Texas's Isaiah Taylor celebrates with his teammates and fans after beating Oklahoma 76-63 during the of the NCAA men's college basketball game at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Tex., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Cedric Golden

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Golden: Is Monday Isaiah Taylor’s final home game?

Posted February 28th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Taylor has shown dramatic improvement as a junior, both on and off the court
  • Current projections by NBA scouts have Taylor as a second-round pick
  • If he stays for his senior year, Taylor will be among favorites for 2017's Big 12 player of the year

It’s Senior Night in Austin.

That pregame pageantry where tearfully happy moms come down from the stands for flowers and a big hug from the baby they raised and put through college.

Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland, Connor Lammert, Prince Ibeh and Danny Newsome will suit up for the final time on campus, and the Big 12 champion Kansas Jayhawks will provide the stiffest challenge to date before what’s expected to be a sellout crowd at Club Erwin.
Injured post Cam Ridley won’t play but will participate in pregame festivities.

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Point guard Isaiah Taylor will watch from the bench as his teammates say their goodbyes. Here’s a question: Should Taylor, a junior, invite his family to Senior Night?

Not lost in the Shaka the Nation Tour that’s been the 2016 season is the decision facing Taylor: Should he stay or should he go? He’s currently projected as a second-round pick by NBADraft.net, which had him going to the Detroit Pistons at No. 44 overall as of Sunday afternoon.

Is he NBA ready? I asked his senior backcourt mate.

“I think he is,” Felix said. “He’s very intelligent. He’s elite.”

It won’t be an easy decision, and there isn’t any hurry for him to make any huge announcement between now and the league’s early entry deadline of May 8.

The good news for Texas fans is Taylor has added motivation to play his best ball, as if he needed it. The Horns have two regular-season games remaining and could move up to as high as a No. 3 seed if they can knock off the Jayhawks and make some noise in the conference tournament.

Taylor’s maturation as a leader and his growing ability to make the clutch play has been something to behold, and Smart has made no secret of being his biggest fan. He’d love to continue this great partnership in 2017.

“He’s really focused on responding, which we say is the ability to focus on the next most important thing,” Smart said. “Isaiah’s very emotional. He wears everything on his sleeves.”

The two shared a cool moment at the end of the OU win near the Texas bench.

“Before every game, me and Coach say to each other, ‘Are you going to get a brother a win?’ ” Taylor said. “He just said ‘Thank you’ when I came over to him.”

It has worked to the tune of 19 wins and 10 conference wins for the first time since 2014. The Horns added to their NCAA tournament resume with a 22-0 run that spurred a huge win over No.3 Oklahoma at a raucous Club Erwin Saturday. It was Taylor’s first win over Oklahoma in five tries.

“You’re always coming out hoping you play in front of a packed house,” Taylor said. “And for this to be our second-to-last game, everybody came out to support us and we are just grateful.”

He should plan to play for future packed houses in Austin by putting off the NBA for another year. If he returns, Taylor will be one of the preseason favorites for Big 12 Player of the Year since players like Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Iowa State’s Georges Niang and Kansas’ Perry Ellis will be headed to the pros. A second straight season of drastic improvement, especially with the jumper, could propel him to first-round status and more important, guaranteed money. Remember, he missed 10 games last season with a broken wrist, which slowed his development.

Turning pro right now is a risky proposition. His situation isn’t the same as former Texas point guard Myck Kabongo, who told me a couple of years ago that he left college in some part to wipe the slate clean after being suspended for NCAA rules violations his sophomore season. Kabongo went undrafted and now plays for the Erie (Pa.) BayHawks of the NBA Development League.

According to Hoopshype.com, roughly 400 players had guaranteed contracts entering this season, meaning the 441 hopefuls in last summer’s pro leagues and 52 NBA players under partial or non-guaranteed deals in 2015 were competing for 50 remaining spots.

The rough odds will be similar this offseason if Taylor bolts. The question he will have to ask himself is if coming back for another year of college will add up to a big move on the draft boards like it did for Hield, who went from a borderline first round pick in 2015 to a monster senior season. He’s projected to go in the top 10 of the draft.

Smart has told us several times this season that the enormous chip on Taylor’s shoulder has fueled him to excel. From being around him, I know that being told he can’t do something is the ultimate challenge for the guy they call Zay.

Taylor has NBA talent but it’s talent best reserved for the 2017 draft.

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