"Upside" was the word of the night Thursday during ESPN's coverage of the NBA draft. For some reason, everyone on hand decided that the word "potential" wasn't hip enough, so it was all upside, upside, upside. Dwight Howard? Loaded with upside. Emeka Okafor? Upside coming out his ears. Peter John Ramos? Well, his upsidedness is yet to be determined.

Drafting young talent is often a crapshoot, so only time will tell if any of the players drafted will pan out. But if there was one young talent who has tremendous upside, it's ESPN's Stephen A. Smith.

What's refreshing about Smith is that he seemingly has no gray areas.

Instead, he has opinions, and he expresses them forcefully and loquaciously. It's like he only speaks in italics.

Before the draft started: "If you're the Orlando Magic, you don't need to be playing guessing games -- you need a sure-fire pick. And there's no question Emeka is it."

Following Orlando's selection of Howard: "When you look at the Orlando Magic, I'm just saying to myself, [audible sigh] 'Dwight Howard is a nice pick. Don't get me wrong, he's a nice pick. . . . [But the Magic] gave up 101 points per game. They were the worst defense in the league. . . . You need defense on your front line. [Okafor] is the answer.' That's just how I feel about it."

After Portland foolishly took high schooler Sebastian Telfair ahead of Jameer Nelson: "He's not better than Jameer Nelson. I'm sorry, this is a p.r. pick. . . . There's no way on Earth that he should have been picked ahead of Jameer Nelson. No way. No way."

He was just getting warmed up about the insanity that has gripped NBA owners.

"Now I know why so many executives are getting fired in the NBA," he said after Miami passed on Nelson to take prepster Dorell Wright with the 19th pick. "I'm saying, Jameer Nelson, the national college player of the year, is right over there. . . . You're at number 19, you need a point guard, and you pass him up for a point guard that's gonna be ready in three, four years? Please."

Smith may be a charter member of Nelson's fan club after watching him play at Saint Joseph's for the past four years. After all, he is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. But it's rare for a journalist not named Kornheiser or Wilbon to make the jump from print to television and command such a presence. Most of the others are known more for their inside information, for their contacts, than their speaking skills.

David Aldridge and Andy Katz, who both made appearances at the draft, are great at what they do -- namely, getting the scoop. (Aldridge was spot-on by predicting that the Nuggets would trade Nelson's rights before it happened.) But neither is particularly excitable. To put it in basketball terms, Smith has both the inside game and the range to be successful. He's been doing it all year on ESPN's NBA studio show.

ESPN had so much talent at the draft that Smith sometimes got lost in the shuffle, which is a shame. I mean, do we really need the bland Mark Jones interviewing Rafael Araujo's wife or Josh Childress's mother? Next year, hopefully they'll recognize Smith's upside, and give him more time in the spotlight.

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