The Washington Bullets and 10 other also-rans in the 1991-92 season will engage in the eighth NBA lottery in Secaucus, N.J., this afternoon (5:30 p.m., NBC-TV) with Shaquille O'Neal, Louisiana State's overpowering center, heading everyone's wish list.
O'Neal is viewed as one of those rare players who quickly can turn a consistent loser into a contender.
A dominant inside force at 7 feet 1, 294 pounds, O'Neal is the marquee name in a deep and talented draft that could be the best since the Class of 1984 produced Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Sam Perkins, Otis Thorpe, Sam Bowie and Kevin Willis.
The decisions by O'Neal, Ohio State swingman James Jackson, USC guard Harold Miner and UCLA forward Tracy Murray to skip their senior seasons and opt for the NBA draft -- to be held June 24 -- apparently has assured the lottery teams of obtaining quality players.
For the first time in years, NBA general managers sound genuinely excited about the draft prospects, with an abundance of talent at the two forward positions and shooting guard, but a glaring shortage at center and point guard.
"I believe you can even get a good player if you're picking 15th in the first round," said Bullets general manager John Nash. "This is the year you wish you had an extra first-round pick."
Said Rob Babcock, the Denver Nuggets' director of scouting, "Last year, I felt that after the 13th or 14th pick, it was hard to find a legitimate first-round player. But, at the same time this year, I could come up with 30 to 35 guys who project as legitimate first-rounders."
But finding the right player to fill a specific need is another matter. Nash and Bullets coach Wes Unseld agree their top priority is finding an aggressive big man to complement Pervis Ellison, the centerpiece of the team's rebuilding plans.
By necessity, Ellison, 6-10, 225, filled the void at center last season. But having to give away 40 to 50 pounds to opponents wore him down. A shift to power forward would improve his effectiveness and prolong his career.
Along with everyone else, the Bullets would choose O'Neal if they are fortunate enough to secure the first lottery selection. They have seven of the 66 balls in the lottery hopper -- a 10.6 percent chance of getting the first pick.
Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning, a prototype NBA power forward coveted by Unseld, likely would be the Bullets' choice if they got the second pick.
"He plays aggressively, he's composed and he's physical," Portland scouting director Brad Greenberg said of Mourning. "With [Dikembe] Mutombo gone from Georgetown this season, Mourning had more room to operate, and he showed a lot of new things offensively. He's just a tremendous prospect."
If the Bullets obtain the third choice, it could stimulate debate in their draft room.
Christian Laettner, who led Duke to consecutive NCAA titles and was voted Player of the Year, is viewed as the third-best front-line player behind O'Neal and Mourning. But scouts argue whether the 6-11 center has the body and/or stamina to compete in 82 games against such physical players as Patrick Ewing, Olajuwon, Karl Malone and Rony Seikaly.
Laettner, however, has a strong defender in Charlotte Hornets personnel director Dave Twardzik, who said: "Christian is a tough guy with a tremendous will to win. He's very smart and tremendous fundamentally. He can beat you inside or outside."
If Nash's personal horseshoe fails to work its magic, the Bullets' selection could drop to fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth, negating their chances of drafting a strong frontline player. As an alternative, they might look to improve their lot at small forward, where Ledell Eackles has been an emergency replacement, or to shore up the backcourt.
If Nash holds to the "best player available" theory, Jackson, an all-purpose player with the ability to take over a game, and Miner, an explosive scorer, could prove too attractive to overlook.
Jackson is projected as high as third in the lottery, moving ahead of Laettner on the lists of teams needing a backcourt leader.
Guards such as Maryland's Walt Williams and Pepperdine's Doug Christie proved they could find ways to score in the college ranks, but have scouts guessing about where they might find a niche in the pros.
"I'm not sure where Williams will play in the NBA," said Greenberg. "but he's got real good guard skills, can pass the ball and sees the floor extremely well."
Possible lottery picks
Here is a list of 16 college basketball players who could become lottery choices in the 1992 NBA draft, June 24. The 11 eligible teams will draw for lottery positions this afternoon on NBC.
Player Pos. Hgt. College Comment
Doug Christie F 6-6 Pepperdine Can play guard or small forward, erratic shooter
Todd Day G 6-7 Arkansas A great athlete, but has off-court problems
LaPhonso Ellis F 6-8 Notre Dame Blossomed as a senior