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Renardo Sidney: The 2012 NBA Draft’s Biggest Enigma

From glowing city skylines to gravel country roads, basketball is rich with can’t-miss prospects who somehow, some way, missed.

There was L.A.’s Kenny Brunner, swept away in the darker undercurrents of NCAA athletics.

Louisiana’s Randy Livingston, derailed by one knee injury after another.

Chicago’s Benji Wilson, felled by an assassin’s bullet.

Fall River’s Chris Herren, slowed by substance abuse.

Len Bias from the DMV, stopped by one hit of coke.

Southern Indiana’s Damon Bailey, a good talent overwhelmed by gigantic expectations.

Their stories make up a piece of the game’s oral tradition – some standing as cautionary tales, others as stories of redemption and perseverance.

And now we have the unfinished can’t-miss saga of Renardo Sidney, sweeping across both urban and rural landscapes, looming over tonight’s NBA Draft as the biggest risk/reward player available. The 6-10 power forward from Mississippi State will either be one team’s majestic home run, or his own Mighty Casey kind of whiff.

I first encountered Sidney when he was an eighth-grader, when he was arguably the most talented player on arguably the greatest AAU team of all time.

The SoCal All-Stars were a juggernaut in the summer of 2006, featuring high school sensations Kevin Love, Brandon Jennings, Taylor King, Malik Story and Daniel Hackett. All five would go on to accept scholarship offers from Division I colleges. Love and Jennings would go on to the NBA. They went undefeated that summer, taking on the best teams in the country and regularly running them out of the gym.

And yet the most intriguing member of that squad was Renardo Sidney, a middle-schooler from Jackson, Miss., who was gearing up for his freshman year at Artesia H.S. near Los Angeles.

Standing 6-8 with room to grow, Sidney was an every-position, five-tool total package who had NBA All-Star written on him like tattoos on Wiz Khalifa.

He handled and passed the ball like a point guard. He scored with range and versatility. He rebounded without trying, played solid D when he felt like it. The comparison I drew at the time was Chris Webber. Maybe better.

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But somewhere along Sidney’s unstoppable path to the pros, amateurism got in the way – both the ideals of amateurism within “the system,” and Sidney’s own (understandable) lack of professionalism.

Sidney still made the McDonald’s All-American team as a high school senior, but the limitless potential he displayed in eighth grade had tempered by then. He still had college recruiters sweating him for his signature, but as Sidney added inches to his waistline and demerits to his reputation, some schools cautiously stayed away.

He ended up at Mississippi State, where a lengthy NCAA investigation into his family’s finances cost him one whole season and part of the next. Then there was the fistfight with a teammate that was caught on camera. Then there were the times he was benched due to poor conditioning. Then there was the inconsistent production on the court.

By the end of his third year in college – two years longer than anyone who watched him play before or during high school ever thought he’d be in school – Sidney was averaging about 10 points and five rebounds per game. His teammate, Arnett Moultrie, had come from nowhere by comparison and taken his place as the Bulldogs’ future Lottery pick. The team was knocked out in the first round of the NIT, after which longtime MSU head coach Rick Stansbury abruptly retired.

Sidney, two years behind schedule, went pro.

But is he a pro?

In the three months since declaring for the NBA Draft, Sidney has dropped two agents. He reportedly weighed over 300 pounds at one pre-draft workout, with a body-fat percentage (22.4) that in another life would’ve been his scoring average in college.

“This whole NBA process is really tough and with me dropping two agents, it really doesn’t look good for me right now,” Sidney said in a recent interview with the Clarion-Ledger.

“I can admit that I’m lost,” he added.

Will any NBA team be willing to roll the dice on the biggest gamble in the class of 2012?

The Charlotte Bobcats recently hired a new head coach, Mike Dunlap, who is known as a teacher tailor-made for raw prospects. The franchise has no expectations to win right away, and certainly doesn’t have a glut of young prospects in its frontcourt.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors are also rebuilding, and each franchise has two second-round draft picks at their disposal tonight. There are other teams that need multi-talented power forwards; others that have strong mentors and role models in place that could bring the superstar within out of Renardo Sidney.

One of them just has to roll the dice.

Basketball courts in our big cities and ‘bama towns are full of failure.

And yet the NBA is still full of men like Udonis Haslem, who spent a year after college in Europe turning himself into an indispensable role player by losing more than 50 pounds.

It’s full of men like Gerald Wallace and DeAndre Jordan, who didn’t perform up to their potential during abbreviated college careers, yet found their niche (and found eight-figure salaries) as productive NBA players.

It’s full of men like Marcus Camby and O.J. Mayo, who left their NCAA controversy in the rearview mirror and have had solid careers ever since.

It’s full of men like Ben Wallace and Brad Miller, who were passed on by every team on draft night and worked their way into NBA All-Star status.

Sidney can be one, or all, of those men. Or perhaps he’s done too much damage – to his reputation, to his body, to his game, to his psyche – to make a full recovery.

Drafted or undrafted, the first of his next 12 steps begins June 28.

Where will Sidney be in five years?

Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.

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