- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Washington Wizards haven’t ruled out taking a high school player if they wind up with the top pick in next month’s NBA Draft.

“If he can help this franchise and is what we see as a player who can help us, we’ll take [a high school player],” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said.

The NBA Draft Lottery will be conducted tonight before the Eastern Conference finals game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. The Wizards, by virtue of finishing the season with the league’s third-worst record (25-57), have a 15.7 percent chance of securing the top pick in the June24 draft. Chicago has a 20 percent chance, and Orlando has the best odds at 25 percent.

If the scenario sounds familiar, it should. The Wizards were in the same predicament three years ago and wound up with the top pick. Of course, they used the pick to select high school senior Kwame Brown, who just completed his third season with the Wizards.

Brown has not blossomed into the player the Wizards expected when they took him out of Glynn Academy in Georgia, but this past season he started to show real improvement.

That year perhaps was an unfortunate one for the Wizards to have the top pick. There was no clear No.1 player in that draft. In fact, of the top five picks in 2001 — Brown, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Eddy Curry and Jason Richardson — only Gasol has become a standout player.

Brown will go down as the first player selected with the No.1 pick right out of high school, but he hasn’t had the same impact as the second — LeBron James, who was the 2003-04 rookie of the year after the Cleveland Cavaliers took him with the top pick in 2003. And Brown hasn’t come close to the kind of mark Yao Ming, the 2002 No.1 pick, has made for the Houston Rockets.

This year’s draft is similar to 2001 in more ways than one. There doesn’t appear to be a clear top pick, but a high school big man from Georgia has gotten plenty of attention. And once again, because of an influx of youth and foreign players, many of the players drafted early will be unfamiliar to the casual fan. Ninety-four players, 56 college and high school players as well as 38 international players, have filed as early entry candidates.

The two players most likely to be selected in the top three are Connecticut center Emeka Okafor, who at 6-foot-9 is undersized, and Georgia high school senior Dwight Howard, a 6-10 center similar to Brown.

According to league sources, the Wizards have their eye on Duke small forward Luol Deng, a versatile 6-8 freshman, provided they don’t get one of the top two picks.

Grunfeld said yesterday he has a “take the best player available” philosophy and doesn’t like selecting a player to fill a specific need. He believes the Wizards have good depth and don’t have any glaring weaknesses at any one position.

And unlike many others who routinely bemoan the fact the draft yields younger and younger players, Grunfeld doesn’t see that as a negative.

“I’m not disappointed by that,” Grunfeld said. “We have to deal with that. There are some very talented players in this draft — guys who will become solid players. Everybody knows now that you might have to wait on some of these players to develop.”

Note — The Wizards worked out a trio of prospective second-round picks yesterday at MCI Center, all of them shooting guards — Florida State’s Tim Pickett (by way of Upper Marlboro), Rutgers’ Ricky Shields and Xavier’s Romain Sato.

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