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So how weird was it watching NBA greats like Larry Bird and Pat Riley hanging out at a high school all-star game in Oklahoma City on Wednesday?
It was inevitable that someone was going to blow up at the McDonald's All-American Game on Wednesday, but few would've predicted that J.R. Smith was going to be that guy. As many as 10 of the players playing in the game were seriously thinking about going pro. Only two -- Smith and Dwight Howard -- looked ready based on Wednesday's game.
The funny thing is, Smith isn't one of the guys who's been flirting with the draft. He's been serious about playing at North Carolina all year. Based on his scintillating performance on Wednesday, do we have to add a 13th player to the NBA mix (two more players, Dorell Wright and Juan Diego Palacios, didn't play at the McDonald's game)?
Here's the skinny on Smith. He's a 6-foot-6 two guard with a 44-inch vertical and one of the deepest shots I've ever seen at the high school level. In other words, he's got Vince Carter hops with Steve Kerr range. How did scouts miss the boat on that guy?
"We've know about him," one scout said, "but with so many kids saying they were coming out, you tend not to focus on the ones who say that they'll stay in school. With that said, that kid has as much upside as anyone here. The NBA needs shooters and they love great athletes. This kid has both."
Another scout claimed that Smith's performance was so impressive because you couldn't just write it off on the bad defense played at all-star games. "He was shooting 30 foot jumpers with a hand in his face every time," another scout said. "The up and down game most of these kids love doesn't translate into the NBA. Most teams just don't get up and down the floor. The shooting, on the other hand, always translates. Especially with the way that kid gets lift on his shot . . . he could come in and play right now."
Will he join the throng? ESPN.com's Darren Rovell reported on Wednesday that Smith had been offered a shoe deal worth more than $20 million a year. Combine that with talk among scouts that Smith would be a surefire lottery pick if he comes out. Our guess is that he's in.
What happened with the rest of these guys? Remember that many NBA scouts and GMs only stick around for the practice. That means that the game is only half the battle.
Among the other players who helped or hurt themselves at the McDonald's practices and game:
Howard won the co-MVP award along with Smith and looked very good. He ran the floor, crashed the boards and generally showed why he's competing against Emeka Okafor for the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The much-hyped match-up between Sebastian Telfair and Shaun Livingston was a bust. Telfair played good defense and handed out a few assists, but the jumper was ugly. Scouts claim that he looked very good in practices, however. Livingston made some unbelievable passes and generally looked in control, but he scored one point and ended with just three assists.
Josh Smith got mixed reviews. He showed off his unbelievable athleticism at his size and had the most spectacular block of the game. However, those airballs he was shooting didn't do much to help stop the rumors that he's a Darius Miles clone.
Marvin Williams didn't do much in the game, but scouts were still buzzing about him in practice. It sounds like he may have moved himself right onto the lottery bubble.
Another guy who looked impressive in practice was Prentiss' Al Jefferson. Scouts say that he's a little more polished and athletic than they had thought.
I thought, for the second straight game, that Robert Swift outplayed the more hyped Randolph Morris.
After LaMarcus Aldridge's so-so performance, he said it's 60-40 that he goes to college next season.
Hoop Summit next
Many of these kids are now off to San Antonio for the Nike Hoop Summit on Sunday. Because the hoop summit is affiliated with USA Basketball, the game does not count as a postseason all-dtar game and won't affect the eligibility of players still mulling over college.
The American squad includes NBA draft prospects Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Sebastian Telfair, LaMarcus Aldridge, J.R. Smith, Rudy Gay and Al Jefferson along with other top high school ballers Jordan Famer, Malik Hairston, and Mike Williams.
The international squad has been weakened by visa issues and other commitments. The three top 2004 draft prospects, Pavel Podkolzine, Andris Biedrins and Ivan Chiriaev, have pulled out of the tournament.
The only real prospects left are Roko Leni Ukic (Croatia), Luka Bogdanovic (Serbia) and Juan Diego Palacios (Columbia). Yi Jian Lian of China will also play. He is widely considered the top prospect in the 2005 draft.
The other international hoop summit participants are Wojciech Barycz (Poland); Andrea Bargnani (Italy); Churchill Odia (Nigeria); Marcus Vinicius Vieira De Souza (Brazil); Sergio Rodriguez (Spain); and Michael Schroeder (Germany).
Insider will be there to give you an in-depth report of who's getting the buzz from scouts.
Who's else is hot?
High school all-star games aren't the only things going on around the league. The NCAA Final Four is this weekend and the Euros are still playing over seas. Here's the skinny on several other guys who appear to be helping their stock.
Watch Duke point guard Chris Duhon closely. Over the past month he's been slowly gaining support from NBA scouts who feel that they may have judged him too harshly after a lackluster senior season. Duhon, who was considered a surefire lottery pick during his first three seasons, fell off the map this year. However, his stellar play in the tournament has generated a significant amount of buzz. His 4.8 ppg and 5.3 apg may not blow you away, but scouts love the toughness he's shown in leading Duke to the Final Four.
UConn's Ben Gordon is playing himself back into the good graces of scouts. He's gotten enough time at the point guard position in the tournament that scouts are once again starting to feel comfortable that Gordon can make that transition in the pros.
A less-heralded UConn guard, sophomore Rashad Anderson, is making a name for himself. His 18.3 ppg and his 51 percent shooting from behind the 3-point arc are making scouts take a serious look now. He's turning into one of the top shooters in college basketball.
KU freshman guard J.R. Giddens played so well for the Jayhawks in the tournament that there's been some talk that Giddens may decide to test his draft stock. Giddens is a big-time athlete with a great stroke. Giddens averaged 16 ppg for the tournament. He's probably going to have to wait a year, but Giddens will be on the map big time for NBA scouts next season.
Xavier's Lionel Chalmers was awesome in the tournament, but he doesn't have the size or the point guard mentality to really make a huge leap in the draft. He's really a two guard in a point guard's body.
Finally, Latvia's Andris Biedrins impressed scouts in a juniors tournament in Croatia earlier this week. Biedrins posted 27 points, 17 boards and seven blocks against France's junior team led by another NBA prospect, Johan Petro.
Who's In and Out of the NBA Draft?
Stanford's Josh Childress is going to test the NBA waters. However, he won't hire an agent until he's sure he'll be a lottery pick. According to scouts, Childress will be a likely top-10 pick. Sorry Cardinal fans.
North Carolina State's Julius Hodge is mulling a jump to the NBA. Like many of the top prospects, he's been interviewing agents and trying to get a good feel on where he'll be selected. Right now he seems content as long as he goes in the first round. Hodge should be a first-round pick, but with all of the high school kids in the draft, there's a small risk he could slide.
We hear that Arizona's Andre Iguodala is seriously interviewing agents and will likely declare for the draft. That comes as almost no surprise. Iguodala will likely be a lottery pick in this year's draft.
Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick may also enter the draft and test his draft status. Warrick is all over the board right now, though scouts felt he helped himself in the tournament.
There's talk that Utah freshman Andrew Bogut may either put his name in the NBA draft or sign professionally with a team in Europe. If he hires an agent he'll be allowed to withdraw for this draft. But if he loses his college eligibility he'll automatically be in the 2005 draft (the same way Christian Drejer was forced to be in this draft). Right now Bogut has lots of potential, but he's not a surefire first-rounder at this point. He better stay in school.
Every year we say the same thing about the upcoming class of draft-eligible centers.
Coming up with a Top 10 centers list is a little bit like trying to put together a list of 10 reasons to move to Bristol. After you get past one or two, you have to start making stuff up.
The good news this year is that we've come up with 10 legit NBA center candidates. Now here's the tough part -- pronouncing their names. America just doesn't produce good big men these days. Blame it on NAFTA or free trade, but if an NBA team really wants an upgrade in the middle, it's got to import one.
This year the top centers in the draft have names like Andriuskevicius, Podkolzine, Samardziski, Araujo and Seung Jin. As the world gets smaller, the names just keep getting longer.
Here's a look at the top 10 centers in the 2004 NBA Draft.
1. Martynas Andriuskevicius, Zalgris (Lithuania)
The line: 7-foot-3, 250, 18-years-old
The skinny: On sheer talent and size, Andriuskevicius may be the best international prospect in the draft this year. He's big and very, very skilled. Scouts claim that he has great hands, is a fantastic passer and doesn't shy away from contact despite his thin frame. The fact that he's being tutored daily by Arvydas Sabonis is evident according to scouts. He still needs more strength and playing experience, but there is little not to like. He's a surefire lottery pick if he declares and could go as high as top five.
2. Pavel Podkolzine, Varese (Italy)
The line: 7-foot-5, 300, 19-years-old
The skinny: Podkolzine, for those who can't remember, is the 7-foot-5 Siberian sensation who took the NBA draft by storm last June and then, just as quickly, disappeared from the radar screen. By all accounts Pavel is a much better draft prospect than he was last season. He's really starting to come on. He's a high reward, high risk type of player, but someone will take a chance on him in the lottery.
3. Peja Samardziski, Partizan (Serbia)
The line: 6-11, 240, 17-years-old
The skinny: He has unbelievable skills for a kid his age and size. He can shoot the ball effortlessly from anywhere on the court and he's developed a strong enough low-post game to be reckoned with on that end as well. He has high-lottery talent, but several things are holding him back. First, he still hasn't it made it to Partizan's senior team, meaning scouts can only judge him against inferior junior talent. Second, Partizan has kept the kid under lock and key; scouts aren't able to get to practice to watch him work out. His agent, Marc Cornstein, says that Samardzski will declare for the draft. But without a buyout, and with Partizan facing the loss of at least one of its big men, will it let him go? Rumors are already circulating that a team may have given Samardziski a promise.
4. David Harrison, Colorado
The line: 7-0, 250, Junior
The skinny: Scouts don't really like his game, but considering he's the only American 7-footer in college with any kind of game right now, he's going to get the benefit of the doubt. Harrison is strong, runs the floor well for a big guy and can put up good numbers when his head is in the game. Questions about his maturity level and dedication to the game are big issues for scouts, but the truth is, if he declares, someone will take a chance on him in the first round. Think Michael Olowokandi, folks.
5. Rafael Araujo, BYU
The line: 6-11, 280, Senior
The skinny: Araujo has been one of the most dominant college centers on the offensive end in the country this year. Physically he's huge and very, very strong. He uses his strength to bulldoze opponents in the paint. Some considered the native of Brazil a late first-round sleeper last season, and he's improved in all facets of the game this year. A recent fight in the Mountain West tournament in front of a host of scouts actually helped his cause. Teams are desperate for big men with a little fire in his belly. Expect him to go somewhere in the second half of the first round.
6. Ha Seung Jin, South Korea
The line: 7-3, 300, 18-years-old
The skinny: When we saw Ha last year, he looked very soft and very, very raw. Since then he's spent the entire year working out at an SFX facility in L.A. His agent, Bob Myers, has hired personal trainers and big men coaches to prepare Ha for the rigors of the NBA. I talked to one spy who's seen him play and he claims the difference in his body and post moves is incredible. He's huge, and size always counts for something in the NBA. He also has some decent skills and a soft touch that teams are always looking for in a big man. He's almost impossible to project until SFX unveils him (probably around the Chicago pre-draft camp). If he's really improved, he could be a mid-first-round pick based on size and potential. If he's the same Ha that I saw last year, he's a second-rounder.
7. Randolph Morris, Landmark Christian Academy (GA)
The line: 7-0, 250, HS Senior
The skinny: He's a heady, mature big man with a great feel for the game. He's got a nice array of moves around the basket and a pretty nice jumper from 10 feet in. Is pretty strong physically and doesn't shy away from contact in the paint. Scouts think he's a tremendous prospect, they just believe he needs more time to develop. Morris is very intelligent and has said all along that he's leaning toward going to school -- probably Georgia Tech. Scouts all like him, but most believe he'd slip into the late first round or early second round. If that holds true, expect him to go to school.
8. Robert Swift, Bakersfield (CA)
The line: 7-1, 245, HS Senior
The skinny: He's quick, relatively athletic and knows how to score and rebound in the paint. He needs strength, like almost everyone else in the draft. Played well in both high school all-star games. His gangly appearance and academic issues create a picture that isn't pretty. But the kid can play. Probably in the second round right now.
9. Nigel Dixon, Western Kentucky
The line: 6-11, 320, Senior
The skinny: The next "big thing" from Western Kentucky once ballooned up to 423 pounds during his freshman season at Florida State. He's since lost 100 pounds, but can still shatter backboards with his power dunks. Dixon has really come on of late and was among the leaders in the nation in field goal percentage this year. He uses his wide body to get position and blast people out of the way, a la Shaq. While scouts are obviously worried about the weight issue, his coach claims that he has an excellent work ethic and seems committed to basketball. Is he the second coming of Oliver Miller and Robert Traylor, or will he be able to keep the weight off? That's the biggest question in scouts' minds. A likely second-rounder.
10. Chris Garnett, Indiana Southeast
The line: 6-11, 275, Senior
The skinny: Garnett makes this list on the imploring of a couple of trusted scouts, including one who has followed his career since high school. Garnett showed up on the national radar after he went to the Nike camp this year as a counselor and held his own against Emeka Okafor in some scrimmages there. Garnett has an NBA body and good athleticism for a big man. However, his lack of consistent effort, his conditioning and the general lack of competition in the NAIA make him suspect. He's going to have to play great in Chicago and in individual workouts to get a shot. NBA scouts love big guys with bodies like his, but if he's not going to play hard, what's the point?
Best of the Rest: Peter John Ramos, Puerto Rico; Jackson Vroman, Iowa State; Velimir Radinovic, Ohio State; Aleksandar Djuric, Red Star (Serbia)
Wait until next year: Channing Frye, Arizona; Matt Nelson, Colorado State; Tan Zhendon, China; Edu Hernandez, Real Madrid (Spain); Ioannis Bourousis, AEK (Greece); Dimitri Soklov, Russia;