- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

While the Detroit Pistons were dismantling the Los Angeles Lakers, Dwight Howard was a few hours’ drive away in Chicago trying to convince a group of reporters he should be the No.1 pick in tomorrow’s NBA Draft.

“He may have more experience at a higher level,” the Georgia high school senior said of Connecticut junior Emeka Okafor, considered by many to be the safest top pick. “He may be more ready physically. But give me three years of the same weight training he’s had, and I’ll be just as big. I’ve been playing just as long as he has. Mentally and spiritually, I’m ahead of everyone.”

Howard’s declaration at the NBA Pre-Draft camp earlier this month at Moody Bible College — where the 18-year old insisted he is the next Kevin Garnett and not the next Kwame Brown — might come true. Until that time, the 6-foot, 10-inch Howard, generally regarded as the best high school player in the nation, is emblematic of the uncertainty of the draft.

“Now, more than anything, you are drafting for potential,” Washington Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said. “It makes things more difficult. More than ever, drafting players and how well you’ve done it gets determined down the road.”

In the last two drafts, there were clear-cut No.1 picks, LeBron James (2003) and Yao Ming (2002). That wasn’t the case in 2001, when the Wizards selected Brown with the first pick and two other high school players, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, were among the first four picks.

The 2001 draft has yet to yield a true star. Although no one is predicting a similar run on high school players in the top five this year, there are just as many uncertainties among the top prospects.

Even guys like Okafor, a classroom whiz, are raising questions. Okafor allayed some doubts about his size in Chicago, where he measured a little under 6-9 in bare feet but had a 7-4 wingspan and weighed a muscular 257 pounds. However, questions concerning his back — he suffered a stress fracture that forced him out of two Big East tournament games — remain.

The influx of foreign and high school players, although old news now, will continue to cause the greatest degree of uncertainty for NBA talent evaluators. Some don’t like it, especially the continuing trend of drafting younger and younger players.

“I would prefer that all players go to college and get the four years of growth, both physical and mental,” said Grunfeld, whose Wizards have the fifth pick overall. “I’m not sure [the opposite] is in the best interest of the league, but that is the system that we have in place. You have to work within it.”

The overall doubt has caused potential draftees who once thought they were ready for the NBA to reconsider. Originally, 94 high school players, underclassmen and foreigners declared themselves eligible.

But the rules now permit players who have not signed with an agent to withdraw their names from the two-round draft, and 53 players notified the NBA before the June 17 deadline that they were doing so.

“It just shows you how much uncertainty there is these days, even among these players, guys who have been confident about their own skills for years,” said Marty Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting. “I think it’s a deep draft; I think a lot of teams will find what they’re looking for. But it’s true that there are a lot of unknowns involved.”

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