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Lakers at a Crossroads as Draft Time Comes

June 24, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

It is a fine time for the NBA to hold its draft.

The Lakers are working on a Shaquille O'Neal trade and Kobe Bryant will be a free agent in a week.

Their two power forwards are on their way to retirement, if they aren't there already.

They have seven players under contract for next season. That includes O'Neal. They don't have a coach.

So, rather than putting players around superstars, they're potentially putting players around players, which can be a lot more demanding.

But, there's only so much you can do at the tail ends of both rounds, and the Lakers have the 27th and 56th selections today.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak's instincts had him searching for a guard, because he expected Derek Fisher to opt out and, by 27, there aren't any must-have big men left.

By the time the Lakers' turn comes up, Kupchak will have spent three days listening to offers for O'Neal. He might have a better idea whether Bryant intends to take his seven-year maximum deal. He could have gauged the trade interest in Gary Payton, at $5.4 million.

"Most of the time, when you're drafting 25th and 28th, you want to make sure you get an NBA player. So, that would be our focus," Kupchak said.

"If there's a big guy there, which is unusual, I can't say we won't take him."

In recent years, that meant Brian Cook and Luke Walton, Kareem Rush in a draft-day trade, and Mark Madsen.

This year, it could mean Aleksander Vujacic, a 20-year-old, rangy point guard from Slovenia; Beno Udrih, another guard from Slovenia; Andersen Varejao, a Brazilian power forward, or David Harrison, a 7-footer from Colorado.

The Lakers also might be tempted to take a chance on South Korean center Ha Seung Jin, who is 7-foot-4, 325 pounds and raw, basketball-wise.

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