The draft's most intriguing mystery involves Pau Gasol of Spain, who might be a high lottery pick—or might not be taken at all. As an early-entry candidate Gasol, 20, can withdraw his name by June 20. He will do so unless he receives assurances from at least one team that he will be chosen among the top six.
Gasol is a 7-foot, 227-pound forward who runs like a shooting guard and plays like a budding Toni Kukoc. His contract with F.C. Barcelona has a buyout clause of $2.5 million, though under NBA rules a team may contribute only $350,000 to help exercise it. Gasol is willing to pay the rest provided he is drafted in the top six, which would ensure him of a three-year contract worth $6 million. Otherwise he will return to Barcelona for one more season, then exercise an escape clause that permits him to leave for free. "Next year it's a slam dunk that he's going to be a top five player," says Gasol's agent, Herb Rudoy, who also represents Kukoc.
None of the teams holding the top six picks seems likely to draft Gasol. Wizards president Michael Jordan (No. 1) had a frustrating relationship with Kukoc in Chicago. The Clippers (No. 2) already have similar players in Lamar Odom and Darius Miles, and the Hawks (No. 3) have Kukoc. The Bulls (No. 4), Warriors (No. 5) and Grizzlies (No. 6) probably can't afford to wait two or three years for the skinny Gasol to adapt culturally and physically to the NBA.
Still, that doesn't mean Gasol won't be in the league next season. The Rockets and the Celtics each have multiple first-round choices and could move up to take him. So could the overstocked Trail Blazers, who could deal some of their established talent, reduce their mammoth payroll and begin planning for a younger, more promising future by drafting Gasol.
What makes Gasol so appetizing is his all-around game. He was a point guard until he was 15, which forced him to develop quickness and court sense. He has grown a foot since then, prompting Barcelona to call him up to its first team for the 1999-2000 season. That's when Gasol made a commitment to basketball: He dropped out of medical school to become a full-time player. Over the past 18 months he has emerged as the best player on probably the most talented team in Europe.
Gasol is one of the few lottery candidates who understands the team game. He is a shot-blocker and a rebounder, and based on his improvement over the last year, many scouts believe he will work hard to gain weight and develop his still shaky outside shot. His privileged upbringing in suburban Barcelona has led to other concerns, however. One NBA team executive predicts that the first European draftee will be Serbian forward Vladimir Radmanovic, 20, a Peja Stojakovic type who at 10 was airlifted by the Serbian military out of Croatia during the war in 1991. "I wonder about a guy who has had it easy his whole life," the team executive says of Gasol. "A lot of these Yugoslavian guys come from nothing, they work hard for everything they get, and that toughens them up."
San Antonio's Future
Popovich Stays Upbeat
Watching the 76ers upset the Lakers in Game 1 of the Finals, San Antonio coach and G.M. Gregg Popovich was reminded of everything his team failed to do while being swept by Los Angeles in the conference finals. He wanted Derek Anderson and Sean Elliott to pressure Kobe Bryant and harass the Lakers on the perimeter, but Anderson suited up only in Games 3 and 4 because of a separated right shoulder, and Elliott's legs gave out. "We didn't have the bodies," says Popovich, whose Spurs had the best record in the regular season. "Even if we had there is some doubt we would have won, but it's disappointing we didn't get to find out"
Popovich hasn't given up on overtaking the Lakers next season with a cast that could be largely the same. His top two priorities are to re-sign free agents Anderson and David Robinson, the latter of whom is willing to take a cut from last season's salary of $14.7 million. Popovich will try to use the savings to keep Anderson, who will expect a big raise after signing for the $2.25 million exception last season.
Popovich refuses to discuss his plans for 36-year-old point guard Avery Johnson, a free agent who made $8 million last year, and within the next month Elliott will let San Antonio know if he's returning or retiring. "If you were a betting man, [betting on Elliott's] retirement might be the way to go," says Popovich, who can replace Elliott only with a draft choice or an inexpensive free agent. (Because the Spurs are under the salary cap, they are not entitled to the $4.2 million exception.)