Where has the time gone?
It’s hard to believe close to 10 years ago, on June 28, 2007 to be exact, I was at the Wamu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City, reporting on what would become a historic night for both the Gators and college basketball.
To that point, no college program had ever had three players selected within the first 10 picks of the NBA draft. But after leading Florida to back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, center Al Horford, forward Corey Brewer and center Joakim Noah pulled off the trick when they were taken within the first nine picks.
Ten years later, all three former Lottery Picks remain in the league and have withstood the test of time. Horford, a four-time All-Star, helped lead the Boston Celtics to the NBA Eastern Conference Finals in his first year with his new team. Noah, a two-time All-Star and former NBA defensive player of the year, had his first season with the New York Knicks cut short due to injuries. Brewer, who won an NBA title ring with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Los Angeles Lakers in the middle of the season and is entering the final year of a three-year contract.
Former ESPN NBA analyst and pro basketball trainer David Thorpe said the trio have maintained long careers in the NBA due to their ability, unselfishness and skill level. Thorpe has trained Noah and Brewer at different points in their pro careers.
“All three rank extraordinarily high in basketball IQ,” Thorpe said. “Those three guys, they just didn’t care who scored, as long it was a Gator. It’s really a testament to those three and then obviously the culture that Coach (Billy) Donovan built, there’s no question of that. But that’s how they’ve been in the NBA.”
The 2007 draft began with the Portland Trail Blazers taking Ohio State center Greg Oden, whose career would end prematurely due to chronic leg injuries. The second overall pick by Seattle, you may have heard of him, Kevin Durant.
Horford was the first Gator to get selected, third overall to the Atlanta Hawks. Then, after three more picks, Brewer was selected seventh by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Noah, who could have been the number one overall had he left following UF’s first national title in 2006, went ninth overall to the Chicago Bulls. Despite slipping from where he was projected the season before, Noah gleefully posed with then NBA commissioner David Stern after he was picked in his beige double-breasted suit and bow tie, flashing a piece sign.
Of the three, Horford adapted the quickest to the NBA, finishing runner up to Durant in rookie of the year voting after averaging 10.1 points and 9.7 rebounds with the Hawks. Noah and Brewer had rockier starts. Noah was suspended by his teammates in Chicago due to an incident in practice during his rookie year, while Brewer averaged just 5.8 points in his first season with the T’wolves and shot just 37.4 percent from the floor. Then, early in his second season with the Wolves, Brewer suffered a torn ACL and sat out most of the 2008-09 season.
“Corey has carved out a nice career despite a devastating injury, he tore his ACL, and he had the misfortune of being a really horrible franchise,” Thorpe said. “It was a poorly run franchise back then, which is a killer as much as an injury can be a killer.”
Noah broke out in his third season with the Bulls, averaging 10.7 points and 11 rebounds. After signing a five-year, $60 million extension with the Bulls following the 2010-11 season, Noah made his first All-Star team in 2013 and earned NBA defensive player of the year honors in 2014.
“People thought he had a tough rookie season in Chicago but the reality was he was playing with a bunch of veterans who were not professional and Joakim was hungry to win and didn’t really understand the selfishness and it irked him and he was mistreated because of that,” Thorpe said. “But in reality he was right and I think he’s proven that over time that he was an incredibly selfless guy that was about team first.”
Brewer has been a valuable spot starter and sixth man off the bench for a number of playoff teams, including the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets. In a return stint with Minnesota in 2014, Brewer scored a career-high 51 points in a game against Houston, tying Kevin Love’s franchise record.
“They had a combination of an incredible pure love for the game, the old school guys that would play for nothing, with an incredible zeal to practice, these guys love to practice and play and they’re really skilled guys as dribblers and as passers,” Thorpe said. “Horford and Noah have been guys that led the break in the NBA, both of them have been allowed to lead the break for their teams. And, Corey is number one, for a while he was the best racer in the league, but a very underrated passer to this day, both in transition and in pick and roll and post feeding, and they were willing passers.
“So when you think about that, you have these lottery level talents, each uniquely creative, they weren’t clones of each other, they were just such gifted passers that they could make each other better.”
Thorpe said all three are capable of extending their NBA careers through the rest of the decade.
“There’s no reason to think they can’t make more money,” Thorpe said.