- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

NEW YORK — In the capital city of sarcasm, Emeka Okafor answered with a straight face when asked about being chosen second rather than first in the NBA Draft.

“It made me feel real special, all warm inside,” Okafor deadpanned on a night when potential was valued more than experience and high school players were a hotter commodity than those in college.

High school senior Dwight Howard of Atlanta was chosen No.1 by the Orlando Magic last night, becoming the third prep player in the past four years to be chosen first overall. The expansion Charlotte Bobcats scooped up Okafor at No.2, getting the player they preferred all along.

“As far as them believing in me, it makes me feel good,” Okafor said.

Eight high school players were chosen ahead of Jameer Nelson, the college player of the year who dropped to the Denver Nuggets at No.20 and subsequently was dealt to Orlando for a future No.1 pick.

The quest for youth brought an unfamiliar dynamic to a draft night that began with mystery, the identity of the Magic’s pick a secret to almost everyone right up until commissioner David Stern walked onstage at Madison Square Garden and delivered the news.

When the pick was announced, Howard’s family leaped out of their seats as Okafor’s family applauded at the next table. The two players shook hands before Howard became the first player of the evening to be greeted by Stern.

“This feels so good,” Howard said. “I want to go out there and prove all the doubters wrong.”

A crowd of about 10,000 fans in Charlotte cheered when Okafor was not selected by the Magic, and owner Bob Johnson nodded his head and smiled. Fireworks then exploded, and orange and white confetti and streamers rained down on the cheering crowd.

Bobcats coach Bernie Bickerstaff said Magic general manager John Weisbrod “conveyed” to them yesterday morning that Howard would be their pick. Howard also said his agent was aware all day that he would go No.1.

Okafor donned an orange Bobcats cap after the second pick was announced as a large contingent of family and friends cheered loudly from the stands. One held up a sign reading “Okafor the Olympian,” a recognition of his status as a finalist for the U.S. team that will compete in Athens.

Okafor, a junior, averaged 17.6 points for the national champion Connecticut Huskies, and his shot blocking ability and defensive prowess made him a consensus choice to be one of the top two picks.

His UConn teammate, Ben Gordon, went third to the Chicago Bulls, marking the second time in three years teammates have been selected second and third. Jay Williams and Mike Dunleavy of Duke had that distinction in 2002.

“Other people may be surprised, but I always thought I should go No.1,” Gordon said.

High school senior Shaun Livingston of Peoria, Ill., went fourth to the Los Angeles Clippers, who had traded down from No.2 this week in a deal with the Bobcats. The baby-faced, lanky 6-foot-7 guard had originally committed to play at Duke.

Wisconsin guard Devin Harris was chosen fifth by Washington, which was picking for Dallas as part of a trade agreed to Wednesday night that sent Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner to Dallas and Antawn Jamison to the Wizards.

If the Mavericks keep Harris, he could be a replacement for Steve Nash at point guard if Nash leaves as a free agent. But Dallas was involved in trade discussions with several teams, and even Harris acknowledged he was “clueless” as to what the true identity of his team will be.

Stanford junior Josh Childress went at No.6 to Atlanta, which had been trying to move into the No.1 spot.

“This draft in particular — no one had any idea which way it would go,” Childress said.

Duke freshman Luol Deng was picked seventh by Phoenix, which traded him to Chicago for a future first-round pick, cash and the rights to the 31st pick, Jackson Vroman. The Suns, who owned three first-round picks before dealing them all away, wanted to get rid of the No.7 pick to clear enough salary cap room for a maximum salary offer to one of the top free agents.

San Antonio, Denver and Atlanta also have enough room to offer a “max” contract to a free agent class headed by Kobe Bryant and Nash.

Toronto Raptors general manager Rob Babcock made his first personnel move by selecting Brazilian center Rafael Araujo of BYU, Philadelphia chose Arizona forward Andre Iguodala at No.9 and Oregon forward Luke Jackson went to Cleveland.

“We really need outside shooting, and we felt Luke Jackson would fit that bill for us,” Cavaliers coach Paul Silas said. “We feel we have a player now who can stretch defenses.”

Andris Biedrins, an 18-year-old from Latvia, shed tears after he was selected 11th by Golden State, and Bakersfield, Calif., high schooler Robert Swift — a 7-footer — went next to Seattle.

Sebastian Telfair of Lincoln High in New York City was chosen 13th by Portland, a higher than expected slot for one of the record nine eligible high school seniors. Miffed that he was not invited to sit in the “green room” offstage, Telfair celebrated at rapper Jay Z’s nightclub not far from the Garden.

The Utah Jazz had three first-round picks, selecting Minnesota forward Kris Humphries (14th), Nevada guard Kirk Snyder (16th) and 7-foot-5 Russian Pavel Podkolzine (21st), who was dealt to Dallas for a future first-round pick.

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