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6.27.2008

Giddens Shows Signs of Growth

For most college students, early May means one thing. Time to cram. For J.R. Giddens , it means two things.

Time to cram -- and jam.

And while the former University of New Mexico men's basketball star is far from the only college kid trying to balance studies with a hectic personal life, he's definitely the only one at UNM trying to do so while making a run at the NBA.

In fact, he's probably one of a few studentathletes in the entire country trying to snare his degree while gunning for The League.

"I'm still at it," Giddens told the Journal with regard to pursuing his university studies degree. "I'm still trying to get it all done every day in school, either online or in individual study. I'm working really hard to get my degree, but I still have to work out for basketball.

"It's very hard, but I'm doing things to the best of my ability."

Come mid-March, most NBA prospects are long gone from school. When the college season ends, so does their campus presence.

In recent years, ex-Lobos Kenny Thomas, Ruben Douglas and even Danny Granger all headed out of town to work with trainers and basketball instructors once their senior eligibility ended, dropping out of class.

Giddens, too, has left Albuquerque to work on his game. But with one catch. He has been returning every week in hopes of graduating this semester.

"He is really trying to hold on in terms of finishing," says Giddens' academic adviser, Henry Villegas. "It's definitely a challenge for him. He definitely has a demanding schedule."

For more than a month, that schedule included meeting with instructors every Monday in an attempt to complete the 12 hours Giddens is taking this semester. Each Monday evening, he attended a lab at UNM's Regener Hall.

Early Tuesday morning it was off to Los Angeles. By Tuesday afternoon, Giddens was working out with former NBA player Don MacLean and a group of other NBA hopefuls who all signed with Priority Sports, an L.A-based agency.

Giddens remained in Los Angeles each week until Sunday, working out every morning and afternoon and doing homework online each evening. He flew home each Sunday evening, and the hectic agenda started all over again.

"Most guys just lay it down once the season ends," MacLean says. "We all agreed, that since he's so close to getting his degree, let him try to kick it out."

Giddens says his final lab was Monday and he's now trying to finish his school work online in hopes of graduating this month.

Priority Sports pays for all of Giddens' expenses, including setting him up with an apartment in L.A. The training includes weightlifting and nutritional programs.

Giddens works out with a group that includes Oregon's Bryce Taylor; Cal State-Fullerton's Frank Robinson; Syracuse's Darryl Watkins, who turned pro last season; and Brigham Young's Trent Plaisted, an underclassman trying to test the draft waters.

The workouts have been tough and physical. Giddens recently took a Plaisted elbow to the forehead that led to nine stitches.

"He felt horrible," Giddens said. "I told him, 'Don't worry about it. I want you to give 100 percent every possession. It's the only way to help us all get better.' ''

MacLean says Giddens has "energized" the entire group with his passion and attitude. Giddens says it's easy to push himself.

"It's been hectic, but that's how college life is," he said Saturday. "Being an athlete, you have to work very hard to achieve a balance.

"But I go to school with a lot of people who have it a lot tougher than I do. They are taking care of kids, taking care of a family and still trying to go to school. They're not getting to play basketball and aren't getting to do all the things they love. I feel blessed to get this opportunity."

Just more than a year ago, the last thing Giddens imagined was finishing college. Then again, he never expected to be in college his senior season.

Giddens, who transferred to UNM after his sophomore year at Kansas, sat out the 2005-06 season as a redshirt. He looked to be a one-anddone candidate at New Mexico.

"An NBA lottery pick," is how former Lobo coach Ritchie McKay described his enigmatic star.

But the dysfunctional Lobos slid to a losing record in 2006-07, Giddens slid off the NBA Draft radar -- and his grades? Well, to say they slid would be an understatement.

McKay was fired and Steve Alford was hired as new Lobo coach.

Giddens was trapped in noman's land.

He felt Alford was trying to force him out of the program. And who could blame the new coach? Since his hiring in late March 2007, Alford constantly heard of Giddens being a problem child and a cancer in the program.

Alford didn't even allow Giddens to go on a spring basketball exhibition trip to the Bahamas, and the Oklahoma City native looked to be on his way out the door.

Giddens, however, wasn't going anywhere.

"It was a good wake-up call for me," Giddens says. "I needed to mature, and I know I have."

Giddens pounded the books all summer to get himself academically eligible, but says he didn't stop there. He kept plugging away in the fall, and says he had his best semester, grades-wise, of his career.

Not so coincidentally, he had his best season on the court as well, averaging 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists a game on his way to be named Mountain West Conference co-Player of the Year.

Still, Giddens didn't make anyone's NBA Draft board during the season.

Suddenly, that's all changing. Recently, draftexpress.com projected him as the seventh pick in the second round.

"He's been terrific," MacLean says. "J.R.'s work ethic, to me, is just great. I know there have been character concerns, and he's matured a lot, he's been humbled. He went from being a McDonald's High School All-American, to transferring, to sitting out. I hate to say it, but it's probably what he needed.

"But at the end of the day, he does everything I ask. He's getting better, he has a great attitude and I don't see any reason why he won't be in the first round."

Because of a rules change, prospects aren't allowed to have individual workouts for teams until after the predraft camp, which is later this month in Orlando, Fla. Giddens and MacLean are both confident the 6-foot-5 guard's stock will rise throughout the camp, and plenty of workout offers will come.

In the meantime, Giddens says he will keep honing his skills, and keep cracking the books.

He says it's still dicey whether he will complete the 12 hours he needs to graduate this semester, but he's giving it all he can. If he falls short, he says he'll finish up this summer.

"In the long run, it's all worth it," says Giddens, who led the Lobos to the National Invitation Tournament this season. "It's like getting that NIT watch. I know it wasn't the NCAA, but I'm so proud of that NIT watch because we laid the foundation for good things to come in the program.

"I gave that watch to my father, and I told him 'I know it's not like an NCAA ring or watch. But it's my first year as legitimate leader of a team. I helped this team as a leader to really achieve something. That NIT watch is my most prized possession. It's the first year I actually led a team.'

"Now it's time to work my way to the next level."

Giddens said the AP All-America honorable mention was one to be shared by his teammates, because "without them, there's no way I would be getting this type of recognition."

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