The Matt O'Donnell saga has taken another twist. The Saskatchewan Roughriders selected O'Donnell 15th overall in the second round of this year's CFL draft, but he didn't report to training camp and opted instead to try out for the NBA's Boston Celtics earlier this month. That didn't result in a contract, but according to Sportsnet's Arash Madani, O'Donnell's still interested in the NBA, working out for the Toronto Raptors last Thursday. Roughriders' head coach Greg Marshall told reporters Sunday there may be interest in O'Donnell from another NBA team or two, so the chances of him wearing green and white this year appear to be declining rapidly, as CFL training camps and the pre-season schedule are almost over.
O'Donnell's NBA tryouts may not amount to much, though. Sure, he has the size (a 6'11'', 340-pound frame, according to the CFL's site, but he was listed at 6'10'', 329 pounds in their April prospect rankings) and the agility to play left tackle, which makes him an intriguing commodity in basketball as well. There aren't many guys that big who can move, and both football and basketball teams are always on the lookout for those who do fit those qualifications. Keep in mind that arguably the most famous left tackle out there, The Blind Side subject Michael Oher, started as a basketball player, and many other athletes like Antonio Gates have gone back and forth between the two sports. Still, if O'Donnell was really interested in basketball, one would think he'd have followed in the path of Queen's football teammate Scott Stinson, who elected to play basketball for the Gaels as well in his last season and did so quite successfully. Instead, O'Donnell hasn't played competitive basketball since high school (apart from some time in intramurals at Queen's, which I can vouch for as not the highest quality of competition), and NBA sources who have seen him work out are saying, "I can't believe for a minute this guy's ready to play in the NBA."
Of course, plenty of NBA teams are willing to take chances on "project" players who have promising physical attributes but not a lot of refinement to their game. It can take years to turn them into capable pros, if it ever happens, but the pool of available big men with both size and the athleticism to play professional basketball is limited enough that some teams are willing to take a chance on very raw players. That's why O'Donnell has received these tryouts, and that's why he'll probably get a few more; it's also why his chances of cracking the NBA can't be written off entirely. You can teach the details of basketball, but you can't teach the rare combination of raw size and speed, and O'Donnell (seen above against Calgary in the 2009 Vanier Cup) has enough of both to be intriguing from a basketball standpoint.
However, what seems like a far more likely endgame for O'Donnell is attempting to crack the NFL. That same combination of size and speed makes him a perfect left tackle prospect, and unlike basketball, that's something he already has substantial high-level experience at. He earned two All-Canadian selections at Queen's and was part of the Gaels' 2009 Vanier Cup-winning squad. His father, Jim, told The Kingston Whig-Standard that O'Donnell's ideal spot is "probably the NFL right now," and he's represented by Johnathon Hardaway, who helped fellow Kingston native (and Argonauts' 2009 draft pick) Cory Greenwood land a NFL deal with Kansas City (and also presided over the mess with Henoc Muamba's contract). If NBA teams are willing to take a look at O'Donnell thanks to his size and agility, it seems even more likely that NFL teams would be interested. In fact, there were NFL rumours around O'Donnell as early as December, and that would seem likely to still be there.
The quirks of the NFL's ongoing labour dispute mean they can't show that interest at the moment, though, as teams are currently prohibited from signing undrafted free agents. Thus, O'Donnell's NBA workouts may be a convenient stalling tactic in hopes that the NFL lockout ends soon and he can pick up a deal there. It's not like he could sign with the CFL and jump quickly, either; as mentioned in the case of Terrelle Pryor, CFL contracts are now for a minimum of two years with no NFL option window, so if O'Donnell does elect to sign a deal with the Roughriders, he's stuck north of the border for at least two years. If he has NFL options, it only makes sense for him to pursue them; the money's much better even at the start in the NFL, and the chances for a big multi-million dollar payday are there if he finds success.
This doesn't mean the CFL should write O'Donnell off, though, and it doesn't make him a wasted draft pick. The size and speed that make him an attractive prospect in the NFL and NBA apply to three-down football too, and his experience in the Canadian game and ability to be a potentially dominant non-import player at the left tackle slot (often manned by imports) make him a very enticing CFL prospect if he ever elects to go that way. It doesn't seem he's planning to try and crack the CFL this year, but if things don't work out in the NFL or NBA, he may just be available down the road. If he is, Saskatchewan would be silly to pass him up. Sure, O'Donnell hasn't shown a lot of interest in the CFL so far, but that doesn't mean he won't down the road.
It's worth mentioning that many players from the 2011 draft aren't going to be in the CFL this year, instead finishing out their college careers north or south of the border (or in veteran-heavy Roughriders were never likely to start O'Donnell this year anyway. If he does wind up in the NFL, that's probably at least as good if not better for his development, and it's not like his size or speed are going to vanish overnight (unless he gets out of shape, something quite unlikely if he harbours any hopes of playing professionally). The O'Donnell pick has led to plenty of headlines and odd stories for the Roughriders this spring and summer, but its true success or failure probably can't be evaluated until we see where he winds up a few years down the road.