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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Draft Is More Pomp Than Circumstance

June 30, 2002|Mark Heisler

What if they held a draft and no one understood it?

The NBA does now, every spring. Everyone knows it has changed--it's all kids, international players and now, international kids--but people are having a problem dealing with the implications.

I'm not talking about sportswriters and TV talking heads. I'm talking about owners and general managers.

The reality is that while there are many talented players available, you'll have to wait years for them to emerge ... but it's still the way to go.

There's little immediate help and none after the top picks. After the top four in this draft, the next six were 19-year-olds. The teens had breathtaking potential, not that all the GMs were interested.

The Knicks, for example, say straight out, this is New York, we can't rebuild. This is a problem when they find themselves with no team, no young players and no cap room.

Then there are teams like the Chicago Bulls. Last spring, they went all-out for potential, trading Elton Brand so they could get not one, but two high school centers.

That was fine, except by midseason, people around the team were moaning how slowly it was going, voicing fears that if the Bulls weren't back soon, the NBA would die in Chicago.

Swell. One day you're running off your old dynasty, which is on a three-title winning streak. Three years later, you don't like the pace of rebuilding from scratch.

Maybe you should have thought this through a little earlier?

Check out the current Lakers. The NBA is, was and always will be about great players. The new reality is, to get them, you have to gamble on them when they're babies, like the 17-year-old Kobe Bryant.

The winners aren't the teams that gain a slight advantage in the draft but the ones that date their turnaround to it when they look back in three or four years.

With that in mind ...

THE WINNERS

* Houston. These days you're hyped one day and derided the next when they learn you're not really the next Shaquille O'Neal (who was also built up and torn down in his early years in the league).

People now think of Yao Ming as the next Shawn Bradley or, at best, Rik Smits, but he's 50 pounds heavier than Bradley and much more athletic than Smits.

Says Clipper draftee Melvin Ely, who worked out against Yao: "He's not a stiff. He can move and that surprised me."

Smits had to catch up to the speed of the game, but he became a force. Yao has to catch up too, but he should be a bigger force, at least.

* Chicago. Luckily for the game in the Windy City, the Bulls got Jay Williams, the one bona fide, instant-impact guy.

He got the build-up/tear-down ride too. Enthusiasm really ebbed when he missed a key free throw in Duke's NCAA tournament exit and measured only 6 feet 1/4 in the pre-draft camp. In real life, he's a little tank, a crack shot and should be a star from Day One. If Tyson Chandler keeps coming, they'll be back in the playoffs soon enough.

* Denver. People said nice guy GM Kiki Vandeweghe was overmatched, but he moved Antonio McDyess, who would have walked next summer, and wound up with two of the draft's most intriguing prospects, Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Nene Hilario.

Said Tskitishvili's Italian League coach, Mike D'Antoni: "When you see him work out, your jaw kind of drops."

After working out against the 6-9, 250-pound Hilario, Curtis Borchardt called him "awesome." Jamal Sampson called him "a beast."

Both will take a while, but the Nuggets have nothing better to do than wait.

In the meantime, they'll have an entry in the LeBron James Derby.

* Phoenix. Amare Stoudemire, the prep the Suns grabbed at No. 9, could miss, but he also could be the tiger they have always needed and never had.

* Portland. Trader Bob Whitsitt, the NBA's Go-For-It champion, jumped on Qyntel Woods, who went from the next Tracy McGrady to pariah when people decided he was a problem child. On the other hand, how many shots at greatness do you get at No. 21?

* Lakers. Nice sleight of hand by Mitch Kupchak, dumping Lindsey Hunter's contract and getting Kareem Rush. There are questions about Rush--motivation?--but he's some prospect to get when you're starting at No. 27.

* Clippers. Despite Donald T. Sterling's high jinks, there was no way they wouldn't help themselves with two lottery picks, even if they only took players to deal them.

The Clippers are past the potential-accumulating stage and into the making-it-work era, which requires an actual grown-up point guard. The Hornets, who have to impress their new fans in New Orleans, may take Baron Davis off the market, but the Clippers can still have Andre Miller--if Sterling will take him.

Sterling pronounced Darius Miles an untouchable, but let's see what he says next spring when he's up for an extension ... with Quentin Richardson ... and Lamar Odom and Corey Maggette are restricted free agents. If Miles, Richardson, Maggette and/or Odom conclude the money won't be there for them, there goes their nice chemistry.

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