In a draft rich in raw players with potential, few teams are likely to find a quick fix
If you thought this past season's rookie class was unproductive—apart from Mike Miller of the Magic and a few others—wait until you see what the 2001-02 class contributes next season. This year's No. 1 pick is probably going to be an unaccomplished player such as 18-year-old Kwame Brown of Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga., or Seton Hall freshman Eddie Griffin. In any case, it's going to take years before most of the first-round picks pay dividends.
That's why the Hawks, who had the league's fifth-worst record but got lucky in Sunday's lottery and drew the third pick in the June 27 draft, are willing to consider trading their first-round spot for a veteran who can help them now. Atlanta is already loaded with young talent, including 21-year-old guard DerMarr Johnson, its 2000 first-round pick, who spent his rookie year learning from the bench.
In theory, this is the perfect year to make a deal. Several teams will be looking to unload a big salary to avoid having to pony up in the first season of the luxury tax, and they might have to package quality veterans to such teams as the Hawks, the Clippers (who have the No. 2 pick) and the Bulls (No. 4) for draft choices that will bring inexpensive rookies in return. "We've got unbelievable flexibility," said Clippers coach Alvin Gentry after his team improved six spots in the lottery. "Teams will want to trade up, and we've got a lot of cap room."
A record 75 players (including 17 foreigners) applied for early entry, turning this into a highly unpredictable draft. Because only 58 players can be chosen, perhaps 30 of the early entries will withdraw by the June 20 deadline. Even then, NBA scouts will be guessing on players who won't mature for years. "If you're picking at number 10, you may be able to get the same kind of player you can get at number 2," admits Gentry.
Adding to the uncertainty of the draft is the fact that the Wizards won the No. 1 choice. Much of their draft strategy will depend on whether Michael Jordan comes back to play next season. As the team's president Jordan's first instinct might be to select a player like Brown, an aggressive power forward with loads of potential. Jordan the player, however, might have different priorities. There is already widespread speculation that he may surround himself with such veteran free agents as Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. If Jordan thinks he has a chance to win a championship in the next year or two, will he package the No. 1 pick for an established player who he believes could put Washington over the top?
For now, the questions in this year's draft easily outnumber the answers. Teams have so little information on the six early-entry high school players—Brown, Tyson Chandler, Ousmane Cisse, Eddy Curry, DeSagana Diop and Tony Key, who are all at least 6'9"—that meaningful assessments of them won't be formed until they've been put through private workouts. Clearly, though, the days when teams could get an immediate and sizable lift from the draft are probably over. The NBA draft is now a futures market Says one G.M., "If you're looking at a senior who's 6'7" and can shoot, and a freshman who's 6'7" and can shoot, the senior needs to be at least 20 percent better. Otherwise, you've got to invest in the player with potential."
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The Next Big European Import
Given the shortage of draft choices who are ready to play, every NBA team would like to find its own version of Marc Jackson, the 25-year-old Warriors center who played for three years in Turkey and Spain before returning home to average 13.2 points and 5.0 rebounds a game this season and finish third in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
The search for "the next Marc Jackson" has led scouts to 26-year-old center Nate Huffman, who was named player of the year in Europe while leading Maccabi- Tel Aviv to the SuproLeague championship. The 7-foot Huffman has come a long way since 1997, when he went undrafted after leaving Central Michigan as a skinny 220-pound center. Following a couple of unspectacular seasons in the CBA and in the Spanish League, he was discovered by Maccabi assistant coach David Blatt, a Princeton graduate who was intrigued by Huffman's potential. In the past two years Huffman has added 35 pounds to his frame and refined an array of low-post moves to become one of Europe's dominant centers, averaging 17.9 points and 9.2 rebounds (in 40-minute games) over that span.