LEXINGTON, Ky. - Ron Mercer's all-purpose answer is that he has a dream to follow. The phrase has a nice ring to it, one that does not immediately conjure a cash register.
The well-bred college basketball player never mentions money in announcing his intention to turn pro. He speaks instead of opportunities and challenges and goals and dreams. He speaks, for the most part, in euphemisms and code. The catchwords change, but the root cause is constant.
When a college student becomes capable of instant wealth, campus life loses its laid-back charm. Ron Mercer will leave the University of Kentucky at season's end because he has been shown the money, and he has blinked.
Whether Mercer is ready for the rigors of the National Basketball Association is beside the point. What matters is the NBA is ready for him.
''I think he's the greatest player right now in college basketball,'' UK coach Rick Pitino said Wednesday afternoon. ''But it doesn't matter what I think. It really doesn't matter what Ron thinks. It matters what the NBA thinks. If the NBA says Ron is the second or third pick in the draft, then he's ready.''
College basketball has served as the NBA's farm system for half a century, but it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish planting season from the harvest. Ron Mercer will leave UK as a sophomore, just as Antoine Walker did last spring. Nearly all the good ones go early nowadays because the rewards of staying can not justify the risks.
If Mercer's mind was not already made up to leave Lexington, his decision became semi-automatic when teammate Derek Anderson tore a ligament in his right knee last month.
''To see him go down, it could happen to anybody,'' Mercer said. ''You never know when your dream is going to be taken away. For me, my dream is close to being here and I'm going to pursue that.''
Two months ago, Anderson appeared destined for a guaranteed, eight-figure NBA contract. Now, he is deemed damaged goods. His advice to Ron Mercer is to be a mercenary.
''If you're available to get drafted early, take advantage of it,'' Anderson said Wednesday. ''It's all about being smart. If someone kept telling me, 'You're going to go top five (in the draft),' I wouldn't have even got hurt this season. I would have just quit. I would have said, 'I might as well stop playing and wait for the draft.'''
Mercer intends to keep playing, though he is not likely to enhance his draft position during the next month. Wake Forest center Tim Duncan is considered a lock for the first lottery pick. Depending on how different teams fall in the draft order, Mercer could go anywhere from No. 2 through No. 5. He will almost certainly be chosen before the University of Cincinnati's Danny Fortson, whose game is as narrow as his shoulders are wide.
''They like the fact that he flies through the air with the greatest of ease,'' Pitino said of his shooting guard. ''He's a great half-court offensive basketball player. He reads screens. He can elevate to get his shot off. He has good size ... He runs the break better than anyone I've seen. He's a very good passer. He can play fast. He can play slow. He can do a lot of things.''
Mercer leads the Southeastern Conference with an average of 18.1 points per game. His scoring pace has increased slightly since Anderson's injury, but the more dramatic difference has been in desire. Forced into a leadership role, Mercer has responded with rebounds and floor burns. He has shown guts as well as grace.
''Coach told us that everyone had to step up 20 percent (after Anderson's injury) because we were losing such a valuable player,'' said UK senior Jared Prickett. ''Ron has definitely stepped it up 20, maybe even 30 percent. He's just been a more physical all-around player. I think that's going to help him out a lot in the NBA.''
Ron Mercer is following his dream so closely now it will soon be his reality.