Nelson: 'I am the steal of the draft'

Updated: June 25, 2004, 3:10 AM ET
By Joe Lago | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The first point guard to shake David Stern's hand was really a scoring guard in college. Immediately following him was a high-school phenom. Then another college scorer strolled across the stage.

Three straight selections, three guards. And the player who arguably fit the definition of the point guard the best in the 2004 NBA draft remained seated at his green-room table.

It wasn't long before Jameer Nelson was squirming in his chair.

"It was definitely a long wait," he said.

Jameer Nelson
Thanks to a trade, Jameer Nelson will be an Orlando teammate of Dwight Howard -- one of eight high school seniors selected ahead of the St. Joe's senior.

After Ben Gordon, Shaun Livingston and Devin Harris were chosen with the third, fourth and fifth overall picks, Nelson wouldn't hear his name called until the Denver Nuggets made him the 20th selection.

If anyone in this draft had reason to give the Paul Pierce/Caron Butler "I'll make 'em pay" speech, it was Nelson, the collegiate national player of the year from Saint Joseph's. He'll get to prove what the 18 teams missed as the starting point guard for a rebuilt Orlando Magic squad, which acquired him from Denver for a future first-round pick.

"I am the steal of the draft," Nelson declared. "And I am going to go out there and play with a chip on my shoulder."

Nelson didn't have to express his frustration because the analysts working the draft telecast had already vented for him. The chastising began after Portland and Miami -- two teams needing immediate help at point guard -- opted to pass on Nelson and add to the record number of high-school players (eight) taken in the first round.

The Trail Blazers chose unproven high school star Sebastian Telfair with the No. 13 pick, while the Heat took shooting guard Dorell Wright at No. 19. Pairing Nelson with Dwyane Wade seemed to make sense for Miami, giving it a backcourt that would've been small in stature but devastating in the open court.

Miami head coach Stan Van Gundy admitted that Nelson was "the next guy on the board" but didn't fit the type of player the Heat is seeking -- "long and athletic."

"I don't know what these guys are thinking," St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "He (Nelson) is going to win."

The day before the draft, Nelson was hopeful he'd be rewarded for returning for his senior season but seemed to be preparing himself for a letdown. He knew his height (generously listed as 6-foot in the draft media guide) would be a big issue.

"I've had to prove myself my whole life," Nelson said Wednesday. "It's just another stepping stone."

Asked if he considered himself the best point guard in the draft, Nelson replied matter-of-factly, "Well, yes."

That's why draft night can be such a humbling experience, especially when one's place on the draft toteboard doesn't match the high self-esteem. Despite seeing 19 players get taken before him, though, Nelson doesn't feel like he got it all wrong.

It's the general managers who passed on him who are sorely mistaken.

"Some teams blew their opportunity on picking up a good player," Nelson said. "It's a blessing to be in a situation that I will find myself in where they really need a guard. I'm thankful for that."

Joe Lago is the NBA editor for ESPN.com.

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