More in NBA draft than meets eye Close look reveals plenty of 'projects'

June 24, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It's a draft that Denver Nuggets general manager Dan Issel describes as not having "an immediate-impact player," a draft that Seattle SuperSonics general manager Wally Walker says is "not particularly star-heavy," a draft in which possibly the best player, Nigerian-born Michael Olowokandi, has been seen by few fans outside the Big West Conference.

So that, naturally, translates to a weak draft, right?


Unlike a year ago, when Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn had "can't miss" written all over them, there will be few instant superstars available when the NBA holds its annual draft in Vancouver, British Columbia, tonight. And yet, after sifting through all the underclassmen and high school stars, through the athletes carrying personal baggage and the European standouts, this draft will likely yield a good number of future NBA talents.

"This draft at one time looked rather bleak," said Boston Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. "But as is usually the case, the closer you get to [the draft], the more time you spend on it, the more guys we've seen, the more possibilities open up."

Unlike a year ago, when Duncan was the clear first choice after four years at Wake Forest, the main thing in focus tonight is the question of who will be the top two selections. When the Los Angeles Clippers make the first selection, the pick will be between point guard Michael Bibby of Arizona or Olowokandi, a 7-foot-1 center from the University of the Pacific who has played organized basketball for just three years.

Growing up as the son of a Nigerian diplomat in London, Olowokandi focused on track in high school. And yet because of his size, he was constantly asked whether he was a basketball player.

Eventually, Olowokandi decided to give the sport a try and, picking up an American college directory, blindly began to make calls to schools. The first school on his list was Pacific, whose coaches had immediate interest after hearing the caller was more than 7 feet tall.

In three years, Olowokandi went from a tall, clumsy project who had never played five-on-five basketball to All-America honorable mention his senior year, when he averaged 22.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks.

"Every year, we [NBA teams] are in search of a center," said Scott Layden, vice president of basketball operations for the Utah Jazz. "He's got great size, looks like he enjoys the game. He's young to the game, and that's intriguing, because it looks like he has some growth ahead of him.

Said Issel of Olowokandi: "He does have a lot of potential, but then again, potential gets a lot of coaches fired."

Here's the dilemma for the Clippers: pick a player considered to have a tremendous upside, Olowokandi, or take a more polished player, Bibby, considered the best point guard in the draft after ,, just two seasons at Arizona.

"Mike Bibby is the type of player who would come in and have an impact on a team," said Elgin Baylor, vice president of basketball operations for the Clippers. "He's a young point guard, but he really has a good feel for the game.

"If you look at all the guards in the draft, he's probably the purest point guard, and he'll only get better. He's already improved his shooting and his understanding of the game."

Should the Clippers pick Bibby, expect the Vancouver Grizzlies to take Olowokandi with the second pick -- and then trade him, because the team already has Bryant Reeves at center.

But from there, the draft becomes a blur. Will the Nuggets select Paul Pierce, the 6-7 swingman from Kansas, who has impressed teams with his ability to score inside and out?

And where will Antwan Jamison, the consensus college Player of the Year, be drafted? Once considered a possible top pick, Jamison could be selected anywhere from three to nine because of questions about what forward position the 6-9, 223-pounder will play in the NBA.

"Is he a small forward and is his outside shot good enough?" asked Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino. "Is he an inside player, and is he tall enough? So that's the big question. We all know he played in one of the best conferences in basketball, came out with incredible statistics and he's a competitor and plays hard all the time. Where his position is, I'm not sure."

There are four high school players entered in this year's draft, but it's likely that just two will be selected -- Al Harrington, a 6-8 forward from St. Patrick's High School (N.J.), considered the best of the prep players, and Rashard Lewis, a 6-10 center from Alief Elsik High School in Houston, whom NBA scouting guru Marty Blake says "needs a lot of work."

Not expected to be drafted in the first round -- which means a guaranteed three-year contract -- is Korleone Young, a 6-7 forward from Hargrave Military Academy (Va.), who did not impress scouts during the pre-draft camp.

With the draft expected to have a strong foreign influence, it's likely you'll need a pronunciation guide in the first round.

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