By Paul Ladewski
CHICAGO – Ten weeks have passed since DeJuan Blair played his final game in a Pitt uniform, and to see him at the NBA Draft Combine on Thursday afternoon, one message hit home more than any other.
The big guy may have left Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh isn’t about to leave him.
Blair is the same well-grounded guy even if he does figure to be a whole lot richer a month from now. He still flashes the same smile that’s as wide as the free-throw lane that he practically owned last season.
And Blair still bristles at the talk that he’s too small to make it big at the next level.
Those are doubts that he is sure to hear plenty more of prior to the June 26 draft, words that drive him every day of his life, ones that played no small role in his decision to leave college after his junior year.
“I don’t worry about it,” Blair said of the criticism, his smile turned upside down for the moment. “It’s just talk. People like to talk, you know?
“It’s motivation for me. It’s real big motivation for me. It’s real cool.”
Actually, there has been one noticeable difference in Blair in the last three weeks. He dropped a few pounds. Forty big ones, to be exact.
“I told my mom that this morning, and she said, ‘Did you cut your leg off?” Blair laughed at the thought of it. “She was pretty excited.”
So was David Thorpe, his personal trainer.
“I credit him for a lot of my accomplishments,” Blair said. “High protein, no carbs. No more candy bars. No more fried chicken . . .”
No more Primanti Brothers?
“No more Primanti Brothers.”
At a rather svelte 277 pounds with 11 percent body fat, Blair said he was in the best physical condition since his Schenley High School days.
“A lot of people say that weight could be an issue, but I won’t let it be an issue,” Blair said. “That won’t bring me down. I like my body now. I like the way that I feel. I’m addicted to the weight room. That’s all that I do.”
Next on the to-do list: Improve the mid-range game.
“That’s checked twice,” Blair said.
More than anything, it’s his brute strength, remarkable ability to rebound and competitive spirit that could make Blair the first Pitt lottery pick since forward Charles Smith in the 1988 draft.
He has workouts scheduled with the Oklahoma City Thunder (third and 25th picks), Sacramento Kings (fourth, 23rd), Milwaukee Bucks (10th), New Jersey Nets (11th), Charlotte Bobcats (12th), Indiana Pacers (13th) and Chicago Bulls (16th).
That Blair was measured at 6-foot-5 1/4 without shoes is sure to give pause to some general managers. In recent memory, no power forward under 6-foot-7 has made an impact at the NBA level.
Then again, few if any of the undersized types had a 7-foot-2 wingspan. And none of them was named DeJuan Blair, either.
“I can’t wait to go to the NBA because everybody is big,” said Blair, who had outgrown the college game to a large degree. “It’s a physical game. I’m steppin’ into home – that’s how I feel.”
Blair went so far as to call this “the funnest time of his life,” an indication that he has no regrets about his decision to leave Pitt in his rear-view mirror.
“I had a chance to do it, and why not go do it?” Blair said. “I did everything in college. I could have been All-American again and won the Naismith (Award) and all of that, but I felt it was the right move to sign an agent. A lot of people were mad, but they’re not in my shoes.”
“If your dreams are in front of you, then why not reach for them? I’ve reached out and grabbed them and hold them tight so they won’t go anywhere.”
And that’s something that DeJuan Blair knows that Pittsburgh will surely understand.