What could become a considerable face lift for the Clippers over the next couple weeks began Wednesday night, when they traded Stanley Roberts to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Stojko Vrankovic and, in a minor surprise, took forward Maurice Taylor of Michigan with the 14th pick in the draft.
The swap of centers had been all but finalized earlier in the week, but could not be completed until the deadline passed for Roberts to opt out of his contract, which would have made him a free agent and nullified any deal. But when, as expected, he stayed with the deal that will pay him $3.7 million next season, his five-year run in Los Angeles was over.
The pick, however, was somewhat unexpected. The Clippers, like many other teams, thought Taylor would be gone by 14, most likely at No. 11 to the Sacramento Kings, so it proved too tempting when he dropped into their laps. Even though forward is the least of their worries. Even though they had pretty much zeroed in on speedy point guard Jacque Vaughn from Kansas, with Stanford's Brevin Knight also under consideration.
"He has unbelievable talent," General Manager Elgin Baylor said. "I mean, he has the typical power forward body that you want to see. He's a young man, 20 years old . . . He's more impressive than any big guy we've ever had in playing that position."
Taylor's stock rose throughout the league during pre-draft workouts, showings that pushed him up near the lottery even after averaging only 12.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in his final season, as a junior. That got him named third team All-Big Ten Conference.
Unheralded but well regarded, that made the comparisons to Loy Vaught inevitable, in size, background and relative anonymity--both forwards from the state of Michigan, both Wolverines who became Clippers. Taylor even calls Vaught his idol.
Now, he's also the competition for minutes. Taylor has an advantage in that he might also play some small forward, but it's a logjam there or at power forward, where Vaught starts and Lorenzen Wright should now get time after a very encouraging rookie season playing out of position at center. Rodney Rogers and Lamond Murray wait at the other spot.
"In my workouts, I just showed them what I could do, as far as playing small forward with my range and ballhandling skills," Taylor said. "That really impressed some of the teams, and I think that's why my stock rose so much."
Said Coach Bill Fitch: "You know, if you recruit a guy and you've got him in college, you've got to say nice things about him. We're well aware of that. But the guys who coach teams in Puerto Rico [at the tournaments] and so forth, they don't have to. I think, if you go around the league and talk to scouts, they'll think this is a pretty good gamble."
The consensus will be the same on the trade. Vrankovic is no star--he started 35 games for the Timberwolves in 1996-97, then rode the bench much of the second half after the emergence of Dean Garrett--but he won't have the constant physical uncertainty of Roberts. That's worth something for most.
The Clippers also made another deal, sending next year's second-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for the 35th player chosen, guard James Collins from Florida State. Collins was a three-time All-ACC selection.
* LAKER PICKS: Guard DeJuan Wheat and center Paul Rogers were drafted, but face slim prospects of sticking. C10
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* STANLEY ROBERTS
* Background: Effective when playing, but sidelined a lot because of injuries.
* STOJKO VRANKOVIC
* Background: Started 35 games early last season, but played little later.
* MAURICE TAYLOR
* No. 14.
* Position: Forward.
* School: Michigan.
Has a pro body--6-9, 258 pounds--and strong reviews from postseason workouts, but his enthusiasm for the game has also been questioned. Left Michigan after three seasons, so there still room to grow in that area, if not physically. Third-team All-Big Ten in 1996-97. Boasts of being versatile enough to play both forward spots.
* JAMES COLLINS
* No. 37 (from Phila.)
* Position: Guard.
* School: Fla. State.
Second-round pick by the Philadelphia 76ers, before being traded to the Clippers for a No. 2 in 1998. Guard left Florida State ranked in the top five in six categories, including third in scoring after averaging 18 points as a sophomore, 18.3 as a junior and 16.6 as a senior