Keith Van Horn may be versatile enough to play power forward and small forward for his NBA team, the New Jersey Nets, and some pro scouts even think that in a pinch he could be used as a shooting guard. But last week the 6'10", 232-pound Van Horn was a center—the center of countless conversations between general managers and coaches trying to get in position to draft him or trade for him. Van Horn was the subject of so many longdistance phone calls that Sprint and MCI ought to kick in a portion of his rookie salary.
Tim Duncan, a center from Wake Forest who was chosen No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs, was the best player available in the June 25 draft, but Van Horn, the sweet-shooting forward from Utah chosen right after him, was the most intriguing. After a scintillating round of predraft workouts convinced several clubs that he was even better than they had thought. Van Horn suddenly became a key figure in many teams' master plans (page 60). "It was evident on draft day that several teams were coveting his services," says New Jersey general manager John Nash. "If we hadn't gotten him, I don't know where he would have ended up, whether it would have been in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Denver or somewhere else."
After heated negotiating, the Nets acquired Van Horn from the Philadelphia 76ers, who had agreed to draft him with the second pick and then trade him to New Jersey with guard Lucious Harris and forwards Michael Cage and Don MacLean for guard Jimmy Jackson, center Eric Montross and the rights to two draftees, forwards Tim Thomas of Villanova (picked No. 7) and Anthony Parker of Bradley (No. 21).
Why the sudden interest in Van Horn, who before the draft often was lumped with about a half dozen other supposedly less-than-imposing lottery candidates and who was said to be lacking in physical strength and defensive ability? Among Van Horn's assets is his maturity: He played four years of college ball, and in a draft filled with underclassmen, he, other than Duncan (also a senior), was the closest thing to a polished player among the lottery possibilities. Even more important, though, was his predraft workout tour. Denver Nuggets general manager Allan Bristow says Van Horn's audition for the Nuggets was the most impressive he had seen since Larry Johnson's workout for the Charlotte Hornets, whom Bristow then coached, in 1991. During his stop in Denver, Van Horn impressed new Nuggets coach Bill Hanzlik with his low-post moves. In his audition for the Vancouver Grizzlies, he made 46 of 50 medium-range jump shots. After Van Horn's New Jersey workout, Nash and Nets coach John Calipari came away raving about his leaping ability. "He's pretty much the complete package," says Bristow. "He's a great shooter, and he has great strength going to the basket."
The only knock against Van Horn's offensive game is a slight one: He is an ordinary passer. "It's the main reason why the Larry Bird comparisons are inaccurate, as well as being premature," says his college coach, Rick Majerus, for whom Van Horn averaged 22.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game as a senior. "He's not a great passer, partly because we didn't ask him to do it very much at Utah. Keith can't pass the way Bird did, but I don't know if Bird could run the floor the way Keith does. The main thing is that Keith is so versatile. If you put a big guy on him, he's going to go outside and knock down the shot. If you put a small guy on him, he's going to take him into the low post and abuse him."
Van Horn made 40.1% of his three-point attempts during his collegiate career, and he will be a threat even from the NBAs deeper three-point are (which, the league announced last week, will move back from 22 feet at the top of the key to 23'9" for the 1997-98 season). Although he is not exceptionally quick, Van Horn does have a quick first step, which most NBA talent evaluators believe will get him to the foul line often. When he gets there, he will score. Van Horn is a superb free throw shooter: His '96-97 percentage at Utah was 90.4%, second in the nation.
On defense Van Horn isn't nearly as accomplished. "Because of his ranginess he'll always be adequate," Bristow says. Van Horn might agree with that assessment. "A lot of people ask, 'How does he guard a [6'7"] Scottie Pippen or a [6'8"] Grant Hill?' " Van Horn says, referring, respectively, to the Chicago Bulls' and the Detroit Pistons' slashing small forwards. "I don't know [anyone] who does guard those two. You look at the rest of the league, though, and you see [the Indiana Pacers'] Derrick McKey, [the Seattle SuperSonics'] Detlef Schrempf, [the Minnesota Timber-wolves'] Tom Gugliotta," Van Horn continues, citing three players who, like him, are listed at 6'10". "The small forwards these days are very big, very versatile, and I fit that mold."
In the immediate future Van Horn may have to worry more about opposing power forwards than small forwards. Having traded Montross, New Jersey is without a starting center. Unless the Nets acquire one—a deal for the Washington Bullets' Gheorghe Muresan has been rumored—they plan to use current power forward Jayson Williams extensively at center, with Van Horn at power forward and Kendall Gill at small forward. Van Horn clearly doesn't have the bulk to battle some of the bruisers he will see at power forward, but if he finds himself out of his depth, New Jersey surely won't let him suffer there for long. The Nets made a major gamble in trading for him because they had to take on the contracts of Harris (six years and $12.8 million remaining), MacLean (four years, $13.5 million) and Cage (two years, $2.8 million) to complete the deal. Those contracts eat up precious salary-cap space, forcing the Nets to scuttle their plan to be a big player in next summer's potentially talent-laden free-agent market. If Van Horn turns out to be anything less than a star, the Nets will have made a blunder with long-term consequences.
But if they turn out to be wrong about Van Horn, they will at least have a great deal of company around the league, including Van Horn himself. "The team that drafts me gets a guy who understands pro sets and man-to-man defense," he said before the draft. "You won't have to spend practice time explaining to me how defense is played in this league because I've played that way for four years at Utah. I can play. I know I can play."