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Spotting the talent

A few things you might not know about the players on the radar screen


You know it's a lean year for big men when you can't make a open-and-shut case for the No. 1 available center even going in the top 10 picks. Or maybe even in the 14-pick lottery.

But that certainly looks to be the case as the draft approaches. Things change in a heartbeat as the draft gets closer and talent spotters tend to see more beauty spots than warts. Thus, one or two big men might emerge in the later stages of the lottery, but none is making a case to be among the top seven or eight picks. That tells you all you need to know about the readiness of this year's center crop.

That's not to suggest that three years from now we won't be looking back and saying something quite different. Like, ``Danny Ainge is a genius for really having Robert Swift pegged from Day One.'' But it does say that there's no big man out there with words ``Immediate Impact Player'' in his dossier. In other words, not one of them is as good as Mark Blount. In addition, a couple of possible first-rounders from overseas withdrew their names by last Thursday's deadline.

Here's a brief look at five of the top center prospects. All should be first-rounders.

1. Pavel Podkolzine, 7-5, 260, 19 years old. This guy is a beast. He withdrew from last year's draft, but should be in the NBA next year. It's hard to make a case for the guy other than his girth. This past season, he averaged 2.6 points a game for his Italian team (Varese) and 4.1 in various cup league games. Also has a thyroid condition, which conjures up images of Gheorghe Muresan. But that apparently is under control for now.

2. Robert Swift, 7-0, 245, Bakersfield, Calif., HS, 18 years old. Ainge has had his eye on this guy for some time and folks around the league insist the Celtics have promised to take him. Why else would the kid not work out with anyone? But the unknown is where? Do the Celtics take Swift at No. 15? It looks as if they might have to if they want him, because No. 24 might be too late. Swift's strengths are his shot-blocking and rebounding. But he also went to three different high schools in Bakersfield (two last season) and his eligibility was briefly revoked.

3. Rafael Araujo, 6-11, 290, Brigham Young, Sr. Brazilian by birth, Araujo has improved tremendously since coming to the United States in 2000 to attend Arizona Western. He was on the Brazilian team that played in the 2002 Worlds in Indianapolis, but was not with the team last summer in San Juan when it failed to qualify for the Olympics. Araujo put up decent numbers at BYU (18.4 points per game, 10 rebounds per game) and will turn 24 in August. He was the co-player of the year in the Mountain West Conference, the same conference that produced Marcus Banks.

4. Peter John Ramos, 7-3, 275, Puerto Rico, 19 years old. A late bloomer who has been playing professionally in Puerto Rico since he was 14. His story (being discovered at a Big & Tall store in New York) is the hoop equivalent of Lana Turner getting discovered at Schwab's drugstore. Burst onto everyone's screen this season by averaging 20.5 points and 9-plus rebounds for Criollos de Caguas. Should see action for the motherland this summer in Athens.

5. Ha Seung Jin, 7-3, 305, South Korea, 18 years old. Someone's going to take this leviathan, making him the first Korean to play in the NBA. The question is where? He is more than just your basic cultural risk; he didn't play competitive basketball last season. Instead, he packed his bags, moved to LA, and worked out in preparation for this year's draft. Ainge likes him. The kid does have size and, by all accounts, some quickness. But he will be your basic wait-and-see project, which, come to think of it, is what most guys are these days. And most guys aren't 7-3.

Power forwards

This is a draft that will feature the power forward. One of them appears to be the top overall selection - though we're still not sure which one - and the other could go No. 2. Two others look to have ``likely lottery pick'' affixed to their documentation.

Two of the top five candidates are heading to the NBA without benefit of college. Another would be the first NBA player from that hoop hotbed known as Latvia. But the front-runner is still UConn's Emeka Okafor, who looks to be an Alonzo Mourning-in-waiting. The only downside with Okafor is the back issue; can you afford to take a chance on a player with a bum back?

The other notable "4-man'' is high schooler Dwight Howard, who has been considered a possible No. 1 overall pick for months. But, in much the same way as the center class was affected by late withdrawls, so, too, was this group.

Here's a brief look at the top power forward prospects. All should be first rounders.

1. Emeka Okafor, 6-10, 252, UConn, junior. He's about as can't-miss as you can find in the draft. Led the Huskies to the national title and was a factor at both ends. NBA teams will love his tenacity and his defensive mind-set, which translates into an intimidating presence in the paint. Okafor averaged 17.6 points a game and shot 60 percent for UConn. He also hauled in 11.5 rebounds and blocked 4.1 shots a game. He is smart, works hard, and is, along with Jameer Nelson, the reigning college player of the year. What's not to like?

2. Dwight Howard, 6-11, 240, Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, 18 years old. Pretty much the top high school player in the country from the NBA's point of view. But is he another Kwame Brown? You won't find one scout to compare him to LeBron James in terms of making an immediate impact. Howard put up staggering numbers in high school (25 ppg, 18 rebounds, 8 blocks) but that was against high school competition. He has expressed a desire to play for his hometown Hawks. When's the last time you heard anyone say that?

3. Andris Biedrins, 6-11, 240, Latvia, 18 years old. At last, an international player with numbers. Biedrins averaged 18 points a game for his league team and was even more dominant in the 2004 European Under-18 championships, when he averaged 21.8 points and 14.4 rebounds. He has size, wingspan, and quickness. He also isn't averse to playing inside, which is where 6-11 guys belong. Biedrins tried to transfer to a school in Washington this past year, but ended up staying in Latvia because of eligibility concerns. It didn't seem to hurt his draft status.

4. Al Jefferson, 6-10, 265, Prentiss, Miss., HS, 19 years old. Pretty tough to ignore a guy who averaged 42 points a game in high school. An Arkansas recruit, he won't be seeing Fayetteville any time soon. He appears to be blessed with an NBA body (duh!) and got all the usual high school honors, not to mention the coveted Mr. Basketball in Mississippi. (One would hope so.) He also is said to enjoy the give-and-take that comes with interior play, which is a very good sign, and is strong and ornery. He may not be as celebrated as Howard, but he could end up just as good or better.

5. Kris Humphries, 6-9, 235, Minnesota, freshman. Averaged 21.7 points at the U, as it's known throughout the state, and decided to head straight to the NBA. Was Big Ten freshman of the year and was the first freshman to lead the conference in scoring and rebounding (10 per game). Humphries may eventually wind up playing more small forward, but that depends on where he goes. He toyed with the idea of coming out last year and also decided against attending Duke. He got minutes and mileage at Minnesota.

Small forwards

These days, this position is almost interchangeable with that of shooting guard. What's Paul Pierce? He came right out of the Shooting Forward Factory, yet, in the NBA, he's listed as a guard.

All we know is that there are perhaps a dozen fellows who fall into either category who might get a call in the first round. And some of them will end up playing ``big guard'' as opposed to ``small forward.''

The list of small forwards includes another Dookie who's leaving Durham well before his time. Geez, since Elton Brand opened the floodgates in 1999, the idea of an NBA-ready, four-year player at Duke is about as likely as a Cincinnati player earning a degree. (Shane Battier being the latest - and maybe last - exception.) There's also a couple of high school studs; what else is new?

Here's a brief look at five of the top small forward prospects.

1. Luol Deng, 6-8, 220, Duke, freshman. He went back and forth, but the prospect of going no worse than No. 5 overall apparently was enough to make him leave Coach K. Deng is Sudanese, but also spent time in Egypt and England before moving to New Jersey, where Coach K got him after a stint at Blair Academy. Averaged 15.1 points for Duke this past season, tops among ACC freshmen. Hoops runs in his family. He has an older brother who plays professionally in England and two other siblings who play or have played collegiately in the colonies.

2. Josh Childress, 6-8, 210, Stanford, junior. Childress is the latest in a long line of Stanford pros-to-be, ranging from Adam Keefe to Casey Jacobsen to Mark Madsen. But this guy has something no one else at Stanford ever had - a Pac-10 Player of the Year trophy. He also made 48.8 percent of his shots, which is worthy of Springfield these days. He has been mentioned as high as No. 4. If he doesn't go then, he won't be around much longer.

3. Josh Smith, 6-9, 210, Oak Hill Academy, 18 years old. He's the best available Smith in the draft; there are two others, both possible first-rounders. Josh is arguably the most mind- boggling athlete in the draft. That quality alone will have some team lust after him. He also can, as they say these days, score the ball. At the Oak Hill Basketball Finishing School, alma mater of the likes of Jerry Stackhouse and Ron Mercer, he set a season record. A lefty who can jump out of the gym, Smith also needs a little work - and encouragement - at the other end. Who doesn't at his age?

4. Sergey Monia, 6-8, 220, CSKA Moscow, 21 years old. You don't hear any negatives about this kid, which may explain why a lot of teams like him. He is strong, tough, athletic for European-type players, and can defend. He didn't put up a lot of eye-popping numbers last season (7.7 ppg) but that can be the norm for powerhouse teams like CSKA. Monia was a teammate of Victor Khryapa, a possible first-rounder. Andrei Kirilenko also played for CSKA prior to coming to Utah. Monia has a buyout clause predicated on where he's picked, so look for him in an NBA city next season.

5. Viktor Khryapa, 6-9, 210, CSKA Moscow. Khryapa, who turns 22 in August, is draft eligible this season, so someone is going to take him. He pulled out of last year's draft after having several teams (including the Celtics) work him out. Khryapa was one of the mainstays on the terrific CSKA team, along with Sergey Monia, and has been playing professionally in Russia for the last four years. He has been compared to Andrei Kirilenko because of his body size and quickness.

Shooting guards

This is a very interesting collection. You have what may be the first college senior - senior! - taken in the draft in this group - Oregon's Luke Jackson. You have the obligatory high schooler (J.R. Smith) and you have the fast-rising Andre Iguodala of Arizona, who played at the same Illinois high school as former Celtics wingman Kevin Gamble.

The names here may not be as well known to the vox populi as those in the power forward or even the point guard groups. But the people who've been following this class since last fall know who's who, and you could easily have a couple of lottery selections among the top five candidates.

These guys may not be immediate starters or quickie difference makers, but a few of them could be NBA fixtures for years to come.

Here's a brief look at the top five shooting guard prospects.

1. Andre Iguodala, 6-6, 207, Arizona, sophomore. He finished up his second season at Arizona with credible numbers (12.9 points, 8.5 rebounds) and decided it was time to move to the big time. Scouts are fascinated by this kid's upside, seeing as how his offensive game apparently is still rudimentary. But they love his athleticism, his passing ability (almost 5 assists per game), and his well-rounded game. He is the only player in the history of Arizona hoops to lead the team in rebounds, assists, and steals. Chances are some team is going to be very happy to call his name on draft night.

2. Luke Jackson, 6-7, 215, Oregon, senior. Yes indeed, sports fans, we have that increasingly rare species - a college senior with pretty good credentials. He's also the second straight Luke to come out of Oregon with lottery possibilities. (Luke Ridnour went 14th to Seattle last year.) Jackson led Oregon in scoring, rebounds, and assists last season and joins Sean Elliott as one of two Pac-10 players to finish with 1,900 points, 700 rebounds, and 400 assists. One report says Larry Bird likes this guy so much he wants to trade up to get him. That should be enough.

3. Kirk Snyder, 6-6, 225, Nevada, junior. One of the mainstays of the Nevada team that had a surprising run in last spring's NCAA Tournament. He played both guard positions and played them well enough to be named the player of the year in the Western Athletic Conference. He's got excellent size for the position and had some of his bigger scoring games against quality opponents like Kansas and Connecticut. While he may not have been a household name outside Reno for much of last year, he is well known and well regarded at the most opportune time.

4. J.R. Smith, 6-6, 220, St. Benedict's (N.J.) Prep, 18 years old. Probably the second-best Smith in the draft (after Josh), who is spurning the offerings of North Carolina to turn pro. His first name is Earl; so, too, is his father's. Hence, J.R. J.R. Smith and Dwight Howard were co-MVPs of the McDonald's All-Star Game in Oklahoma City. Smith had 25 points in the celebrity outing, a week after scoring 16 points in the EA Roundball Classic in Chicago. He spent a fifth year in high school at St. Benedict's, where he played for former Seton Hall star Danny Hurley.

5. Dorell Wright, 6-7, 210, South Kent (Conn.) Prep, 18 years old. No wonder Danny Ainge likes this kid - he also played baseball well enough in high school to get scouted by several major league teams. Wright was universally recognized as one of the best high school hoopsters in the country. A DePaul commitment vanished once the acclaim (and likely first-round guarantee) came his way. He just finished a fifth year of high school after playing four years in California. Is said to have great athleticism along with the other, necessary basketball skills.

Point guards

This is the glamour position of the 2004 NBA Draft. The names are familiar. The talent is there, so much so that as many as four point guards could be taken in the lottery.

Two of the top five are high schoolers, making them trail blazers of sorts. In years before, most of the high school players selected in the lottery were either big men or swingmen. But Shaun Livingston and Sebastian Telfair are about to change that with Livingston drawing raves everywhere.

You also have in this group one of the more intriguing players in Jameer Nelson. He could well be the first senior taken after a brilliant career at Saint Joseph's. But NBA teams are wary of his height, which is why a couple of taller point guards with less on their respective resumes will go ahead of Nelson. Size still matters, even at the smallest of positions.

Here's a brief look at five of the top point guard prospects.

1. Shaun Livingston, 6-7, 175, Peoria Central (Ill.) HS, 18 years old. There was a lot of talk that Livingston might pass Dwight Howard and be the first high schooler taken in the draft. Chances are he won't get past the point-guard needy Clippers at No. 4. He originally committed to Duke and was still toying with being a Blue Devil as late as the spring. No chance now. Everyone is in love with this kid. He sees the court extremely well, he's an excellent passer, and he has Scottie Pippen-like arms to help him on defense. The consensus is that he could be a real keeper.

2. Devin Harris, 6-3, 185, Wisconsin, junior. Harris is the Big Ten Player of the Year and broke Michael Finley's school season scoring record this past year for the Badgers. He can play both guard positions, but is generally seen as a point guard in the NBA. Harris averaged 19.5 points for Wisconsin while leading the conference in scoring and establishing a school record for minutes in a season. He started every game he played for Wisconsin, 96 straight in all. He basically came out of nowhere last season to become a lottery pick.

3. Ben Gordon, 6-3, 200, UConn, junior. This guy is rising in the draft because of some dynamite workouts. But, like Harris, the question for the ex-Husky is whether he's really a point guard or just a guard, period. He averaged a team-high 18.5 points and has the ability and talent to become a big-time scorer. He averaged 21.2 points in the NCAA Tournament. Played his high school basketball in Mount Vernon, N.Y., which is where the Williams brothers (Gus and Ray) honed their craft. Gordon could be right there with them when it's all said and done.

4. Jameer Nelson, 6-0, 190, Saint Joseph's, senior. He was the top college player in the land last season for the Hawks, leading them to an undefeated regular season. But there are questions concerning his size as to NBA readiness. Nelson backers spout two words: Tim Hardaway. And Nelson is getting sick and tired of all the small talk. He's quick, he's tough, and he's fearless. Those qualities alone, along with his scoring ability and leadership, should make him a no-brainer. Someone's going to call his name in the first round. The only question is who and when?

5. Sebastian Telfair, 6-0, 165, Abraham Lincoln (NYC) HS, 19 years old. Probably the most publicized of the high school guys, because of his New York affiliation. (He passed Kenny Anderson as the state's all-time scoring king.) Telfair was a Sports Illustrated cover boy and reportedly already has a shoe deal in hand worth millions. That's not bad considering he may not go until the 20s. He not only is small, he needs to make the weight room a priority. But his cousin (Stephon Marbury) was also similarly structured in high school and look what happened to him. 

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