High school players figure to dominate the top of the draft. But
which one will go first?
Has the draft ever been harder to predict? No one knows who will
go No. 1 or even if the Wizards will keep the top pick. Here's
the only thing that can be said with certainty: Of the six
candidates most likely to be taken first, only one will be old
enough this fall to drink a beer with his new teammates.
Last year Darius Miles became the highest-picked high school
player ever when the Clippers drafted him third. Although no one
in this crop appears to be as gifted as the 6'9" Miles, his
record is likely to be surpassed by one of four high schoolers:
Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry or DeSagana Diop. Each is
6'11" or taller, and the league is desperate for big men--and, it
seems, for adolescents.
Within the first hour of the June 27 draft at Madison Square
Garden, all four will be welcomed into the NBA by commissioner
David Stern, who is campaigning to institute a minimum age of 20.
"I don't understand that," says Brown, the 6'11", 240-pound power
forward who decided to apply for the draft the night before his
senior prom at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga. "I don't see high
school players as the ones getting in trouble, getting in fights
or going to jail."
Brown, Curry and Diop all appeared to be thoughtful young men
during an interview session last Saturday at the conclusion of
the Chicago predraft camp. (Chandler declined to appear at the
press conference.) Such fluency was unexpected from the
18-year-old Diop, a 7-foot, 315-pound Senegalese who spoke little
English when he arrived at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson,
Va., two years ago. Equally important, he started lifting weights
last summer and quickly gained 45 pounds, raising the possibility
that he may someday neutralize Shaquille O'Neal. "I've got to
work on everything," admitted Diop when asked to name his
strengths and weaknesses.
The one potential top pick who's of legal drinking age--6'8" Duke
forward Shane Battier--may be the least likely of the six to go
first. It used to be that someone like Battier was the gold
standard of the draft: the consensus player of the year, senior
co-captain of the NCAA champ. Now there is a sense that his
strengths are being taken for granted as teams appear more
willing to speculate on the next Kobe Bryant or the next Tracy
McGrady. "I'm looking at it in terms of the stock market," says
Battier. "A lot of these young guys are like IPOs. The potential
for greatness obviously is there, but there is a chance they may
Battier's maturity may be profitable for him. League sources say
he has been impressive in workouts with the Bulls, Grizzlies and
Hawks, and on Saturday he beat the high school players and 6'9"
Seton Hall freshman Eddie Griffin in a lateral agility test.
("People checked their watches, saying, 'Is that right?'" Battier
says.) Says an executive from a team with a top six selection,
"If someone drafting high wants a guy to help immediately, who
knows how to play, he is the only guy you can choose."
The other high lottery pick who might contribute soon is Griffin,
whose shot-blocking and rebounding skills are at an NBA level.
Griffin has been in fights with teammates in high school and
college, but one team executive who interviewed him has written
off those incidents. "I understand why they happened," the
executive says. "In high school he fought a 6'10", 270-pound
player, and some teams are actually going to like the fact that
he didn't back down."
Adding to the confusion over the No. 1 choice is that nobody
knows who will use it. Unless Michael Jordan fancies someone for
the Wizards who reminds him of himself, look for him to deal for
veteran help or to trade down for two or more choices in what is
thought to be an extremely deep draft. With that possibility in
mind, Washington is planning to work out at least 15 prospects.
Lottery Candidate Pau Gasol
Will He Remain In Spain?
The draft's most intriguing mystery involves Pau Gasol of Spain,
who might be a high lottery pick--or might not be taken at all. As
an early-entry candidate Gasol, 20, can withdraw his name by June
20. He will do so unless he receives assurances from at least one
team that he will be chosen among the top six.
Gasol is a 7-foot, 227-pound forward who runs like a shooting
guard and plays like a budding Toni Kukoc. His contract with F.C.
Barcelona has a buy-out clause of $2.5 million, though under NBA
rules a team may contribute only $350,000 to help exercise it.
Gasol is willing to pay the rest provided he is drafted in the
top six, which would ensure him of a three-year contract worth $6
million. Otherwise he will return to Barcelona for one more
season, then exercise an escape clause that permits him to leave
for free. "Next year it's a slam dunk that he's going to be a top
five player," says Gasol's agent, Herb Rudoy, who also represents
None of the teams holding the top six picks seems likely to draft
Gasol. Wizards president Michael Jordan (No. 1) had a frustrating
relationship with Kukoc in Chicago. The Clippers (No. 2) already
have similar players in Lamar Odom and Darius Miles, and the
Hawks (No. 3) have Kukoc. The Bulls (No. 4), Warriors (No. 5) and
Grizzlies (No. 6) probably can't afford to wait two or three
years for the skinny Gasol to adapt culturally and physically to
Still, that doesn't mean Gasol won't be in the league next
season. The Rockets and the Celtics each have multiple
first-round choices and could move up to take him. So could the
overstocked Trail Blazers, who could deal some of their
established talent, reduce their mammoth payroll and begin
planning for a younger, more promising future by drafting Gasol.
What makes Gasol so appetizing is his all-around game. He was a
point guard until he was 15, which forced him to develop
quickness and court sense. He has grown a foot since then,
prompting Barcelona to call him up to its first team for the
1999-2000 season. That's when Gasol made a commitment to
basketball: He dropped out of medical school to become a
full-time player. Over the past 18 months he has emerged as the
best player on probably the most talented team in Europe.
Gasol is one of the few lottery candidates who understands the
team game. He is a shot-blocker and a rebounder, and based on his
improvement over the last year, many scouts believe he will work
hard to gain weight and develop his still shaky outside shot. His
privileged upbringing in suburban Barcelona has led to other
concerns, however. One NBA team executive predicts that the first
European draftee will be Serbian forward Vladimir Radmanovic, 20,
a Peja Stojakovic type who at 10 was airlifted by the Serbian
military out of Croatia during the war in 1991. "I wonder about a
guy who has had it easy his whole life," the team executive says
of Gasol. "A lot of these Yugoslavian guys come from nothing,
they work hard for everything they get, and that toughens them
San Antonio's Future
Popovich Stays Upbeat
Watching the 76ers upset the Lakers in Game 1 of the Finals, San
Antonio coach and G.M. Gregg Popovich was reminded of everything
his team failed to do while being swept by Los Angeles in the
conference finals. He wanted Derek Anderson and Sean Elliott to
pressure Kobe Bryant and harass the Lakers on the perimeter, but
Anderson suited up only in Games 3 and 4 because of a separated
right shoulder, and Elliott's legs gave out. "We didn't have the
bodies," says Popovich, whose Spurs had the best record in the
regular season. "Even if we had there is some doubt we would have
won, but it's disappointing we didn't get to find out."
Popovich hasn't given up on overtaking the Lakers next season
with a cast that could be largely the same. His top two
priorities are to re-sign free agents Anderson and David
Robinson, the latter of whom is willing to take a cut from last
season's salary of $14.7 million. Popovich will try to use the
savings to keep Anderson, who will expect a big raise after
signing for the $2.25 million exception last season.
Popovich refuses to discuss his plans for 36-year-old point guard
Avery Johnson, a free agent who made $8 million last year, and
within the next month Elliott will let San Antonio know if he's
returning or retiring. "If you were a betting man, [betting on
Elliott's] retirement might be the way to go," says Popovich, who
can replace Elliott only with a draft choice or an inexpensive
free agent. (Because the Spurs are under the salary cap, they are
not entitled to the $4.2 million exception.)
Despite the financial obstacles, Popovich believes San Antonio
has room to grow with guard Antonio Daniels, 26, and Tim Duncan,
who, as mature as he seems, is only 25. Duncan was hard on
himself after scoring 15 points in the playoff-ending loss, and
Popovich expects him to become a greater offensive force. "As
funny as it sounds, he's been a little too committed to playing a
team game," Popovich says. "I expect him to be more ferocious,
look for his own shot more and take over the game."
With that in mind, Popovich plans to play Duncan occasionally at
small forward, while setting him up alongside Robinson in what
could be the league's most dominant zone defense. To those who
are counting out his team, Popovich says, "Let them think about
that for a while."
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Brown, a 6'11" power forward, chose to go pro on his senior prom night in Brunswick, Ga.
COLOR PHOTO: ALBERT BERTRAN The 7-foot Gasol (above, right) will bolt Barcelona for the NBA if he's assured of going among the first six picks.
around the Rim
When Celtics director of player personnel Leo Papile sees high
school center Tyson Chandler, he has fond memories. "He is a
clone of Lew Alcindor," Papile says. "He has the same gait, the
same long neck, and he's as graceful, like a ballerina on the
run." The difference: Even as a teenager Alcindor knew how to
play with his back to the basket....
The 52 undergraduates who entered the draft can still return to
their college teams next season provided they don't sign with an
agent. In its usual illogical way, however, the NCAA bars high
school entrants, including the six this year, from ever playing
Of the 63 players who participated in the Chicago predraft camp,
two who helped their standing were 7-foot sophomore Steven
Hunter of DePaul and Arizona sophomore guard Gilbert Arenas. "On
TV they see I'm a 6'3" two guard," says Arenas, "but in person
they see that I have long arms and that I can guard anyone up to
Unbeknownst to most of his peers, former Celtics coach M.L. Carr
was certified as an agent in March. "No one noticed because I
used my real name, Michael," says Carr, who has opened his
Boston firm with his son, also named Michael.