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Original Issue

Large Returns

These three big men—all NBA prospects—will make their respective teams big-time contenders this year

It was April 15, the evening of Georgia's season-ending basketball banquet, and Mark Fox stood onstage at the Athens Country Club, unaware that a cloud was about to lift. For weeks one question had vexed Fox, the Dawgs' head coach: Would his All-SEC power forward, Trey Thompkins, forgo his senior year and declare for the NBA draft? Thompkins's family had been polling general managers and they had met with UGA coaches. But now, as Fox began to address the then junior, the star in question couldn't resist speaking up. "Don't worry, Coach," Thompkins said, opting to make his final decision right then and there, "I'm coming back." A ballroom full of boosters erupted in applause, and Thompkins's shocked teammates cheered. A stunned Fox replied, "God bless you, Trey."

The return of Thompkins and his 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game is the main reason that Georgia, which skidded to a 14--17 finish in Fox's first season, will be a team to watch this winter. While the Dawgs have other talented players—including high-flying junior wing Travis Leslie (14.8, 6.8 and 2.5 assists), who also declined to enter the draft, and speedy point guard Gerald Robinson, a Tennessee State transfer—the 6'10" Thompkins, a projected first-rounder who can play inside-out, is what Fox calls his "centerpiece."

Even during an admitted rebuilding year, the Dawgs beat three teams ranked in the Top 25 by seven points or more. Thompkins, by no accident, was the leading scorer each time.

"We do feel blessed," Fox says. "And the mentality of our locker room has really changed. Players believe. We function a lot more like successful people."

Thompkins is not the only big man powering a team ready for a big breakout this season. Here are two others:

• Kawhi Leonard, sophomore, San Diego State

This Aztecs team might be the best in school history, but head coach Steve Fisher isn't ready to yell that from the top of the Mountain West. "Not to be disparaging," Fisher says, "but we haven't had the kind of history that many programs have had." It is undeniable, however, that Leonard (12.7, 9.9), who is from Riverside, Calif., makes SDSU—which has five starters returning from a 25--9 team—likely to join the Top 25 early in the season. If the 6'7" forward can develop a reliable mid-range jumper, the Aztecs should have little trouble challenging for the MWC title and making the NCAA tournament for a second straight year. He leads a bruising frontcourt that includes 6'9" Malcolm Thomas (10.9, 7.6) and 6'8" Billy White (11.1, 4.3). "Us three, we're just trying to help motivate everyone," says Leonard. "We're on radars now."

• Chris Wright, senior, Dayton

Brian Gregory doesn't mince words about Wright. "He's been a program-changer," says the Flyers' head coach. Wright (13.7, 7.3) has contributed to 75 wins in three years at Dayton, the school's best stretch since the '60s. The problem? After making the round of 32 in 2009, the Flyers (25--12) settled for the country's 66th-best prize in '10: the NIT title (thumping UNC and its seven McDonald's All-Americans 79--68). Today Wright—who, as Gregory likes to say, "would bulldoze through a Russian army if it were in the paint"—is working on slowing his dynamic game down after flirting with the draft. And with 6'6" forward Chris Johnson (11.9, 6.6), the Atlantic 10's most improved player last year, the Flyers can boast one of the most potent duos in the country. "At the gas station, the store, people tell me, 'Thank you,'" says Wright, a Trotwood, Ohio, native. "I don't know if I can fully appreciate that until I'm gone."

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GREAT STUFF The versatile Thompkins will be the focus of Georgia's offense this year.