

NJN

Josh Boone

Connecticut

24

MEM

Kyle Lowry

Villanova

25

CLE

Shannon Brown

Michigan State

26

LAL

Jordan Farmar

UCLA

27

PHO

Sergio Rodriguez

Spain

28

DAL

Maurice Ager

Michigan State

29

NYK

Mardy Collins

Temple

30

POR

Joel Freeland

England

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