The Lottery's a Real Gamble
By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page D01
You didn't actually expect good luck, did you? There's no good karma for a franchise that has missed the playoffs 15 of the past 16 seasons, that couldn't maximize the presence of Michael Jordan, that couldn't get it right when it did have the No. 1 overall pick. So the Wizards went back to doing what they've done so many times in the past: dropping in the lottery.
Their reward for another absolutely lousy season is having the fifth pick in a draft one player deep. They are as cursed as the Red Sox and Cubs, just over a shorter period of time. When the Clippers -- the sorry, no-account, bad-news, luckless Clippers! -- knock you out of one of the top three picks, it's time to call an exorcist. The Wizards dropped behind the Clippers and an expansion team in Charlotte in last night's draft lottery. There can't be a more forlorn team in professional sports.
The only thing worse than being bad is getting no relief from the draft. Once upon a time, the six or eight most dreadful teams in the NBA were fairly certain they could get immediate help, which is what the NBA draft is supposed to provide. At No. 4, you might get Charles Barkley, as Philly did 20 years ago. Farther down, you could take Karl Malone or John Stockton, and while you couldn't predict they'd be Hall of Famers, you at least had seen them against the best competition they could face. You knew they'd served a complete apprenticeship, and that if they worked at it they'd be ready to contribute immediately.
Now, the fifth pick in the draft is a crapshoot.
There's one player you know you want in next month's draft: Emeka Okafor, the 6-foot-9 kid who led the University of Connecticut to the national championship in April. He'll be selected first, you have to imagine, by Orlando. Beyond that, who knows? A record 13 high school kids have declared themselves eligible for this draft, some of whom couldn't start for the University of Maryland next year. On top of that, there are 38 international players eligible to be drafted, which is also the highest number ever. And then there are more than 40 college underclassmen who have thrown their names into the draft.
It was a shock to the basketball sensibilities of a lot of people last year when Darko Milicic, a 7-foot Croatian, was the second player chosen for the simple reason that nobody in America besides NBA scouts had ever seen him play. In the upcoming draft, the Nos. 2 through 15 players selected could be absolutely unknown even to people who watch 100 college basketball games per year.
So what should the Wizards do with the fifth pick in the draft?
It's like playing roulette.
Nobody knows, even the men who get paid to know, who are very good at evaluating talent . . . even they can't know. They can make a bet. But they can't know. The draft has always been a bit of a riddle; now it's a riddle wrapped in a mystery.
Yes, we'll look back eight or nine years from now and maybe a half-dozen of these high school players will have emerged as stars. But it's going to take most of them four and five years, or in other words the same amount of time it would take if they went to college. The only real change is that they get to draw a paycheck instead of a scholarship and you get to pay to see them in training instead of paying to see players who should offer relief right away to a bad outfit like the Wizards.
There might be an Amare Stoudemire in this draft, but probably not. The team that stands the most to gain is the team that won the lottery: Orlando.
In case the Magic has been off your radar, Tracy McGrady is halfway out the door. He's got one more season under contract in Orlando, then will be a free agent. The Magic wants a commitment. But with Grant Hill injured and down to his last attempt at a return, McGrady could very well walk. But maybe this changes everything. McGrady outside and Okafor inside? That might be the first bit of good luck Orlando has had since signing McGrady and Hill in the first place.
Is there any chance, with NBA personnel men obsessing over high schoolers, that Okafor will drop to No. 5 overall so that the Wizards could take him?
No, there's no chance of that at all.
The Wizards will likely be looking at a European, Asian or South American player, which might not be so bad, or a high school kid, which would be a disaster.
The Wizards had better not take a high school kid. If they do, people should burn their season tickets. I don't want to see Dwight Howard, Sebastian Telfair, Shaun Livingston, Al Jefferson, Josh Smith or J.R. Smith in a Wizards uniform unless the Wizards have finagled two picks, or a proven veteran and a pick . . . And even then, it'll be like taking a player and sending him to the minors for three years . . . just like drafting Kwame Brown three years ago. Maybe somebody will find something attractive about the No. 5 pick and Jerry Stackhouse, and the Wizards can trade down and wind up with Rafael Araujo, the 7-footer from Brigham Young with soft hands, a big rump and a nice jumper, or Kirk Snyder, the swing man from Nevada.
Otherwise, the Wizards don't need U-Conn.'s Ben Gordon because they've already got Larry Hughes. They don't need St. Joe's Jameer Nelson or Wisconsin's Devin Harris because they've committed to mega-talented but nutty Gilbert Arenas. I like Luol Deng at Duke; I don't see him being a factor in the NBA for at least three years, if then. Stanford's Josh Childress is nice, but the No. 5 overall pick?
For people who love pro basketball, the best sign of the night might have been seeing David Stern look so, well, stern in an interview before the lottery. Clearly, Stern was perturbed , what with all these high school kids descending on the draft like cicadas. "I frankly," Stern told ESPN, "do not want to be part of a league that sends its scouts and general managers to 10th and 11th grade games."
The appeal courts, by knocking out Maurice Clarett, have cleared the way for the NBA and its union to collectively bargain an age limit, which would keep these kids in college where they can actually serve an apprenticeship and one day be worthy draft picks. If this draft isn't a wakeup call to get both parties to the bargaining table, then there won't be one.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company