The annual high-stakes guessing game known as the NBA draft takes place tonight in MCI Center, with most of the attention on about a half dozen players and the 60-year-old vice president of the Chicago Bulls, Jerry Krause.
The first move will be Krause's: what to do with the first overall pick, a prize the Bulls earned by winning a lottery among the 13 teams that failed to make the playoffs. Many have charged Krause with helping break up the Michael Jordan/Phil Jackson Bulls, after six NBA championships since 1990, so interest is keen on how he plans to get them running again.
Because this collection of prospects is considered exceptionally weak, Krause may trade down to one of the teams eager to choose Maryland guard Steve Francis. With the fifth and 12th choices, the Toronto Raptors are well positioned for such a maneuver. If Krause keeps the pick, speculation in Chicago has him leaning toward Duke power forward Elton Brand.
"We have a chance to get some building blocks." said Krause, who also holds the 16th pick. "Are we leaning one way or the other? We've had some very interesting conversations. You don't make a decision before you have to."
Only twice in the last 20 years has the team with the No. 1 pick in the draft used it in a trade. The Philadelphia 76ers parted with it in 1986 -- and the Cleveland Cavaliers took North Carolina center Brad Daugherty. The Orlando Magic drafted Michigan forward Chris Webber with the first pick in 1993 and immediately traded him to the Golden State Warriors.
If ability were the sole criterion in this draft, the exceptionally versatile 6-foot-10 Lamar Odom almost certainly would be No. 1. But Odom tried to drop out of the draft and return to the University of Rhode Island, where he played one season. Odom did not show up at a league-sponsored draft camp this month, but URI said it would not restore his eligibility. In recent days, however, he has resurfaced and worked out for several teams, including the Bulls, Raptors, Heat and Clippers.
Miami, which has the 25th selection, is so interested in moving up in the draft -- possibly to Toronto's No. 5 spot in a deal involving forward P.J. Brown -- to get Odom that team officials brought him to Miami yesterday. Earlier, Odom worked out with the Vancouver Grizzlies, who have the No. 2 choice. The Heat also has spoken to the Grizzlies about acquiring their pick.
The other player generally involved in the top-four mix is Miami of Ohio forward Wally Szczerbiak. He's the most scrutinized prospect, having played in college all four years. The least known of the likely top 10 picks is 6-11 Jonathan Bender, who opted to jump from high school in Mississippi to the NBA.
The first of a number of expected trades occurred yesterday when Atlanta sent Mookie Blaylock, its 21st pick in the draft and two other players to Golden State for the 10th pick.
The most unusual pre-draft item is the lack of center prospects.
"I don't remember a time when the draft was that weak at that position," Phoenix Suns personnel director Dick Van Arsdale told the Chicago Tribune. "Even last year there was a guy like [No. 1 pick Michael] Olowokandi."
The best of the post prospects apparently is 7-3 Montenegro-born Aleksandar Radojevic, who played the last two seasons at Barton County (Kan.) Community College and enter-ed the draft after being denied admission to Ohio State by the NCAA because he earned money playing for a Yugoslavian pro team.
Questions about Francis's potential include: Can he play the point after a season at shooting guard with the Terrapins? He did that quite well the previous two seasons, but at the junior-college level. Also, he did not always play well in important games last season.
"If I had the top choice," said New Jersey Nets General Manager John Nash, "he'd be it. I don't want to put too much pressure on the kid, but he reminds me of Isiah Thomas [who had more than 20,000 points and 10,000 assists in his 13-year NBA career and led the Detroit Pistons to two league titles]. I love him."
If Francis becomes the first player chosen, it will be the third time a Terrapin has been so honored. The others were point guard John Lucas (1976) and forward Joe Smith (1995). No other school has had more than two No. 1 picks since the NBA did away with the territorial aspect of its draft after the 1965 season.
NBA teams at one point thought Brand was undersized. But he's proven to be 6-8 and won college player-of-the-year honors after his sophomore season.
"I don't think he'll be a star in this league," said one top NBA scout who declined to be named. "To me, he's Buck Williams. He'll give you 15 points and 10 rebounds for years. But do you make someone like that the number one pick in the draft?"
Unless a lot of trades happen, several teams will have excellent chances to improve themselves tonight and a few will have very little. Eight teams have no picks in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers also have none in the second -- and final -- round.
In addition to the Bulls and the Raptors, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Cavaliers have two of the top 16 choices. The Atlanta Hawks have four first-round picks. But that's deceptive, because most scouts believe fewer than 15 prospects have NBA ability.
The Washington area has an unusually high number of players given a good chance to be drafted. Two Maryland players, center Obinna Ekezie and swingman Laron Profit, are regarded as possibilities late in the first round or early in the second. Ekezie suffered a season-ending Achilles' tendon tear in practice Feb. 9.
George Washington point guard Shawnta Rogers and Virginia Tech shooting guard Edward Lucas are seen as likely second-round prospects. Michigan shooting guard Louis Bullock, a Washington native who played in high school for Laurel Baptist Academy in Temple Hills, Md., played well at times during the NBA's pre-draft camp in Chicago.