"We're talking about somebody who could be one of the 10 best players in this group," confided agent Bill Duffy the day before the draft as he plotted a heist potentially worth millions of dollars. "Our hope is that no one will take him."
While most agents exaggerate their clients' talents to NBA general managers in the weeks before the draft, Duffy and his European partner Rade Filipovic, of Serbia and Montenegro, chose the opposite course: They tried to keep 7'3" center Nedzad Sinanovic, a 19-year-old from Bosnia and Herzegovina, under wraps. "I saw him three months ago, and I was amazed by his quickness and running," says Filipovic. "He has a body like Pau Gasol's, quick hands, and he's developing a good shooting stroke."
Sinanovic didn't play for several years while serving a Bosnian army hitch, which ended last October. He was discovered in February by Filipovic's friend Kosta Janko, an assistant coach of the Spanish club Unicaja Malaga. On the advice of Duffy and Filipovic, Janko quietly moved Sinanovic to Spain, where he practiced with the Unicaja juniors though he wasn't a member of the club. In the meantime Duffy entered Sinanovic in the NBA draft while providing the barest of details: name, age, height, club (which Duffy listed as Sinanovic's high school) and agent (a businessman in Bosnia who doesn't speak English), Duffy insists that he told no lies. "We just don't want anybody to know anything about him," said Duffy before the draft. "If no team picks him, then he becomes a free agent."
That was the big score: free agency. The plan was to sneak Sinanovic through unselected, then send him to the Belgian first-division club RBC Go-Pass Pepinster, where he would jump-start his career. Based on his prospect's athleticism and the NBA's unquenchable demand for centers, Duffy believed that Sinanovic might earn more as a free agent in a few years than LeBron James will make this season as the No. 1 pick—$4 million, according to the rookie wage scale. Everything was going smoothly last Thursday night as Duffy and Filipovic sat in the green room with 10 minutes remaining in the draft. But when deputy commissioner Russ Granik announced the 54th pick, Duffy did a double-take. "What did he say?" he asked Filipovic. They stared, frozen, at each other. Portland had selected Sinanovic.
Trail Blazers assistant G.M. Mark Warkentien credits the team's European scout, Chico Averbuck, I with uncovering Sinanovic. "I think Bill didn't want him to be drafted," says Warkentien with a laugh. The silver lining for Duffy is that there is no wage scale for second-round picks, which means that Sinanovic is free to negotiate with Portland when he's ready to join the league. "If he had to be drafted, I'm glad he went in the second round," says Duffy, who in (P 2001 negotiated a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Detroit Pistons for 1994 second-round pick Zeljko Rebraca. "At least now we have flexibility."