By JOE SANTORO
Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball coach David Carter let out a sigh of relief Monday afternoon when he learned starting point guard Deonte Burton will return for his senior season.
“Couldn’t you hear my heart beating in the microphone?” joked Carter, moments after Burton announced he was pulling his name from consideration for the NBA draft.
Burton said he gave up his dream of playing in the NBA for another year after being informed by the NBA that there was a good chance he would not be selected in the two-round draft on June 27. Underclassmen have until April 28 to declare for the NBA draft and those that declare can also withdraw their name by June 17 if they do not hire an agent. Burton said he wanted to clear up the matter as soon as possible.
“This is the toughest decision of my life that I have ever had to make,” said Burton who will turn 22-years-old on June 26. “But, in the best interests of my career, I’ve decided to come back to school for my senior year.”
Burton is the second prominent Wolf Pack player with legitimate NBA possibilities to return for his senior year. Center Nick Fazekas came back for his senior year in 2006-07 after originally declaring himself eligible for the draft. That 2006-07 season is the last season the Pack has played in the NCAA Tournament.
“I came back for four reasons,” the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Burton said. “The first reason is to graduate. My degree is very important and it’s what my mom wanted me to do all along. My dad wanted me to leave (for the NBA) but my mom always wanted me to come back to school.
“The second reason is the NCAA Tournament. One of my goals at the collegiate level was always to get to the tournament. We came close my sophomore year but I haven’t been able to accomplish that yet. The third reason is the conference. This (Mountain West) is one of the best conferences in college basketball. I wanted to come back and show we belong in this conference. And the fourth reason is the fans. The fans stood by us last year even though we had a tough year. I wanted to do the same and stand by the fans.”
Burton averaged 16.3 points, 3.6 assists, 2.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 2.4 turnovers last year as the Wolf Pack finished a disappointing 12-19 overall and in last place in the Mountain West at 3-13.
He averaged 13.7 points, 3.5 assists, 2.3 rebounds when he was named the Western Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the Year in 2010-11 and 14.8 points, 4.2 assists and 2.6 rebounds as a sophomore when he was named the WAC Player of the Year.
Projected as a legitimate first round pick when the 2012-13 season began, Burton’s draft stock seemed to drop with every Wolf Pack loss this past season. The process of exploring his NBA draft possibilities, though, did give him valuable insight about his future professional career.
“My dad (Nike employee Derek Burton) talked to all the agents and NBA people and they told him I need to work on my ball-handling skills and work on my decision-making,” Burton said. “I agree. And this is a perfect time for me to do that in my senior year.”
Burton will now be the Pack’s first senior point guard since Todd Okeson in 2003-04. The last two Wolf Pack starting points guards, Ramon Sessions (2005-07) and Armon Johnson (2008-10), both left the Pack after their junior seasons for the NBA. Both were picked in the second round. Sessions is currently with the Charlotte Bobcats and Johnson is out of the league.
The NBA’s loss, though, is the Wolf Pack’s gain, Carter said.
“The biggest thing is leadership,” Carter said. “He will have more of a leadership role next year. This year, that (leadership) is something this team didn’t have. To win this conference, any conference, you need leadership.”
Despite the return of Burton, the Wolf Pack could look very different in 2013-14. The school announced last Friday that juniors Kevin Panzer, Devonte Elliott and Jordan Burris have decided to leave the program. Their absence, along with the departure of seniors Malik Story, Patrick Nyeko and Keith Fuetsch, leave the Pack with a lot of holes to fill this spring and summer.
As things stand now, the 2013-14 Wolf Pack will be led by Burton and fellow guards Marqueze Coleman, Jerry Evans and Michael Perez as well as forwards Cole Huff and Ali Fall. Coleman and Huff will be sophomores next year, Evans will be a senior and Perez, a transfer from UTEP, will be a junior.
The Pack has also signed 6-6 recruit D.J. Fenner out of Seattle Prep and still needs to add three players, Carter said.
“We’ll play three guards (likely Burton, Coleman and Perez) if that’s the strength of our roster,” Carter said. “But I want to complete the roster before I make that decision.”
Carter has made no secret of the fact that he would like to add two or three forwards or centers especially now that the 6-9 Panzer and 6-10 Elliott have left the program. The 6-9 Fall, who didn’t see extensive minutes as a junior last year, is the tallest player on the current roster.
Burton’s return, Carter said, is the first step in signing quality big men.
“Players want to play with good players,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack has gone 53-45 with Burton the last three years but has had losing records (13-19 in 2010-11 and 12-19 last year) in two of the years.
“I’m excited for next year,” Burton said. “Don’t give up on us. We got hit but we didn’t fall.”