Wally Szczerbiak and others boosted their NBA stock at the NCAAs
From mid-November to late February, a small army of NBA scouts accrue an ungodly number of frequent-flyer miles traversing the continent to eyeball the best college talent March, however, is the month when scouts see how many of those same players handle the crucible of the postseason. "The NCAA tournament shouldn't be a final yea or nay on a player, but it's definitely significant," one NBA team executive says. "It's a high-profile event, and a player has to perform well in pressure situations against quality teams."
This year's tournament certainly boosted the stock of Miami ( Ohio) senior Wally Szczerbiak, who may have cemented himself as a Top 5 pick by leading the Redbirds into the Sweet 16. "They took away his shots in the Utah game [in the second round], and he still found ways to make everyone on the floor more effective," one scout says. "I think people were concerned about how he would react in that kind of situation."
Several scouts also raved about Michigan State junior point guard Mateen Cleaves ("He just keeps proving he's a winner") and Duke senior off-guard Trajan Langdon. ("He has some limitations, but he's more athletic than people think") The reviews weren't so kind for Arizona senior point guard Jason Terry, who had just three assists and 15 points (on 4 of 17 shooting) in the Wildcats' first-round loss to Oklahoma. One team executive who watched that game from courtside moved Terry down seven spots on his draft list. "He couldn't make a shot, and he didn't do anything else to help Ms team win," the exec says. "Can I have my point guard doing that?"
The analysis was less conclusive about Ohio State junior guard Scoonie Penn. One evaluated lauded Perm's heart in leading the Buckeyes to the Final Four, while another said Penn "could be fool's gold."
History reveals the dangers of overemphasizing the postseason. Jack Givens's efforts in leading Kentucky to the 1978 NCAA championship prompted the Atlanta Hawks to select him with the 16th pick that spring. Givens was out of the league after two years. Conversely, former Arizona point guard Michael Dickerson, who fell to No. 14 in last year's draft because of his consistently poor shooting in the NCAA tournament, has been one of the NBA's most productive rookies this season, averaging a little over 10 points per game in a starting role for the Houston Rockets. " Dickerson got ripped for not coming through in the tournament, and now look at him," says Dave Babcock, director of scouting for the Milwaukee Bucks. "When you're scouting a player, you have to be careful not to let one thing dominate your decision."
High Schooler Betters Jordan
Jonathan Bender, a 6'11" senior center at Picayune (Miss.) High, was sitting in a hotel lounge in Ames, Iowa, on the night of March 20, a few hours after he arrived for the McDonald's All-American game to be played four days later. Bender began confessing to his fellow high school All-Americas that his gut was already churning because he was so nervous about the game. "Don't worry? said Casey Sanders, a 6'11" center from Tampa. "It's only on national television, with millions of people watching." The room broke up as Bender clutched his stomach and doubled over.
That was Bender's last uncomfortable moment of the week. During the slam-dunk contest two days later, he turned in the jaw dropper of the competition when he took off from the foul line and jammed. He dominated the next night's scrimmage with an inside-outside game that evoked constant comparisons to Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett. And in the all-star game last Wednesday night, Bender capped off his week by scoring 31 points—on national television, with millions of people watching—to break Michael Jordan's 18-year-old McDonald's scoring record by one point Bender shot 11 for 19 (2 for 3 from three-point range) and finished with 10 rebounds and three blocks. "That was the biggest experience of my life," Bender says of breaking Jordan's record. "I never thought I'd do anything like that."
Bender also scored plenty of points with the dozens of NBA scouts in attendance. "He's much better than any of the high school guys who came out last year," said one. "I'm sure someone will take him in the lottery if he comes out." Bender will probably enter the draft if he is guaranteed to be a top 10 pick. ("You'd be a dummy not to, right?" he says.) But with the May 16 deadline to enter the draft fast approaching and the jury still out on whether in fact he would go that high, Bender is telling anyone who asks that he still intends to follow through on his commitment to attend Mississippi State next fall.