Sunday, June 25, 2000

NBA teams gamble on youth, 'upside' in draft

By Mike DeCourcy
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kenyon Martin is expected to be the first pick in Wednesday's draft.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        Cincinnati Bearcats All-American Kenyon Martin does not know whether he'll be the first player selected in Wednesday's NBA draft. He doesn't know if he'll end up in New Jersey, Vancouver or even, by a circuitous route, Orlando.

        About the only thing certain is this: When the teams have finished making the first 13 selections — the “lottery” portion of the draft — Martin will be among the few players legally entitled to celebrate with a glass of champagne.

        This almost certainly will be the youngest NBA draft in history.

        More teams will choose less experienced and accomplished players than in any previous season. A consensus of mock drafts from six national media outlets suggests five of the top 10 picks and 12 of the 29 first-rounders will have played two years or fewer of college basketball. Last year, it was four of the top 10 and 10 of the 29 first-rounders.

        In 1999, six of the top 10 picks were consensus first- or second-team All-Americans. This year, it will be just four of the first 10.

DerMarr Johnson is also expected to be a lottery pick.
(AP photo)
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        “It's much more about "upside' than it ever used to be,” Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace said. “"Upside' has always been important, but so many of the guys you're looking at these days — even in at the top reaches of the lottery — are down-the-road guys.

        “We're all just basically betting on the future. You don't find that many guys — Kenyon Martin is a rare exception, the guy you project to come in and pay immediate dividends.”

        There are two high school players — Darius Miles of East St. Louis, Ill., and DeShawn Stevenson of Fresno, Calif. — likely to be selected in the first round. And in addition to those two, Michigan's Jamal Crawford and UC's DerMarr Johnson should be lottery selections after just one year in college.

        Early draft entry is nothing new to the NBA. It has existed officially since 1976, when four first-round picks were college underclassmen. What has changed dramatically is the nature of players taking advantage of that option.

        UC could have two players chosen in the lottery portion of the draft (forward Kenyon Martin and guard DerMarr Johnson) and possibly four or five taken in the two rounds, depending on how teams view wing Pete Mickeal and power forwards Jermaine Tate and Ryan Fletcher. These were the years since 1970 in which UC had multiple picks:
  • Corie Blount, 1st round, Chicago Bulls
  • Nick Van Exel, 2nd, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Pat Cummings, 3rd, Milwaukee Bucks
  • Robert Miller, 4th, Phoenix Suns
  • Derrick Dickey, 2nd, Golden State Warriors
  • Lionel Harris, 15th, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Jim Ard, 1st, Seattle Sonics
  • Don Ogletree, 12th, Detroit Pistons
        It used to be that players entering the draft with eligibility remaining were those with little or nothing left to accomplish in college. In 1979, there were only four early entries, and three were first-round picks, including Magic Johnson. As recently as 1993, there were only 12 underclassmen in the draft, and seven became first-rounders, including college All-Americans Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn and Rodney Rogers.

        There are 37 early entries this season. Five players expected to be lottery picks this year — DerMarr Johnson, Crawford, Miles, Jerome Moiso of UCLA and Joel Przybilla of Minnesota — were not college all-conference players in 1999-2000.

        Players who turn professional now are sort of like Internet stocks; they may not have much behind them except a positive buzz. Crawford was considered a likely second-round pick when he placed his name on the early entry list in May. After showing off his playmaking skills at the NBA Pre-Draft Camp earlier this month, scouts began to ignore his lack of strength and focus on his potential.

        How does a player recognize when it's his time to go, if collegiate dominance is not prerequisite? “I guess you've got to know it in your heart,” Crawford said. “You can ask people, and people will tell you different things, but I guess when you feel it, that's the right time.”

        This has made the evaluation process much more difficult and speculative for teams and also has created a sort of quandary for the losing teams that, by definition, end up choosing in the lottery portion of the draft. They are the teams that need the most immediate help, but now they have to measure that requirement against the possibility of passing over the next Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady.

        “For the most part, the teams in the lottery are there because they didn't have success,” said John Nash, general manager of the New Jersey Nets, who own this year's first overall pick. “But, by the same token, you have to acknowledge potential.

        “They're all individual cases, and you have to determine not only what talent level a guy possesses but what maturity level and how long you're going to have to wait for him to blossom as a player and adjust to the NBA lifestyle and determine whether, on the way to his maturity, is he going to be distracted and derailed?”

        Martin engenders no such questions for the Nets. He is 23 years old. He is engaged to be married. He earned the Robertson, Wooden and Naismith trophies as college basketball's player of the year. He is considered an elite defensive prospect and a developing offensive force.

        But Martin broke his leg in what became the final game of his college career. He had a pin removed from the leg nine days ago and has been able to work out only lightly for the Nets and the Vancouver Grizzlies, who own the second pick.

        While Martin was forced to rest, LSU power forward Stromile Swift dazzled the Nets during a workout with his leaping ability and athleticism — even though he does not jump as high or as quick ly or with the same degree of timing as Martin. The Nets could choose to take Swift with the first pick because of health considerations or the notion that Swift has more room to improve because of his youth.

        “What I'm looking forward to is just to hear my name being called — if it's first or whatever, just to hear them say it: "From the University of Cincinnati ...'” Martin said. “I don't want to be all caught up in being first, and then it doesn't happen and I'll be disappointed. I try not to disappoint myself over stuff I have no control.”

        One other possibility for Martin would be ending up in Orlando, which believes he could make an immediate impact on a team that fell just short of the playoffs last season.

        The Magic could offer two or three first-round picks (they own Nos.5, 10 and 13) or some combination of picks and veteran players for the right to grab Martin with the first overall selection.

        The Magic aren't in a hurry to give up the fifth pick, which they'd consider using to draft Miles.

        But Miles' athletic ability may convince the Los Angeles Clippers or Chicago Bulls to take him at No.3 or No.4, even though they won a combined 32 games this season and can ill-afford to wait for a high school player to develop.

        “We're in an instant-coffee age in everything,” Wallace said. “Everybody wants everything done by yesterday. You're drafting guys that are going to give it to you at some point. You just can't necessarily say when.”

Enquirer's mock NBA draft
Top power forwards in the NBA Draft
Top shooting guards in the NBA Draft
Top small forwards in the NBA Draft
Top point guards in the NBA Draft
Top centers in the NBA Draft

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