Depending on who is doing the talking, tonight's NBA draft is either the best in talent since the class of 1984 produced Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Sam Bowie, Sam Perkins, Otis Thorpe and Kevin Willis, or just a one-man show in Shaquille O'Neal, a 7-foot center from Louisiana State.
In the eyes of the scouts, O'Neal is the only guaranteed franchise player in a draft blessed with a surplus of promising shooting guards and small forwards, but devoid of proven point guards and short on power forwards.
"You can describe this draft in one word -- Shaquille," said Jim Brewer, director of player personnel for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota is expected to take Duke center Christian Laettner with the third pick after the Orlando Magic claims O'Neal and the Charlotte Hornets select Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning.
The Dallas Mavericks, who have been shopping their aging backcourt combination of Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman, appear certain to take Ohio State's all-purpose guard Jim Jackson, completing the four sure picks to begin the TNT telecast (7:30 p.m.) of the draft from Portland, Ore.
"There is no way of knowing what the order is going to be after the first four," said Knicks personnel director Ernie Grunfeld. "One team switches, and the whole draft changes."
Added Sacramento Kings general manager Jerry Reynolds, who has the seventh selection, "Once you get past the top five or six players, I think the teams making their choices are trying to fill a particular need, rather than taking the best athlete available."
The depth of this year's draft improved considerably when O'Neal, a junior, led an impressive bunch of underclassmen to turn professional. Jackson, Southern Cal junior guard Harold Miner and UCLA junior forward Tracy Murray also entered the draft.
Miner, whose scoring capabilities have prompted several scouts dub him a baby Jordan, is likely to be among the lottery selections (the first 11), and Murray is a certain first-round choice.
However, with the exception of O'Neal, all of the projected top picks come with question marks.
Mourning will have to make the shift from center to power forward and prove he can score effectively facing the basket.
Laettner has to convince the critics he can play a physical game and is not a reincarnation of former Duke teammate Danny Ferry, who has been a disappointment in the NBA. Jackson is considered a winner, but his speed and shooting touch have been criticized.
But everyone seems in agreement that O'Neal will bring some real magic to Orlando.
"He's an enormously attractive prospect," said Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West. "The thing I like most about Shaq is that he's got a great demeanor on the court. He's willing to learn and improve his game."
Some scouts say Mourning and Laettner have the drive and work habits to succeed as pros.
"There are few rookies who can come into the NBA and be successful right away," said Rob Babcock, scouting director for the Denver Nuggets. "But I believe Laettner and Mourning are exceptions to the rule."
Where: Memorial Coliseum, Portland, Ore.
When: Tonight, 7:30
Format: Two rounds. Each club will have five minutes to make a first-round selection. In the second round, each club will have three minutes.
Alan Goldstein's first round
Barring last-minute trades, here is how the first round of the 1992 NBA draft could unravel:
L Team. . . . . . . Player. . . . . Pos. . . Ht. . . . School
1. Orlando . . . . .Shaquille O'Neal . C. . . 7-1 . . . Louisiana State
2. Charlotte . . . .Alonzo Mourning. . C. . . 6-10. . . Georgetown
3. Minnesota . . . .Christian Laettner.F-C. . 6-11. . . Duke
4. Dallas. . . . . .Jim Jackson. . . . G. . . 6-4 1/2 . . . Ohio State
5. Denver. . . . . .LaPhonso Ellis . . F. . . 6-8 . . . Notre Dame
6. Washington. . . .Tom Gugliotta. . . F. . . 6-10. . . N.C. State
7. Sacramento. . . .Adam Keefe . . . . F-C. . 6-9 . . . Stanford
8. Milwaukee . . . .Harold Miner . . . G. . . 6-5 . . . Southern Cal
9. Philadelphia. . .Clarence Weatherspoon . . F 6-7 . . Southern
.. ... ... .. ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... .. ... .. Miss.
10. Atlanta. . . . .Walt Williams. . . G. . . 6-8 . . . Maryland
11. Houston. . . . .Malik Sealy. . . . F. . . 6-8 . . . St. John's
12. Miami. . . . . .Bryant Stith . . . G-F. . 6-5 . . . Virginia
13. Denver . . . . .Todd Day . . . . . G. . . 6-8 . . . Arkansas
.. ... ... .. ... ... ... ... ... ... .... ... . (from New Jersey)
14. Indiana. . . . .Robert Horry . . . F. . . 6-9 . . . Alabama
15. L.A. Lakers. . .Hubert Davis . . . G. . . 6-5 . . . North Carolina
16. L.A. Clippers. .Doug Christie. . . G. . . 6-6 . . . Pepperdine
17. Seattle. . . . .Tracy Murray . . . F. . . 6-8 . . . UCLA
18. San Antonio. . .Don MacLean. . . . F. . . 6-10. . . UCLA
19. Detroit. . . . .David Johnson. . . G-F. . 6-7 . . . Syracuse
20. New York . . . .Jon Barry. . . . . G. . . 6-5 . . . Georgia Tech
21. Boston . . . . .Elmore Spencer . . C. . . 7-0 . . . UNLV
22. Phoenix. . . . .Anthony Peeler . . G. . . 6-4 . . . Missouri
23. Utah . . . . . .Lee Mayberry . . . G. . . 6-2 . . . Arkansas
24. Golden State . .Randy Woods. . . . G. . . 6-0 . . . La Salle
25. L.A. Clippers. .Byron Houston. . . F. . . 6-6 . . . Okla. State
.. ... ... ... .... .... ... ... .... ... .. . .. . (from Cleveland)
26. Portland . . . .Litterial Green. . G. . . 6-1 . . . Georgia
27. Chicago. . . . .Terrell Lowery . . G. . . 6-3 . . . Loyola Marymount