- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- The one apparent certainty about Wednesday night's NBA draft is that Duke's Jay Williams will be the first player to shake NBA commissioner David Stern's hand, even though he could be the second player selected.
The likely first overall pick, Yao Ming, doesn't even have the wing span to reach Stern's hand. Instead, the center will be available for the television cameras only via satellite from China. He won't be in New York City, missing one of the best photo ops in NBA history. That would be the 7-foot-5 Yao towering over the 5-foot something Stern. We'll have to wait until the fall to catch a glimpse of these two together.
But, while Yao won't be around in person, plenty of suspense remains. Here's what else we can expect at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden:
Will Yao's NBA status be known? The Rockets say everything is on target to select Yao with the top pick in the draft. Houston wants assurances that Yao won't be yanked during the regular season or playoffs. The Rockets are encouraging Yao to play in the World Championships in Indianapolis, the Asian Games this summer in South Korea and the Olympics in Athens in 2004. The Chinese Basketball Association would like something in writing that says what the Rockets have already verbally agreed in China and to the media. But the official FIBA release may not come by Wednesday night and it doesn't have to for the Rockets to draft Yao. The 22-year-old is draft eligible regardless of red tape and can be selected. Houston has gone too far to not pick him and no one else has gone the distance with the Chinese. The CBA wants Yao to be the top pick because they'll get more of his money, not to mention the prestige they want for him as the first player selected. The Shanghai Sharks want him to play in the NBA. That's why the final details of his official release, and his deal to pay the CBA 50 percent of his commercial endorsements and possibly a portion of his salary, not the Sharks, shouldn't impede him being picked Wednesday. Both sides have plenty of time to work out the final details, to essentially close the deal, after the draft. When he's selected No. 1, Yao becomes the first foreign professional player to be selected with the top pick.
Will foreign players dominate the draft? Not quite, but the foreign players will once again hold a prominent role. Half the NBA's 2002 all-rookie team were foreigners and that could occur again in 2002-03. Yao is atop the list but he'll have plenty of company. Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Bostjan Nachbar of Benetton Treviso could both go in the lottery. Tskitishvili will for sure, but Nachbar is pushing to get his way in, too. Brazilian Maybyner "Nene" Hilario, Czech Jiri Welsch and Yugoslavian Nenad Kristic are virtual locks for the first round, with Hilario a likely lottery selection. Luis Scola of Spain, Australian David Andersen of Kinder Bologna and possibly Yugoslavian Mladen Sekularac could all be in the first round, too. The success of Pau Gasol last season made teams, especially Washington, consider foreigners even more. Foreign players are considered to be more skilled and ready to deal with the rigors of the NBA lifestyle because they have played with older pros overseas. The trend continues and isn't about to slow down. Expect Denver, Houston, the Clippers, New York, Milwaukee, Phoenix, San Antonio, Sacramento, Washington and Toronto to seriously consider going foreign in this draft.
How will trades affect the lottery or the entire first round? Tons. The Hornets are already out of the first round, not to mention the entire draft, after getting Courtney Alexander from Washington for the No. 17 selection. The Clippers hold the cards in this draft with the No. 8 and No. 12 picks. If they trade one or both, then the lottery outside of the top three could be turned upside down. Cleveland, Memphis, Phoenix, Portland, New Jersey, Atlanta, Orlando, Golden State, Philadelphia and Miami could all be involved in a draft-day trade (or several) to go either up or down in the draft. The toughest team to figure in every draft is always the Clippers. If they stand pat, then the draft could fall according to most projections.
Who'll be the first senior taken? And how many will go in the first round? Fresno State's Melvin Ely will likely be the first senior selected (a fifth-year senior at that). He could go as high as No. 13 to Milwaukee. Gonzaga's Dan Dickau is probably next on the senior list. He could go in the mid-teens, as high as No. 16. Seniors Tayshaun Prince of Kentucky, Dan Gadzuric of UCLA and Miami's John Salmons could be the only other seniors taken in the first 28 picks. The other possible seniors to sneak into the first round could be Oregon's Freddie Jones, Maryland's Juan Dixon, Hawaii's Predrag Savovic, Notre Dame's Ryan Humphrey, Arkansas State's Jason Jennings, USC's Sam Clancy or Cincinnati's Steve Logan. These "veterans" are all in the ballpark for the bottom of the first round, but more likely will wind up in the second round. Shane Battier was the first senior selected last season at No. 6 by Memphis. Only four seniors were taken in the first round last season. While the lottery will be without a senior, the total should be higher by at least one this year.
Which players are getting too much pub? Tskitishvili, Rod Grizzard, Qyntel Woods and Krstic. Tskitishvili played in 11 games last season, so it's hard to get a read on just how good he'll be, considering he couldn't crack Benetton Treviso's lineup. He has skyrocketed without really proving himself. Grizzard is still recovering from a broken leg, but he could be in the first round even though he hasn't worked out for any teams and is considered an athlete who can't make 3s. Woods got word he was in the lottery and nixed the Memphis deal. He was the hottest name for the first two months of the spring. Krstic hasn't proven himself as a top center in Europe but could go in the first round because of his "upside."
Give these guys some respect. Logan, Casey Jacobsen, Clancy and Aaron McGhee have either been overlooked or pigeon-holed. But they all can play at the next level. Logan is a tough point guard who will find a way to score and won't be easily pushed around. But it looks like he's slated for the second round. Jacobsen got no love because of his defense, yet he's one of the best shooters in this draft and had to fight to get into the first round. Clancy has been hurt by a kneecap injury and seems to have dropped out of the first round. He was the Pac-10 Player of the Year and one of the toughest scorers in the post last season. However, he is probably going high in the second round. McGhee was the MVP of the Portsmouth Invitational and simply finds a way to get the ball around the basket and finish. But the dreaded "undersized" tag hurts his stock.
Why only 28 first-round picks? Minnesota is still being punished for the Joe Smith salary cap fiasco of two seasons ago. The Timberwolves didn't have a first-round pick last season and don't again this season. Minnesota has a second-round pick at No. 52. Atlanta, Dallas and Boston don't have first-round picks, either. The Hornets now have neither, sending Washington its No. 17 pick in exchange for Alexander.
What position will dominate this draft? Forwards. No question. Ten of the first 13 players will likely be forwards, either small or power forwards. The players who are getting selected Wednesday don't think it's a trend. Next season's draft could be point-guard heavy. But the truth is that there are more forwards than shooting guards or centers who are ready to contribute in the NBA.
The name to know in 2003. LeBron James is a name that will be heard Wednesday night more than any other prospect who isn't eligible for the draft. The St. Mary-St. Vincent of Akron (Ohio) guard could have been the top pick, possibly over Yao Ming, if he were draft eligible. But he's a high school junior. He will be, barring a major injury, the top pick in the 2003 draft.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Katz covers the NBA draft for ESPN.com and ESPN.
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