High school players figure to dominate the top of the draft. But which one will go first?
Has the draft ever been harder to predict? No one knows who will go No. 1 or even if the Wizards will keep the top pick. Here's the only thing that can be said with certainty: Of the six candidates most likely to be taken first, only one will be old enough this fall to drink a beer with his new teammates.
Last year Darius Miles became the highest-picked high school player ever when the Clippers drafted him third. Although no one in this crop appears to be as gifted as the 6'9" Miles, his record is likely to be surpassed by one of four high schoolers: Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry or DeSagana Diop. Each is 6'11" or taller, and the league is desperate for big men—and, it seems, for adolescents.
Within the first hour of the June 27 draft at Madison Square Garden, all four will be welcomed into the NBA by commissioner David Stern, who is campaigning to institute a minimum age of 20. "I don't understand that," says Brown, the 6'11", 240-pound power forward who decided to apply for the draft the night before his senior prom at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga. "I don't see high school players as the ones getting in trouble, getting in fights or going to jail."
Brown, Curry and Diop all appeared to be thoughtful young men during an interview session last Saturday at the conclusion of the Chicago predraft camp. (Chandler declined to appear at the press conference.) Such fluency was unexpected from the 18-year-old Diop, a 7-foot, 315-pound Senegalese who spoke little English when he arrived at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., two years ago. Equally important, he started lifting weights last summer and quickly gained 45 pounds, raising the possibility that he may someday neutralize Shaquille O'Neal. "I've got to work on everything," admitted Diop when asked to name his strengths and weaknesses.
The one potential top pick who's of legal drinking age—6'8" Duke forward Shane Battier—may be the least likely of the six to go first. It used to be that someone like Battier was the gold standard of the draft: the consensus player of the year, senior co-captain of the NCAA champ. Now there is a sense that his strengths are being taken for granted as teams appear more willing to speculate on the next Kobe Bryant or the next Tracy McGrady. "I'm looking at it in terms of the stock market," says Battier. "A lot of these young guys are like IPOs. The potential for greatness obviously is there, but there is a chance they may dissolve."
Battier's maturity may be profitable for him. League sources say he has been impressive in workouts with the Bulls, Grizzlies and Hawks, and on Saturday he beat the high school players and 6'9" Seton Hall freshman Eddie Griffin in a lateral agility test. ("People checked their watches, saying, 'Is that right?' " Battier says.) Says an executive from a team with a top six selection, "If someone drafting high wants a guy to help immediately, who knows how to play, he is the only guy you can choose."
The other high lottery pick who might contribute soon is Griffin, whose shot-blocking and rebounding skills are at an NBA level. Griffin has been in fights with teammates in high school and college, but one team executive who interviewed him has written off those incidents. "I understand why they happened," the executive says. "In high school he fought a 6'10", 270-pound player, and some teams are actually going to like the fact that he didn't back down."
Adding to the confusion over the No. 1 choice is that nobody knows who will use it. Unless Michael Jordan fancies someone for the Wizards who reminds him of himself, look for him to deal for veteran help or to trade down for two or more choices in what is thought to be an extremely deep draft. With that possibility in mind, Washington is planning to work out at least 15 prospects.
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