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Eager to test himself

Hudson hopes to make the grade

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / June 27, 2009
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Before the Celtics selected Lester Hudson just after midnight yesterday morning, no player from the University of Tennessee at Martin had been chosen in the NBA draft. But that did not prevent Hudson from thinking positive as he sat through the proceedings with family and friends in Memphis.

“I thought I was going to go higher,’’ Hudson, a 6-foot-3-inch guard, said in a telephone interview. “It was a long draft and I was getting a little upset, but my agent [Lance Young] called me and started telling me the Celtics would be best for me - and that was two picks before their turn. He told me my style of play would fit in with them and the Celtics had only one pick, so I’m going to stay with you on the phone until then.’’

Hudson thought they should just call each other back, but Young insisted on staying on the line, and sure enough the Celtics made Hudson the No. 58 choice overall.

“Everybody was jumping up and down and jumping on me,’’ said Hudson, who finished talking with his agent, then took a call from the Celtics.

“This is an opportunity to play on a great team, to play with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo,’’ Hudson said. “They didn’t draft me for me to go overseas, they drafted me to be on the team. And this is a chance to make a team that will compete for the championship. I’m going to work hard and prove I deserve a spot on the team. You’ve got to be confident. And I think they got a steal in the draft.’’

Tennessee-Martin’s claims to sporting fame include launching the career of legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, and fielding a successful rodeo team, according to athletic communications director Joe Lofaro.

“We’re a small school [6,500 students] in northwest Tennessee,’’ Lofaro said. “The rodeo team was ninth in the nation and third in the nation the last two years.’’

But the college’s low profile in athletics and remote location made it a good destination for Hudson, who was behind academically. In fact, Hudson’s grades were a factor in limiting him to one season of high school basketball. By the time Hudson started getting serious about studying, it was nearly too late. Hudson earned a GED after enrolling at Southwest Tennessee Community College, improved his grades, but was lacking in core curriculum, so most four-year schools backed away.

Tennessee-Martin coach Jason James believed it was worth bringing in Hudson, who would have had to sit out a redshirt season. James had been following Hudson’s progress, or lack of it, since Hudson was a sophomore in high school.

“He wasn’t playing at the time because his grades were not up to standard,’’ James said. “But I kept in touch.’’

James, an assistant coach at the time, was not only hoping Hudson would hit the books, but that he would not be claimed by the school of hard knocks of the Orange Mound section of Memphis.

“I don’t know if he was a long shot, but it was a long road,’’ James said. “Some guys from his neighborhood don’t get out of jail and some aren’t alive anymore.

“There’s been some tough times, but [Hudson] always had family around and he had good coaches. Academically, he just was not showing what he could do, that’s all it was. He had to prove he could do the work. He had to keep focused on academics and we had to help him make it a priority.’’

Hudson, 24, caught up during his redshirt year and now seems equally proud of his 3.0 grade-point average and 27.8-point scoring average as a senior. Hudson earned a degree in university studies, graduating last month.

“I’ve had to overcome a lot of things in life, and so I feel blessed to have this chance,’’ Hudson said. “I almost didn’t get out of that neighborhood, but I stayed focused and now I have a chance for my dream, playing in the NBA.’’

The post-grad exam starts soon.

“I’m a scoring guard, I knock down shots, but I also get people in the game,’’ Hudson said. “It’s easy in college, but running the point in the NBA is much different. I’m hoping Rajon Rondo will teach me a couple things.’’

Said James, “I always thought he would be playing for money, but I didn’t know he would get drafted. I believed he could at least make it overseas or in the D-League. He’s got to be tighter with the ball, and he showed late in the season he can be good at guarding the ball. He has to work on decision making in screen-and-rolls. But he’s worked on things and he showed that hard work pays off.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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