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March 3, 2009

Hudson making most of decision to stay in school

MARTIN, Tenn. NBA scouts and front-office personnel dissected UT Martin guard Lester Hudson in the weeks leading up to last year's draft, but his toughest tests came in his hometown of Memphis.

His family and friends in a crime-ridden area of Memphis hoped he would make the jump to the NBA. But Hudson, who averaged 25.7 points as a junior, told them they would have to wait.

"They wanted me to go big-time and wanted me to make money," Hudson said. "I wanted to do that, too, to help my family and friends out and the people that helped me. [But] I didn't want to rush myself out into a fast life and mess myself up because my family and friends were struggling."

Hudson who is 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds told them what NBA people told him: He needed more polish and thus wasn't a guaranteed first-round pick. He also wanted to get a college degree.

Eventually, his family and friends changed their minds.

"We've been broke all this time," Hudson said. "I told them another year wouldn't hurt."

Hudson won't find out until June's NBA draft whether the decision pays off, but in the interim, he is leading UT Martin into unfamiliar territory. Hudson ranks among the nation's leading scorers at 26.6 points per game, he trails only Davidson's Stephen Curry nationally and the Skyhawks are hoping to earn their first NCAA tournament bid.

UT Martin won the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title and is the top seed in the league tournament, which begins tonight with a game against Tennessee Tech in Martin. The tourney's first-round games are on campus sites; the semifinals and final will be played this weekend in Nashville.

Until this season, UT Martin's only claim to basketball fame was that the school produced Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt.

"Lester Hudson has put UT Martin basketball on the college map," Skyhawks coach Bret Campbell said. "The publicity we've gotten through Lester Hudson has been unbelievable. He's got a pretty good story to sell."

Over the past two years, reporters from across the country have stopped by Martin, a small town in northwest Tennessee of about 11,000 people, to tell Hudson's story.

He grew up in gang-infested south Memphis, shuttling from one family member's house to another's. He steered clear of trouble but also steered clear of classes at times, too. When he was eligible, basketball gave him focus. But he was ruled ineligible as a senior at Memphis' Central High because he already had played four seasons of high school basketball he repeated ninth grade and fell back into old habits, skipping classes before dropping out of high school.

Eventually he realized he had made a mistake and set about earning his GED. He then enrolled at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis at the urging of his high school coach. There, UT Martin assistant Jason James found him.

When Hudson arrived at UT Martin, he had to pay his own way for the first year as a partial qualifier. But unlike his senior year in high school, Hudson maintained his focus on school.

He was given a scholarship for the 2007-08 season and announced his arrival by scoring 35 points against Memphis in his first college game. In his third college game, he recorded the only quadruple-double (25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 steals) in Division I history, against Central Baptist (Ark.).

Lester Hudson by the numbers
Here's a statistical look at Hudson this season:
Minutes per game: 35.7
Points per game: 26.6
Field-goal percentage: 44.0
3-point field-goal percentage: 33.1
Free-throw percentage: 88.3
Rebounds per game: 7.7
Assists per game: 4.2
Steals per game: 2.4
30-point games: Eight
10-rebound games: Nine
Hudson said sitting out the 2006-07 season was a turning point.

"I learned to be responsible for my own self," he said. "My mom and dad they tried their best, but the only thing they can do is give birth to me and teach me right from wrong, which they did. I wanted to take it in my own hands and be a man and try to do stuff on my own. I did that that year, and it paid off."

Hudson leaned on lessons learned that season when he had to make the decision to stay or go pro last year. He struggled in his workouts at the NBA Pre-Draft Camp in Orlando, Fla., in May. He plays shooting guard at UT Martin, but played the point at the camp in Orlando.

"Everything didn't go too well because everyone was coming down to see Lester Hudson explode and score and do what I did in college," he said. "I didn't have an agent, so I didn't know what was going on in the NBA. When I started going to the individual workouts, they said it hurt me that I was just distributing the ball. They said they saw what I was doing, but they wanted to see me scoring."

Hudson and Campbell said NBA personnel officials still are divided as to whether he projects as a point guard or a combo guard at the next level. Campbell said he believes Hudson can excel in the pros the same way he does in college as a scoring combo guard.

Nevertheless, Hudson has used his senior season to improve his ball-handling and defense, another area where he struggled in the pre-draft camp.

Hudson's draft stock varies wildly. He was projected by most as a late first or early second-round pick when he pulled out in June. ESPN projects him in the same area this year. DraftExpress.com projects Hudson as the 22nd pick in the second round. NBADraft.net does not project him to be drafted at all.

Hudson is unsure if he will attend the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a seniors-only event in April. Skipping the event could affect his draft stock, but much can happen between now and the June 25 draft - especially once Hudson begins working with individual teams.

"At 6-0, 6-1 maybe, he's going to have to play [point guard]," said Ryan Blake, the assistant director of scouting with Marty Blake and Associates, a basketball scouting firm; Marty Blake is the director of scouting services for the NBA. "I know in our league we don't have set positions, but to maximize your skills and versatility, he has to play the point.

"I feel he's more of a weapon with the ball in his hands and surrounded by good players. It's going to be tough for him as a 6-0, 6-1 '2 guard.' "

Another area that draws interest is Hudson's age. In a time of one-and-done college players, Hudson will be 24 when he enters the draft. He's older than three of the top 10 scorers in the NBA right now LeBron James, Al Jefferson and Kevin Durant.

Though he may be nearing his athletic peak, some teams may look at Hudson's age and his experience as a plus.

"I think it's great," Blake said. "You take the adversity he faced and he comes out of it. He wants to prove he's going to go to school and get his degree. He has that will. He has a drive to improve and get better."

Coaches say his maturity served him well during his decision-making for the draft. Hudson has insulated himself with a small circle of confidants Campbell and James from UT Martin, his high school and junior college coaches and a friend from high school. A Memphis-based attorney also advised Hudson during the early entry process.

"He's learned who to trust and who not to," James said. "He can make those logical decisions. I give him a lot of credit. He made the decision by himself. He made a difficult decision that was better from him."

If the NBA is a short-lived dream, Hudson said he will be able to fall back on his education. He is 16 credits shy of a University Studies degree, with plans to be a physical education teacher and coach if the NBA is not in his future.

First, though, there is some more work to be done, like getting the Skyhawks into the NCAA tournament for the first time.

"I think I made the right decision," Hudson said.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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