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Talent evaluation: You can't get a fix

Once upon a time, the NBA draft meant many things.

It meant a rite of passage for all those college seniors, many of whom, by virtue of stellar careers and network television, were household names. It meant that most of the high picks in the draft would be immediately projected as difference-makers, impact players, or regulars in the rotation. It meant they'd be able to go out and have a beer with the guys; Rick Carlisle was 25 when he was an NBA rookie.

Those days are gone, and they aren't coming back. When David Stern steps to the podium tomorrow night for the 2004 NBA Draft, many of the names he announces will be unknown or marginally known to NBA fans. The draft has gone from a Who's Who of the top collegians to a Who's Who of the top high schoolers, in addition to being a pronunciation nightmare.

In that way, the draft has become a pretty fair imitation of the NHL and baseball drafts. Teams are picking on potential, not results. Patience is the key.

"It is definitely harder to pick because you are projecting like baseball and hockey," said Portland general manager John Nash, who has held similar positions in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Washington. "But if you are accurate, you can get a player in the twenties who may, long-term, surpass the lottery choices. I think Al Harrington [25th overall in 1998] is an example of a guy taken late who became a top player. There will be more like him."

Additionally, a lot of the same teams are back in the lottery, year after year, which has to tell you something about the draft. Or the men who make the picks. The Clippers are regulars. The Warriors are as well. From the East, the Wizards have not made the playoffs since 1998. Since then, they've had four lottery picks: Richard Hamilton, Jared Jeffries, Kwame Brown, and Jarvis Hayes. They still stink.

"You look at the teams in the [lottery] the last few years and see if they've [built through the draft]," said Larry Bird, the Pacers' president of basketball operations. "They wouldn't be [in the lottery] every year if they could. They might pick up good players here and there, but that's it."

And with so many unknowns, and excepting the once-a-decade rarity like Tim Duncan or LeBron James, the draft has become No. 3 on most club builders' lists behind free agency and trades.

"It is," said Jerry Reynolds, the director of player personnel for the Sacramento Kings, "the least effective way to build a team these days. Free agency and trades are much better."

Agreed Nash, "I think each team will likely have one or two prospects in the pipeline, but free agency and trades are better avenues to address immediate needs."

That's primarily because a lot of the kids are simply not ready. They may be all right, but check back in a few years. Brown, the No. 1 overall selection in 2001, still is an unknown. So, too, are the Nos. 2 and 4 picks in that draft, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. And they've been in the league for three years.

"We sure could use an agreement with the Players Association, like baseball and hockey, that would allow us to place these youngsters in the D League for some coaching and game experience," Nash said.

A quick look at last year's draft suggests that six of the 29 first-round picks had a major impact on their teams: James (Cleveland), Carmelo Anthony (Denver), Chris Bosh (Toronto), Dwyane Wade (Miami), Kirk Hinrich (Chicago), and Josh Howard (Dallas). Some other rookies showed flashes; T.J. Ford (Milwaukee) was playing well until his spine injury. But most of the first-rounders, including half of the lottery picks, had a modest impact at best. A handful of second-rounders (Luke Walton of the Lakers among them) also had modest success.

Grades incomplete
It's easy and convenient to blame the influx of high school kids for making the draft so unpredictable and unreliable. And, this season, we're likely to see a record number of high school kids chosen in the first round. Eight high schoolers could well be first-round selections. That would equal the number from the last three drafts. Back in 1997, Wilt Chamberlain was asked about high school kids coming into the league and offered the following: "It's not so much that they're drafting them. It's that they're playing them."

The last two Rookies of the Year were high school-to-NBA players, Amare Stoudemire and James. But beyond them, there's a pretty significant dropoff in recent high school talent. Kendrick Perkins, Travis Outlaw, and Ndudi Ebi, the other high schoolers chosen in the first round last season, are still projects. Brown, Curry, Chandler, and DeSagana Diop from the Class of 2001 are in various stages of development. So, too, are the two high schoolers from 2000 (Darius Miles and DeShawn Stevenson) and the one left from 1999 (Jonathan Bender).

"You're just betting that maybe one of these guys will turn into the type of player you want, and it's a hell of a gamble for a lot of these teams," said Bird. "When you're banking on high school kids to build your team, it's tough. One mistake can cost you a first-round pick, especially in the top eight or 10. Foreign guys are a gamble, too, but one thing about them, they play 40, 50, 60 games a year. They practice twice a day. They're further along than the high school kids."

But they're also equal if involuntary conspirators in robbing the draft of the immediate impact nature it used to have. That's because there's a growing trend to draft these kids on potential, too. And hope that, maybe in a few years, they'll be ready.

"With so many of the foreign guys, you just don't know," said Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. "A lot of them don't play big minutes for their own team, and there could be a lot of reasons for that."

The value of Euros
The poster child in this category is Denver's Nikoloz Tskitishvili, who was the fifth overall selection in the 2002 draft. He went ahead of people like Stoudemire, Nene, Caron Butler, Kareem Rush, Tayshaun Prince, and Carlos Boozer. He has been in the NBA for two years and done nothing.

But here was his body of work heading into the draft: He averaged 12.7 minutes a game for Benetton Treviso. His season-highs were 14 points and 25 minutes. He was barely 19. Sounds like a perfect No. 5 overall pick.

However, the year before, Pau Gasol had been taken third overall by Atlanta, then traded to Memphis. Gasol, by comparison, had averaged a lusty 10.9 points a game for his Spanish club team. He played 24 minutes a game. He ended up being the NBA's Rookie of the Year, fueling teams' infatuation with European players to the point where a record eight went in the first round last year.

For years, the rule of thumb for most foreign players was to draft them ahead of schedule and let them continue to play overseas. Usually, they went late in the first round or in the second round, although that, too, is changing. Toni Kukoc, a second-round pick, played two years in Italy before joining the Bulls. Peja Stojakovic, a mid first-rounder, did the same before joining the Kings. The Spurs waited three years before Manu Ginobili, a late second-round pick, came to San Antonio.

In 2002, however, five of the six foreign players selected in the first round ended up on NBA rosters. Last year, seven of the eight did. If they can arrange buyouts, the guaranteed money (three years' worth at the minimum) is too much to pass up. Darko Milicic went from earning around $20,000 in Serbia and Montenegro to earning more than $3 million sitting on the Pistons bench this past season. He's supposed to be pretty good, but you couldn't tell by any of his public appearances.

This year's list of top foreigners includes Russian center Pavel Podkolzine, who averaged 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds a game. He could be a lottery pick because he's 7 feet 5 inches. Sergei Monia, a Russian forward, probably won't get past the Celtics at No. 15. By all accounts, he is NBA-ready, even though he averaged under 8 points a game. Andris Biedrins, 6-11, is also high on everyone's list. He put up decent numbers -- in Latvia.

Meanwhile, the real question each year is which college senior will be the first selected? The top choices this year are St. Joseph's Jameer Nelson and Oregon's Luke Jackson. The Nets' Kenyon Martin was the last senior to be the No. 1 overall pick (2000). Judging by the way the draft is going, he will very soon be the answer to a trivia question. 

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