There is a 6-foot-11 question mark rapidly climbing the NBA draft lottery. Jonathan Bender made the decision to jump directly from high school in Picayune, Miss., to the NBA several weeks ago after seriously thinking about it since the summer after his 10th grade season -- and many NBA scouts believe he could be among the first six picks in Wednesday's draft at MCI Center.
"He's not Kevin Garnett, but he's not that far away," said New York Knicks vice president of player personnel Ed Tapscott, referring to the Minnesota Timberwolves star and the standard that all large high school phenoms have recently been measured against.
Garnett was chosen with the fifth pick in the 1995 draft and blossomed more quickly than nearly anyone had thought possible, averaging 10.4 points as a rookie, 17 his second season, 18.5 his third season and 20.8 points and 10.4 rebounds last season. Also, he won one of the league's divisional awards last season for sportsmanship.
Because Bender shoots and runs so well, he is projected as a small forward and would fit well with Garnett. Because the Timberwolves were successful helping Garnett make the enormous off-the-court adjustments, league insiders believe they might take Bender with the No. 6 selection.
"I don't think he'll be around past the 10th pick," Bender's Amateur Athletic Union coach, Thad Foucher, said yesterday. "And that's just a safety net. People have been saying every team from five to 10 wants him, but you never know."
The Chicago Bulls, who have the first overall pick but may trade down for the right deal, have worked Bender out. So have the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Seattle SuperSonics and Golden State Warriors. He and Foucher were on their way to Minnesota late yesterday.
"I don't have any certain team I want to play for," Bender said. "But [the NBA] is the place for me. It's where I always wanted to be, my dream. I want to get there as fast as I can. Everything's been hectic so far, but pretty fun."
Bender has taken well-considered steps toward his new life after backing off from a commitment to attend Mississippi State. His agent, Arn Tellem, represented Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O'Neal and Tracy McGrady when they left high school for the NBA. More significant, Bender is working with fitness expert Mackie Shilstone to add muscle to his 205-pound frame. That lack of bulk has raised most of the questions about Bender.
"He's very tall for someone who's going to try and play forward at any level -- and he can run, shoot and has good passing skills," Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick said. "That's what intrigues people. But I don't know if he's quick enough to guard Latrell Sprewell right now. Or strong enough to guard a power forward. But he certainly has potential."
Teams may be more willing to take Bender higher in the draft because they will have more control over his future. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, players no longer become unrestricted free agents after their third season. Teams now have an optional fourth season on a player and the right to match any offer he receives after his fifth season. After five seasons in the NBA, Bender would be only 23.
Bender has been the object of much attention in Mississippi since about the seventh grade. He was 6-8 before entering Picayune High -- and became prominent nationally by scoring 31 points in the McDonald's All-American game in March. That was significant because the previous record for the game was 30 points, set by Michael Jordan in 1981. Bender made 11 of 19 shots, had 10 rebounds and three blocks, and broke Jordan's record by hitting the second of two foul shots with 23 seconds left.
Of course, that does not make Bender superior to Jordan at a similar point in their careers. In fact, recruiting expert Dave Telop rated Bender just the seventh-best prospect among this year's high school players. Telop praised Bender's ability to block shots and his shooting touch but disagreed with the Knicks' Tapscott, saying: "No one is making that comparison with Garnett."
Much of Bender's motivation comes from his mother. Willie Mae Bender raised four children, including a stepson, after her husband died when Jonathan was 13. She also worked nights at Wal-Mart and attended college during the day, earning a degree as a community health educator at age 44. "College was right for me," she told the Associated Press. "That was my choice. But I raised my children to know that they had choices and should make the right ones."
"I've been blessed," Bender said. "I'm nervous, but scared. I know it will be hard, but I plan to just listen a lot. As good as you can listen to someone, that's what I'm going to do to everyone."
According to Picayune High principal Henry Hill, Bender was a "good B student." Hill would have preferred that Bender attend college, if only for a year or so, but understands his decision. "I couldn't advise him to do anything differently," Hill said. "What we're preparing our children for, after all, is making a living. And what he'll make far exceeds what most of the ones here will ever do."
The order of selection for Wednesday's NBA Draft at MCI Center:
4. L.A. Clippers
5. Toronto (from Denver)
6. Minnesota (from New Jersey)
8. Cleveland (from Boston)
9. Phoenix (from Dallas)
10. Golden State
15. New York
16. Chicago (from Phoenix)
17. Atlanta (from Sacramento)
18. Denver (from Milwaukee via Phoenix)
19. Utah (from Philadelphia)
20. Atlanta (from Detroit)
23. L.A. Lakers
24. Utah (from Orlando)
27. Atlanta (from Portland via Detroit)
29. San Antonio
Second Round: 30. L.A. Lakers (from Vancouver); 31. L.A. Clippers; 32. Chicago; 33. Denver; 34. New Jersey; 35. Washington; 36. Dallas; 37. Vancouver (from Boston); 38. Orlando (from Golden State); 39. Cleveland; 40. Dallas (from Toronto); 41. Denver (from Seattle); 42. Minnesota; 43. Charlotte; 44. Houston (from Phoenix); 45. Sacramento; 46. New York; 47. Philadelphia; 48. Milwaukee; 49. Chicago (from Detroit via Atlanta); 50. Houston; 51. Vancouver (from L.A. Lakers); 52. Atlanta; 53. Miami; 54. Detroit (from Indiana); 55. Boston (from Orlando via Denver); 56. Golden State (from Portland); 57. San Antonio; 58. Utah.
CAPTION: Jonathan Bender, left, who is drawing comparisons to Kevin Garnett, works with fitness expert Mackie Shilstone to add bulk to 6-11, 205-pound frame.