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NEXT THURSDAY'S draft is loaded with paradoxes. It's deep in talent but full of players short in stature. It's top-heavy with potential point guards who are largely unschooled at the position. And for those lucky teams picking from Nos. 3 through 10, the choices are damnably difficult because there is so little to differentiate one prospect from another. "I have no doubt that whoever we pick will be a good player," says Knicks president Donnie Walsh, whose team will choose sixth. "The hardest thing is knowing [whom] to pick, because it's going to be hard to say this guy's better for my team than that guy."
Much of the uncertainty stems from the draft pool's wealth of combo guards, a term traditionally applied to backcourt scorers who are too short to be shooting guards and too selfish to run the point. But that altogether negative view is passé in the modern NBA, where long-established roles have merged to the extent that pure point guards such as the Suns' Steve Nash, the Hornets' Chris Paul and the Jazz's Deron Williams routinely lead their teams in scoring. "I'm looking for a player who doesn't necessarily have to be a point guard but is somebody who can pull the team together," says Walsh. "All of the guys we're talking about in the draft will be able to do that. When you throw them the ball, they're not necessarily looking for their own play."
The Chosen Ones
That's not the strongest endorsement of their future as floor leaders, but it's a start. The combo candidates who are viewed to varying extents as potential point guards are 6'3 1/2" Russell Westbrook (UCLA), 6'4" O.J. Mayo (USC), 6'3" Jerryd Bayless (Arizona) and 6'3" Eric Gordon (Indiana). All are expected to be taken soon after the Bulls use the No. 1 pick on 6'2 1/2" Derrick Rose of Memphis—the only pure point assured of going in the lottery—making this the deepest backcourt draft since Dwyane Wade, Kirk Hinrich and T.J. Ford were among five guards who went in the first 14 picks in 2003.
Of this year's combo foursome, one is best equipped to run an NBA team from Day One. "O.J. Mayo can be a true point," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers, a former point guard himself. "I watched him play a couple of years ago, and I thought he was off-the-charts phenomenal." While Mayo's age (at 20 he is the eldest of the quartet), athleticism (a startling 41-inch vertical) and instinct for scoring (he ranked second in the Pac-10 at 20.7 points per game) make him an instant Rookie of the Year candidate, his reputation dating back to high school as a high-maintenance star may dissuade some teams from investing in him. A number of NBA scouts view Bayless and Gordon as lesser character risks with greater upsides, though each has to improve enormously to match Mayo's current abilities as a scorer, playmaker and defender.
The wild card is Westbrook, who has been rising up teams' draft boards. While each of his fellow combos, all freshmen, led his respective club in scoring this past season with at least 19.7 points per game, Westbrook, a 19-year-old sophomore, averaged just 12.7 points. He made his impact in other ways: Though he spent most of the year at shooting guard, Westbrook nonetheless led UCLA with 4.3 assists per game as the Bruins advanced to the Final Four. (UCLA opened the season 7--0 while Westbrook ran the point for the injured Darren Collison.) He used his explosive athleticism and impressive 6'7 3/4" wingspan to become the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year; in head-to-head matchups he squelched the production of Mayo and Davidson's Stephen Curry, who called Westbrook the toughest defender he faced during the season. And Westbrook further affirmed his team-first approach by accepting a brief midseason demotion to the bench as coach Ben Howland worked junior power forward Alfred Aboya into the starting lineup.
Coming on Strong
Westbrook is a late bloomer who didn't dunk until midway through his senior year of high school. As a 5'10" point guard at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif., he was being recruited by the likes of Creighton, Kent State and Wyoming before he grew five inches entering his senior year. His coach shifted him to shooting guard, he made third-team all-state, and he signed with nearby UCLA, where he played just 325 minutes as a freshman. Westbrook decided to enter the draft as a sophomore based on initial speculation that he would be a mid-first-round pick—"from the late lottery to maybe 20," he says. "I don't know what happened next."
What happened was a profitable merger of supply and demand. At least half of the teams in the lottery are seeking a long-term solution at point guard, and their executives have spent the last month connecting the dots of Westbrook's potential. Scouts now rate Westbrook as a more likely point guard candidate than Gordon or Bayless, who are natural scorers, and some observers have him going in the top 10.
As terrific as Westbrook is in the open floor, he must still improve his ball handling and decision making in the half-court. But the team that drafts him will be gambling wisely on his winning demeanor, which he traces back to scoldings from his father, Russell Westbrook Jr., that began after he threw tantrums on the football field as a nine-year-old. "I would get mad at anything—I was mad all the time," says Westbrook. "He used to tell me, 'This attitude you have is not going to get you nowhere in life.' So I cut that out in middle school." That's also when his father persuaded him to begin running the steep sand dunes at Manhattan Beach to build up his legs—the start of a work ethic that foretells continued improvement by Westbrook as a pro.