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Friday, June 25, 2004

Reflections on the NBA Draft

SportsProf watched ESPN's coverage of the NBA with great interest last night (at least the first round), and couldn't help but notice that a college degree just doesn't mean what it used to (perhaps, more realistically, exhausting four years of eligibility isn't worth what it used to be). In the first round, four seniors, eleven underclassmen, eight high school players and six overseas players were taken. Most definitely, those who toil in front offices for NBA teams aren't familiar with the line that legendary Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty once authored: "Potential means you ain't done it yet."

To SportsProf, the winners of the night were Orlando and Chicago. With the first pick, the Magic took Dwight Howard, who the draft gurus say has a better chance of turning into Kevin Garnett than Kwame Brown. The Magic also engineered a trade for Jameer Nelson, who should be an upgrade at the PG position over Tyrone Lue. (Imagine had the Magic taken Emeka Okafor instead of Howard, and then you'd have Okafor and Nelson, the two best players in college basketball in 2003-2004, running together in Orlando. That would have been fun to see). The Bulls still have to figure out what to do with Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, but in landing both Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, they are building for the future once again (although Bulls fans have to ask how many times can they land big-name prospects and not propel the team forward?).

You'd have to argue that the two best backcourts in the country in college last year belonged to teams in, take a deep breath, the Atlantic Ten. Jameer Nelson of the St. Joe's Hawks went 20th in the first round (to Denver, who traded him to Orlando) and Delonte West, who went 24th to the Boston Celtics (who claim they had him rated as the second best PG in the draft after Shaun Livingston). West, as it turned out, made absolutely the right decision in opting for the draft and not to return to St. Joe's for his senior year. While he could have had the opportunity to work on his game as a PG, he might not have had a great unit to distribute the ball to had he returned. Kudos to West for making a courageous decision that worked out well for him. Said St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli, "Now I have to go back home and explain to people how we lost two games last year with two future first-round picks in the backcourt." (Let's just hope for West's sake that the Celtics know what they're doing, as they have made some curious front office moves over the past several years).

The second best backcourt might have belonged to Xavier, who had both of its guards selected in the second round -- Lionel Chalmers at 33 to the Clippers and Romain Sato at 52 to the Spurs. It wasn't that long ago that these two players helped the X men shellack the St. Joe's Hawks in the A-10 playoffs. The second round is a big dropoff from the first round -- no guaranteed money, much longer odds of making the team, but it's a nice nod toward a very much underrated duo.

It was a good night for Slovenians, the two best players from that country, Sasha Vujacic and Beno Udrih, who played their pro ball in Italy and Israel, respectively, were drafted at the end of the first round (by the Lakers and Spurs, respectively). Give those players props for showing up at the NBA draft get-together in NYC despite not getting an official invite to appear at a table in the ready room. Only in America.

The last player to get the guaranteed money is David Harrison, the big center from Colorado whose father, Dennis "Big Foot" Harrison, played defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles for Dick Vermeil back in the day when Vermeil was a young coach out of UCLA making good in the NFL. Harrison is a big presence in the low blocks, but needs to work on various aspects of his game to advance to more than backup status in the NBA.

The most interesting (or amusing) item I saw about the draft was when I glimpsed at the second-round list and found two players taken with "Georgia" listed as where they last played. The last player in the draft, Rashad Wright, played his college ball at the University of Georgia, while the 42nd player taken, Viktor Sanikidze, played in Georgia (not in Athens or Atlanta, but the birthplace of Josef Stalin, among others).

The 76ers also were a winner, relatively speaking, when they got Andre Iguodala of Arizona with the 9th pick, precisely because in taking Rafael Araujo of BYU with the 8th pick, the Raptors brain-cramped. Araujo was a good college player, but he's somewhat immobile, and he went way too early.

Drafts are fun because they enable us to try to predict the future. Will any of the foreign players turn out to be stars, or will they just be a bunch of guys with good fundamentals who can't speak English well and who seemingly have misplaced consonants in their last names? Where were the Serbians and Croatians, formerly the darlings of the NBA scouts? Have players from the Baltics (at least Latvia this year) and the former Soviet Republics replaced them as the hot commodities? And how will Chris Duhon fare? The Bulls took him in the second round after he didn't fare well in the Chicago workouts. Will he make the roster? Will he have an impact?

Whatever the case, the NBA GMs who took HS players are playing a dangerous game. On the one hand, the trend has been to draft for potential. On the other hand, the demand has been win now or lose at the box office and lop off the head of your coach. Which means for someone like Mo Cheeks, who gets Sebastian Telfair (whom he supposedly loves) and two Russian teammates from CSKA Moscow, good luck. Perhaps the GMs can be patient, but coaches like you cannot.