Possible first-rounder still unsure of draft status

Originally Published: June 9, 2006
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Pittsburgh junior center Aaron Gray ran up and down the Milkhouse Gym court Thursday afternoon. He shot some mid-range jumpers. He went one-on-one against college journeyman Frans Steyn while projected undrafted guards Jeff Horner of Iowa and Corey Belser of San Diego ran around in similar drills.

This hardly was riveting stuff.

An estimated 60-75 NBA personnel started out watching Gray at the 1 p.m. hour. By the time he finished shy of 2 p.m., there were fewer than 20 still milling around.

(It might have had something to do with the fact that there was no free lunch like the previous day when NBA brass packed the gym to watch Villanova sophomore guard Kyle Lowry, Bradley sophomore center Patrick O'Bryant and NC State sophomore center Cedric Simmons.)

After being barred from watching Wednesday's workout, a few media folks were able to huddle away down a hallway and watch the Gray workout. It was anticlimatic. One NBA player personnel director said later in the day that he didn't need to see Gray run up and down.

Aaron Gray
Rich Kane/US PresswireGray would be smiling if he knew that he was going to be a first-rounder.

So what was the point?

"I displayed a few skills that I don't think they knew I had, like shooting the ball, touch," Gray said afterwards with his father Mike standing by his side. "My conditioning definitely has to get better."

Very few underclassmen seem to take the same path toward determining whether they're going to stay in the draft. Gray opted to work out in private in Pittsburgh for the past two months before coming to Orlando for one hour on his own dime to run up and down for as many NBA teams that would show up in the gym during lunch hour.

Gray was invited by the NBA for the physical-only portion of this draft camp, but that doesn't begin until Friday, so for Wednesday and Thursday, Gray and his father had to pay their own way around town. Unlike Lowry, who had been working out at the IMG Academy and was a part of an agent-organized workout Wednesday at the same facility, Gray was doing this one a bit more on his own.

"First and foremost, we wanted to protect his eligibility, since he hasn't decided to stay in the draft or go back to school yet," said Gray's father, Mike. "Doing workouts [in NBA cities] was an issue and we wanted to display him to the most NBA people as possible. This turned out to be the best arrangement to minimize the cost and maintain his eligibility."

Yet, he is, by far, the most anticipated unsigned underclassman still in the draft. If the 7-foot Gray goes back to Pitt, the Panthers will be the Big East preseason favorite, with the only player of note not returning being point guard Carl Krauser. Losing Krauser is a significant hit, since he led them in scoring and was their leader the past three seasons, but Gray is a species that has been nearing extinction in college -- the wide-body center who eats up space in the paint and alters the defensive approach for opposing teams.

Gray's not of the new breed of center, the high-flying shot-blocking type. He comes from the era of immovable plodders who can be a pain to move out of the post once positioned. If Gray (13.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg) returns, the Panthers will feed him on the block probably have plenty of buckets being created for forwards Sam Young and Levon Kendall, who would be freed up by the constant double-teams on Gray.

Gray also would have a chance, possibly for the only time in his career, to be the focal point of his team, which could help his draft status next season. Right now, Gray is projected to be a first-round pick, but no one is guaranteeing him a spot just yet. His impact next season in the NBA likely would be limited.

Given all that, Gray has a tough choice. Should he go for the money and develop for a year or two in the NBA or stay at Pitt and be a cover boy in college for a year?

"I think about it every second that I'm not playing basketball," Gray said. "I could be the man on campus and Pittsburgh could be a top-10 team. The TV networks are waiting on me to make a decision [on how to play Pitt games] and that's a humbling experience. It also makes me want to work harder. I'll continue to gather information and hopefully make the right decision on June 18."

Mike Gray said he's comfortable either way and added there were strong arguments on both sides.

Waiting patiently in this process has been Jamie Dixon. Dixon flew down to Orlando with the Grays, who live outside of Pittsburgh. Dixon wasn't allowed to watch his center work out Thursday because Gray is still one of his players, and in the offseason a coach can only view his player work out at the NBA draft camp or another sanctioned event (USA Basketball, etc.). A private workout for NBA teams doesn't qualify.

Even though had had to wait outside in the hot, steamy Florida sun during the workout, Dixon has been involved in this process.

"That's the way the rules are set up now," Dixon said. "I'm the one, or his father, to talk to the teams. It can't be an agent. It's imperative that I make the calls."

Dixon said he has received calls but the teams are keeping their options open. So, too, are the Grays. Where that leaves them is hard to say.

"This all happened so quickly for Aaron, just like it did for Chris Taft last year," Dixon said of Taft who left after his sophomore season and went No. 42 in the second round to Golden State. "Neither were McDonald's All-Americans. This is all new to him. He wasn't heavily recruited. Aaron and his dad said they were going to keep their options open. This is exactly where I thought we'd be at this point. Everyone is still keeping their options open."

They have until June 18 to decide. The Big East, the Panther program and fans, and the TV networks are waiting.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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