- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Washington Wizards dipped into the international talent pool in the NBA Draft last night, selecting Ukrainian big man Oleksiy Pecherov with the 18th overall pick. The Wizards went international again with the 48th pick, drafting 6-foot-10 Vladimir Veremeenko of Russia.

Pecherov, a 7-foot, 225-pound forward, is the first non-American the Wizards have selected in the first round of the draft.

Most draft analysts describe Pecherov as a big man who can hit the 18-to-20-foot jumper and as a good rebounder, two things the Wizards definitely can use.

“He was the highest-rated player that we had left on our board,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said. “He’s only 20 years old, and he is a tough rebounder and he has improved tremendously every year.”

Pecherov last season averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21 minutes for Paris Basket Racing in France.

Grunfeld said Pecherov, whose contract with his European team includes a buyout clause, will play for the Wizards during summer camp. But he said that doesn’t mean Pecherov will be on the roster when the season begins.

“When you are drafting in the late teens and the early 20s there is no sure thing,” Grunfeld said. “We definitely feel that he is an NBA-caliber player. It’s going to be up to him when the time for that will be. Whenever you draft at that position it’s very hard for the player to come in and make an immediate impact on a playoff team that has 12 players under contract for next year.”

Said Pecherov: “If they want me to come right away, I can play right now. If they need me to stay one more year in Europe, I can do that, too.”

Asked what jersey number he would like to wear with the Wizards, Pecherov said 14 and 41. The latter is the jersey number of Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld, one of three numbers retired by the franchise.

The 22-year-old Veremeenko averaged 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in the Russian League. He is less known on the international stage than Pecherov. As with Pecherov the Wizards most likely will have to buy out his contract.

Some decent players have been selected with the 18th pick in recent years.

David West, now a starter for New Orleans, was chosen with that pick in the 2003 draft. The big man earned heavy consideration in the postseason for the league’s most improved player award. James Posey was the 18th pick of the Denver Nuggets. Last season he played a big role in helping the Miami Heat win their first championship.

Conversely, last year the Boston Celtics used the 18th pick on Gerald Green, a high school player who spent most of the season on the inactive list.

The Wizards’ most recent first-round picks were Jarvis Hayes out of Georgia in 2003, Jared Jeffries out of Indiana in 2002 and Maryland’s Juan Dixon the same year.

Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards’ best player, was drafted in the second round by Golden State in 2001 with the 31st pick overall.

The Wizards didn’t have a first-round pick last year because of a 2001 deal in which they sent their pick to Orlando for the draft rights to Brendan Haywood. With the 48th overall pick last season, the Wizards dipped into the prep school ranks and selected Andray Blatche, a talented 6-11 project who showed some athleticism and had a few good moments last season.

However, Blatche, who was shot in the chest before last season began, must get stronger if he is going to be a factor any time soon.

Meanwhile, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan last night appeared relieved that contract negotiations have started between the team and his agent, Lonnie Cooper. The parties have not finalized a deal, however.

“Nothing has been signed, sealed and delivered,” Jordan said. “But I’m really grateful that Mr. [Abe] Pollin, Ernie and Susan O’Malley have come to the decision to extend me. I want to make sure that our coaching staff is included. That’s number one for me.”

Jordan enters the final season of a four-year, $12 million deal. There had been much speculation as to whether he would receive an extension. Earlier this week he got an endorsement from Arenas. On Tuesday, Grunfeld indicated that talks had begun.

Under Jordan the Wizards reached the playoffs back-to-back years for the first time in 18 seasons.

“I was prepared to coach a team whether I had a contract extension, or one year left on the contract. I’m highly motivated either way,” Jordan said.

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