July 20, 2005
RALEIGH - The feel-good story of the summer at N.C. State came in late June, when Julius Hodge was selected by the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the NBA draft.
That was a happy and proper ending to Hodge's four years at State, winding up as the 20th overall pick after there were fears at one point in his senior season that he would fall out of the first round completely.
It validated his decision to come back to State for his senior season and get his degree, after he had been the ACC player of the year as a junior. As the 20th pick, he'll get a two-year guaranteed contract at a little more than $1 million per year, with options for a third and fourth year, under terms of the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement.
In the end, Hodge's story was a testament to his determination.
There were times during his senior season when Hodge's confidence dropped to an all-time low. He struggled terribly at the free throw line early, which impacted the rest of his game significantly. He couldn't take over when he needed to often in big games early. He didn't deliver on the final play at Washington, then was horrible in his much-heralded trip to Madison Square Garden for the Holiday Festival.
Then, as injuries and other misfortune hit the rest of the team, the Wolfpack - and Hodge - sank to their lowest depths, eventually dropping to 13-10 at one point.
But Hodge wouldn't quit, and he wouldn't allow his teammates to quit. He led the way as State finished strong and pulled out an NCAA Tournament bid, then advanced to the Syracuse Regional semifinals before losing to Wisconsin.
He still was considered an unlikely first-round pick even at that point, having dropped as far down as the middle of the second round in many projections. Skeptics wondered what position he was suited for in the NBA and had major reservations about his outside shot.
He shot back up the draft board with a series of impressive workouts in various NBA cities once the season ended. The competitiveness and all-around skills, particularly his defensive intensity, that had been the trademark of his four seasons at State came through, and when it was all said and done, he wound up going about where the projections figured he would going into last season.
Had Hodge fallen out of the first round, there would have been all kinds of reasons to second-guess whether he should have come back for his senior season, after being the ACC player of the year as a junior. And there would have been more reason to wonder if coach Herb Sendek's system was hurting his players' professional chances.
Instead, Hodge can leave with his head held high, and Wolfpack fans can always remember him with a smile.
ALL-IMPORTANT: THOMPSON, BURLESON
In the end, Hodge wound up as the third-leading scorer in school history, with 2,040 points, and ninth in career scoring average at 15.8. He's one of only three players in ACC history (with Duke's Danny Ferry and Florida State's Bob Sura) to finish with more than 2,000 points, 700 rebounds and 400 assists.
More than that, he helped restore the State program to respectability. State went 93-48 in Hodge's four seasons, winning 23, 18, 21 and 21 games, respectively, and making the NCAA Tournament in all four seasons. State had not gone to the NCAA in five seasons before that under Sendek, and it had not been to the Big Dance for 10 years dating back to 1991.
He breathed life into the program in another sense, too. He was one of the most colorful characters in recent ACC history and gave the program, lifeless in many ways, a fresh face and a distinct personality. Hodge wore his emotions on his sleeves, and when things went real sour, he even discarded his sleeves to try to prompt a change in luck.
His passion for the game, his wide grin on and off the court, his absolute disdain for losing, and his knack for saying what he really felt instead of what was politically correct, all added up to make him one of the most intriguing characters in State history.
Hodge may, in fact, wind up as one of the top five most important players in Wolfpack history - not necessarily one of the five best, but one of the most important. That's because of where the program was when he arrived, and how he gave it credibility as a blue-chip national recruit, how he helped turn the program around once he got here, and how he became the face for a new era in State basketball.
Living legends Tommy Burleson and David Thompson are clearly the most important duo in school history, because Burleson's decision to play for State paved the way for Thompson to join him, and that led to State's 1974 national championship and a two-year run with an unbelievable 57-1 record. But few others from any era would rate ahead of Hodge.
Hodge is going into a pretty good situation in Denver. The Nuggets went 49-33 and made the playoffs last season, before losing to eventual NBA champion San Antonio in the first round, and they've got a solid core with Carmelo Anthony, Andre Miller, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby. Coach George Karl loves role players who will make sacrifices, especially defensively, and that's where Hodge could have an immediate impact. He's perfectly suited to play the kind of role Karl wants to see off the bench.
How much will State miss Hodge next season? That's an interesting question. Sendek has built on the successes of the Hodge era with some solid recruiting classes. Next year's group projects to be a Top 25 team and a solid bet to return to the NCAA Tournament. There should be a nice mix of veterans (Ilian Evtimov, Engin Atsur, Tony Bethel, Cameron Bennerman, Andrew Brackman) and newcomers (Brandon Costner, Courtney Fells, Ben McCauley) to give the coaching staff plenty of options.
One of two things will happen. State could miss Hodge's passion and all-around abilities more than many realize. Or, a little bit of Hodge could have rubbed off on everyone, and the program will continue to get better.
Either way, it's a tribute to him.