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Sadly for Bulldogs, there’s only one Caldwell-Pope

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is inclusive by nature; it is written right there on the back of his Georgia basketball jersey.

He wants everyone to be happy. Just read between the hyphen. As a junior at Greenville High, in a move symbolizing a personal family reunion, the then-Kentavious Caldwell attached his father’s last name to his own.

His parents, he said, discussed the matter one night after a football game — that was when Kentavious was still a receiver of some promise before giving up the game to concentrate on more spherical pursuits.

He had announced to them that he wanted to change his name. Rhonda Caldwell and Lawrence Pope talked it over, reached an accord on that fall Friday, then fired up the machinery that made Kentavious legally a Caldwell-Pope.

“I just wanted my dad to be a part of my life, wanted him to continue to be there,” the soft-spoken and happily hyphenated shooting guard said.

His current challenge is somewhat more ticklish: to append the lesser talents of his Georgia teammates to his own and construct a successful whole. For upon his slender 6-foot-5 frame, Bulldogs basketball and coach Mark Fox would much love to build legitimacy.

The sophomore was Georgia’s first five-star signee in 20 years. “Just watching them on TV and coming to a couple of games, I thought I fit in well with the offense,” he said, explaining his thinking. “Meeting with the players, they showed a lot of love, and that really helped me a lot.”

To date, the result has been to create not a demonstrably better Bulldogs team — entering the weekend it was 24-28, 8-15 in the SEC during Caldwell-Pope’s brief tenure — but rather one of the more painfully obvious solo acts in college basketball.

After scoring 20 on Wednesday in Georgia’s victory over Auburn, Caldwell-Pope has led the Bulldogs in scoring in 18 of its first 20 games this season. Seven times, he has been the only Bulldog to score in double figures. He has 50 more rebounds than any teammate. And 33 more steals. He is the only player to be on the court an average of more than 30 minutes per game. He has made 43 percent of the team’s 3-pointers.

Let’s pretend you are an opposing coach. You don’t have to be John Wooden to recognize certain neon numbers on an otherwise dimly lit stat sheet. You tilt your defense accordingly. Indeed, Caldwell-Pope — KCP to those few who are intimate with Georgia basketball — draws more attention than a peacock in a pigeon coop.

“He knows all year he’s been the focus of the defense. It was that way in league play, that way in non-league play; it’s that way every night,” Fox said. “And he handles it pretty well. We need other guys to make plays for us.”

Caldwell-Pope is not prone to complain about a lack of support. For a scorer with flair, he is quiet and unselfish by nature, said his former high school coach.

“He knows he hasn’t had any serious help, but I promise you you’ll never hear him say anything bad about it,” said Richard Carter, who left Greenville when Caldwell-Pope did, and now coaches in Alabama.

Ask him if he gets frustrated much being Job 1 (2, 3 and 4, as well) of every defensive game plan, Caldwell-Pope allows that he does, “but I can’t let it overwhelm me. I can’t let my frustration get the best of me. I got to control that and try to get my teammates involved.”

As to the difficulty of adjusting to life in the bottom tier of the conference standings, Caldwell-Pope says a little prayer and a few heart-to-hearts with the folks back home have had calming effects.

His former coach, however, is pretty vocal about questioning his decision to go to Georgia as well as the prospects of the team improving around him.

“Personally, I wanted him to either go to Kentucky or Tennessee,” Carter said. “I was always afraid because I just didn’t see the recruiting at Georgia. And it has proven out. They got the best player in the state of Georgia and never got him any help the last two years.”

Then comes a gripe that has been aimed at Georgia basketball for great chunks of its existence: “I don’t know what’s going on over there,” Carter said. “All those players in Atlanta alone, they got enough kids to supply 10 colleges. Why? Why none of the state kids want to go to the state school?”

Those are questions for the hoary heads of the athletic department.

All Caldwell-Pope can do is keep doing what a scorer does. That’s score.

Just keep shooting. In high school, his credentials were those of a fellow who had a natural way of putting the ball through the hoop and then grew that ability through countless hours in the hothouse of the gym. “A lot of other kids would be outside, hanging around waiting for the girls, seeing them off on the bus. Shucks (Caldwell-Pope) would come running into the gym taking his shirt off getting ready to go to practice,” Carter said.

In one game, an exasperated opponent pleaded with Caldwell-Pope to miss just one shot. As he was walking off the floor after the halftime buzzer sounded, he casually tossed the ball off the front of the rim. “There, that’s your one miss,” he said flashing a smile toward the other bench.

Opposing coaches used to ask Carter how he could allow his star to shoot from any distance at any time. “I’d say, ‘Why not, he’ll make them. Why not let him shoot ’em?’” the coach said.

Those were among the gifts Caldwell-Pope took to the college court. Question is, how much longer will he express them in a Georgia uniform? Will he stay around long enough to significantly alter the course of Bulldogs basketball?

Opinions vary as to whether he should come back for his junior season or flee to the NBA draft.

Carter, who recommended he stay at Georgia rather than go into the draft after his freshman season, says his former player is ready to go pro now.

One long-time NBA scout, however, strongly suggested Caldwell-Pope stay in college another year. He could stand to improve his draft position, his defensive skills, his strength. “He may get held a little in college, but he’ll get beat up in the NBA,” the scout said.

Days of large decisions loom. Caldwell-Pope is far from finished with the process of making a name.

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