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Heels have their feet in the door

CHICAGO -- The sales pitch sounded superfluous, like marketing Los Angeles nightlife to Paris Hilton. Sounding like an agent, Sean May repeatedly extolled the virtues of University of North Carolina teammate Marvin Williams. To hear May tell it, the NBA potential of Williams, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, is limitless. He can handle the ball. He can defend both forward positions. He can rebound. He can shoot with range. While Williams sat nearby at a recent gathering of prospective lottery picks and demurred when told of favorable comparisons to Kevin Garnett, May continued. Athleticism and humility to spare. Quick learner. Strong work ethic.

''If it's based on pure talent, Marvin is the first pick," said May. ''He's scary. I'm telling you, the kid is good. If you want immediate impact and you're Milwaukee [which holds the No. 1 pick], then you probably go with [Utah center] Andrew [Bogut] because you know he can come in and play right away. Marvin may take a little bit more time, but in the end, I think he will have an unbelievable career. He will be a six- or seven-time All-Star."

Upon hearing May champion him for the top pick, Williams laughed and said, ''If he can get that done, he'll get a bonus. Definitely."

Not that May will need the money, as many expect the Final Four MVP to be a top-20 selection. Former North Carolina guards and fellow early-entry candidates Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants will join May and Williams in the green room for the NBA Draft Tuesday night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. With four likely first-rounders, national champion UNC should equal a draft feat only accomplished by rival Duke in 1999 when Elton Brand (No. 1 overall), Trajan Langdon (No. 11), Corey Maggette (No. 13), and William Avery (No. 14) all went early after finishing as runners-up to Connecticut in the NCAA final.

No other university can boast four first-round picks in a single draft. If UNC were to join Duke draft night, it would stand as a testament to the depth of both programs, as well as the value of learning fundamentals from a well-respected coach and the positive carryover from reaching the national championship game. But with the 2005 national championship squad dismantled and UNC well represented in the draft by six players, including senior prospects Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel, success at the college level inevitably results in some bittersweet irony. Felton, May, McCants, and Marvin Williams now represent the future of the NBA, leaving those who bleed Carolina blue to wonder ''what if?" Yet, without the Carolina pedigree and national championship, it might be the other way around, with the players wondering ''what if?" All four early-entry candidates know they benefited from the exposure at UNC and making an NCAA title run.

''[Playing for UNC] is kind of like blessing yourself," said Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh, who competed for Frank McGuire and Dean Smith at North Carolina. ''If you can play, then it's really good."

While a national championship brought closure to their respective college careers, Felton, McCants, and Marvin Williams believed they were ready for the NBA before winning the title. When May decided to leave after averaging a double-double his junior year, UNC coach Roy Williams was surprised. But handling a pressure-filled run through the NCAA Tournament, not to mention the rigorous Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, and finishing the season with a 33-4 record, convinced all four it was time for the next level. They figured competing on the biggest stage in college basketball was the best preparation for the biggest stage in all of basketball. Or, as Roy Williams acknowledged with regard to May, his ''stock will not be any higher." The same could be said for the rest of the Carolina four.

''Nowadays, the draft is based so much on potential and whether or not you can play the game, how high you jump, your athletic ability," said May. ''But a lot of these guys are seeing the Bulls and their success this year because they went and got guys who come from programs who know how to win and know how to play the game. I know for me it will all pan out in the end because the guys who know how to play the game, understand how to play the game, last in this league a long time."

May inherits historical perspective and basketball ability from his father, Scott, who won 1976 National Player of the Year honors as he led Indiana to an NCAA title. But no one exemplifies the appeal of potential better than Marvin Williams.

Can't-miss kid
During his senior season at Bremerton (Wash.) High School, scouts regarded Williams as a top-10 NBA pick. He had the requisite gaudy numbers (28.7 points, 15.5 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 blocks) and national recognition (McDonald's and Parade All-American) to jump from high school to the NBA. But he knew a year of college would be valuable on and off the court. In the end, the toughest decision was not college or the NBA, but which college.

Marvin Williams arrived in Chapel Hill, N.C., without any guarantees. He embraced the sixth-man role, backing up senior Jawad Williams and learning all he could from coach Roy Williams. In 37 games as a reserve, Marvin Williams averaged 11.3 points and finished second on the team with 6.6 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game, collecting the ACC Rookie of the Year award in the process. Those numbers increased to 12 points and 7.3 rebounds per game during the tournament. Marvin Williams may best be remembered for his tip-in with 1 minute 26 seconds remaining in the NCAA final against Illinois. The basket broke a 70-70 tie as the Tar Heels prevailed, 75-70.

Making the transition from UNC reserve to possible top overall pick says as much about Marvin Williams as it does about the current state of the NBA Draft process. According to scouts, Williams only reinforced initial impressions with his freshman year. Since he might serve as a rookie role player, executives view his willingness to come off the bench in college as a plus. Williams, however, worries some in the NBA might mistake it for a lack of competitiveness.

''Some guys might think I don't like to compete, and that's why I didn't start," said Williams. ''They might think I just accepted my role. But I definitely like to compete. I'll be ready for [starting or coming off the bench]. I developed and I had to deal with different situations [at UNC] and it will help me next year on the court. I grew up with the off-the-court experience and the on-the-court experience. I needed both of them."

When Marvin Williams visited Milwaukee for the first of his two predraft workouts (the other with Atlanta, which holds the No. 2 pick), general manager Larry Harris asked the 19-year-old about not starting and came away impressed with his answer. Williams told Harris he recognized he wasn't ready, that he still had a lot to learn. Harris saw that as a sign Williams understood the big picture, that he had the patience to fulfill his potential. But, ultimately, the Bucks, an organization in flux after firing coach Terry Porter Wednesday, will select the player who best fits their needs, and that appears to be Bogut. Regardless, Harris joked unofficial agent May should still angle for ''just a little cut," certain Williams is destined for a big career.

''Both [Bogut and Williams] are very similar," said Harris. ''Both have established themselves this year. Both have upside. Both can come into the NBA and start for whatever team they are picked by and have great NBA careers. The way we're going to look at it is, what is the best fit for us as we try to put our team together in free agency and move forward?"

Battling perceptions
While the UNC pedigree seems to automatically improve draft status, McCants knows a different reality. The enigmatic shooting guard continues to slide to the bottom half of the first round as questions about his personality, not talent, surface. McCants averaged 17 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, shooting 50 percent (15 for 30) from 3-point range. But while making big shot after big shot during his college career, he often appeared moody, uninspired, and indifferent, according to critics. The shine of a national title did little to erase memories of his unpredictability.

''I still feel people perceive me the same as they did before we won," said McCants. ''People still think I'm unapproachable and I'm not a team player, but we won and I'm trying to prove all the doubters wrong. But apparently my stock is still falling because of those same things. Most definitely I feel like I need a clean start. With college for three years, there's been a lot of ups and downs. Coming into a new level of basketball, a new start will be good for me. If people do decide to embrace me, that would be great."

In some ways, McCants has distanced himself from UNC, from the conflicts with former coach Matt Doherty that marked his freshman year, to the shaky start under Roy Williams, to the disappointment of being cut from the United States junior national team after leading the ACC in scoring (20 points per game) as a sophomore. He now smiles easily and talks excitedly about the future. He sounds awed recounting an early June meeting with Larry Bird.

''His presence alone is breathtaking," said McCants. ''I just can't explain it. Just shaking his hand and knowing that Larry Bird likes me as a player makes me want to be successful even more."

That glimmer of excitement and passion for improvement might ease the concerns of some NBA executives. McCants believes the better people know him, the easier it will be to see his desire and competitiveness. As proof, he talks about how he developed his dangerous offensive game playing against older competition as a teenager in Asheville, N.C. He mentions the ''discipline and determination" it took to survive a year at New Hampton Prep in New Hampshire when all he had was basketball. Unlike Marvin Williams, McCants must make his own sales pitch.

''I have a lot of individual goals, but my first goal is just to fit in and be patient with the transition to the NBA," said McCants. ''Whatever you want me to do, I'm Mr. Fix-It. I can do anything you want me to do. I can shoot, pass, dribble, play defense, rebounds, all those things. Sit on the bench, cheer, anything."

Whatever it takes
But former teammate Felton can make a more legitimate claim to doing anything and everything for UNC as the first Tar Heel to record 1,000 points, 600 assists, 300 rebounds, 150 steals, and 100 3-pointers in a career. The speedy point guard averaged 13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists during the tournament, while proving to be a strong playmaker and ballhandler. That skill set should make him a top-10 pick. In true, team-oriented UNC form, Felton sounds a lot like McCants when discussing what he brings to the NBA.

''I'm a guy who just loves to win, who has a passion to win," said Felton. ''I'm a guy who'll do anything or whatever it takes to win, no matter if it's me having 2 points and 12 or 15 assists, or me scoring 25, 30 points. If I have to score, if I have to pass, if I have to rebound, if that means me guarding the toughest offensive guy on the other team, whatever it takes, that's the kind of player I am. I'm a guy who strives to make everybody better when I'm on the court."

For what it's worth, Marvin Williams could not agree more. Williams rates Felton the best point guard he ever played with, listing his speed and passing as unmatched. And Felton could not say enough about the post play of May and scoring ability of McCants. Forget bonuses. Consider the compliments the best kind of payback, Carolina style.

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