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Set to graduate, Meeks about to finish what he started

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Jodie Meeks will participate in UK's commencement ceremonies on Saturday. (UK Athletics) Jodie Meeks will participate in UK's commencement ceremonies on Saturday. (UK Athletics)
Five years ago now, Jodie Meeks decided to forgo his final season of collegiate eligibility and enter the NBA Draft.

Kentucky fans, of course, would always have a special affinity for the sweet-shooting All-American guard, but they likely figured his days in Lexington -- save for an occasional visit -- were done.

Instead, Meeks has returned to campus every summer to attend classes. In that time, he's had more than his share of interactions with students surprised to the NBA millionaire lugging around a backpack.

"They usually recognize me right off the bat," Meeks said. "They look at me like what am I doing here. So I just look at them the same way. It's always fun. It's always fun seeing people's reactions. I'm a regular person just like them so when I'm trying to get my degree I just ask them, 'What are you doing here? I'm doing the same thing.' "

On Saturday, he'll don a cap and gown and realize that goal.

Meeks will be among 60 current and former UK student-athletes who will participate in commencement ceremonies, following the 30 who did the same in December. He still has a class to finish up this summer, but he will take a walk on Saturday that's been eight years in the making with his family in attendance.

As soon as he decided to declare for the draft, Meeks committed to complete his coursework and graduate. Even as his NBA career has blossomed and taken him from Milwaukee to Philadelphia to Los Angeles, Meeks has remained true to that commitment and will finally earn that degree in business marketing.

"Once I get my mind set on something, I usually do it 99 percent of the time," said Meeks, who memorably set UK's single-game scoring record with 54 points against Tennessee. "When I left school early -- I wasn't sure that I would leave early - but when I did, I made a commitment to myself and my family that I would do it. It just feels good to have it done now and just finally be done Saturday."

Well established as a professional after a career season with the Lakers, Meeks is likely to sign a lucrative deal this summer. Nonetheless, the degree he is about to receive gives him a sense of security no contract ever could.

"One thing I don't do in basketball but especially in life is take things for granted," Meeks said. "You never know how long your career will last, but once you have a degree, you can have it forever. You can do a lot of stuff with my degree. Once I get out of playing basketball I'll be able to do that."

Before then, Meeks has free agency to think about.

He just finished the final season of a two-year deal with the Lakers, posting career highs in scoring (15.7 points per game), rebounds (2.5), assists (1.8), steals (1.4), field-goal percentage (.463) and 3-point percentage (40.1). Meeks called the season "bittersweet" since the Lakers finished well outside the playoff picture with a record of 27-55, but there's mistaking the fact that his big season has given him options.

He'll start thinking about them later.

"It's still early," Meeks said. "It's only May, so I'm not officially allowed to talk to anyone until July. So right now just focusing on this last class and this degree and I'll think about basketball in July and August, September and things like that. But I should be in a pretty good situation. I had a pretty good year, put myself in a good predicament for next year. So just have to make the best decision for myself."

That's exactly what Meeks did when he declared for the draft in 2009. He never second-guessed his decision -- and why would he considering where he is today? -- but admits the what-if scenarios UK fans so often play out when they think about the 2009-10 season do cross his mind.

That team -- John Calipari's first at Kentucky -- was one of the most talented in recent college basketball memory. John Wall and Eric Bledsoe manned the backcourt, while DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson patrolled the paint. Along with those four established NBA players, the Cats had future draft picks Daniel Orton, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller.

Perimeter shooting ultimately felled that group, as the Cats shot just 4 of 32 from 3 in a 73-66 Elite Eight loss. It's difficult to imagine West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone working nearly so well with Jodie Meeks -- who hit 117 3s in a record-setting junior season -- on the floor.

"I think about that too," Meeks said. "I don't think we would have lost a game, in my opinion. It would have been a fun team. Sometimes I think, 'What if I'd have stayed, would my life have been different here?' But I felt like it was the best decision for myself."

Things have worked out OK for Kentucky too.

As Meeks has flourished in the NBA, Calipari has led UK to three Final Four berths in the last four seasons, including a national title in 2012 and another trip to the championship game in April.

With all that success, speculation about a return to the NBA has followed Calipari, in spite of his constant assertions to the contrary. Most recently, the Lakers' decision to fire Mike D'Antoni has fueled rumors of Calipari migrating westward.

Meeks liked the idea of playing for a coach he missed by a season in Lexington, but it's hard for him to understand why Calipari would ever leave.

"I was excited maybe that he could coach me, but if I was him I wouldn't leave here," Meeks said. "You know, it's a great place to coach and play. He has it made here, you know. So that would be up to him, but I wouldn't go anywhere."

Makes sense, especially since Meeks keeps coming back.

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