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PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- While college seniors battle for their lives here at the NBA's first draft camp of the year, the chatter among NBA scouts and GMs over the last week predictably has little to do with the kids who actually will play at the camp. Instead, with scouts and executives packing the stands at recent high school all-star games, the Hoop Summit and now here, a rather intense debate is emerging concerning the order at the top of the draft.
Unlike last year, when LeBron James was the consensus No. 1 pick and Darko Milicic and Carmelo Anthony were locks for Nos. 2 and 3, this year is a little different.
The two consensus best players in the draft are UConn's Emeka Okafor and high school star Dwight Howard. A consensus No. 3 pick will emerge if Luol Deng decides to enter the draft.
The only thing Okafor and Howard have in common is position. Both are projected as power forwards in the pros.
Okafor is a seasoned veteran by draft standards, having just carried UConn on his very sore back all the way to a national championship. He's smart, mature, physically strong, an unbelievable defender and shot blocker and the most NBA-ready player in the draft.
Howard is still waiting to go to his high school prom. He's made a name for himself, not in the tournament, but in AAU games and high school all-star events. He's long, athletic, versatile, can score both inside and out and reminds scouts of Tim Duncan when T.D. arrived at Wake Forest as a freshman. Generally, scouts believe Howard has the most upside of anyone in the draft.
Both have their share of weaknesses as well.
Okafor is believed to be closer to 6-foot-8 or, at the most, 6-9. That's considered the bare minimum to be a four in the NBA. Okafor also is still a little raw on the offensive end. Will he be closer to Ben Wallace than to Alonzo Mourning? His back has been hurting him all season, too, and it's worrying GMs.
Howard has the length, but he still needs to pack on another 20 pounds of muscle to be able to stand up to the daily grind in the NBA. As good as Howard is, scouts believe he's still at least one year away from contributing. The good news is Howard prefers Bible study to strip clubs. The bad news is he can be a little too nice, to the point scouts wonder whether he has enough fire in his belly to be a real star. Could he be the second coming of Kwame Brown?
Who will go No. 1?
Over the past week, Insider talked to scouts or executives from every team projected to be in the draft lottery in an effort to determine what each would do with the No. 1 pick. Some were open, some refused to answer. Here's Insider's take on where each team stands in the Okafor vs. Howard debate.
Odds of winning the lottery: 25 percent
This is a no-brainer for Orlando. Okafor could really help cure what ails the Magic. He's the type of tough, blue collar rebounder and shot blocker they've been searching for since sending Ben Wallace to the Pistons. Okafor also is ready to come in and contribute right now ... a must if the Magic expect to hold onto Tracy McGrady next summer. Adding Okafor at the four would free Orlando to trade Drew Gooden and Juwan Howard this summer. Maybe one, or both of them could bring a decent point guard or center in return. Howard, in the long run, might be a better fit here, because of the low-post scoring he could provide, but right now, there is no long-run in Orlando. If the Magic don't get better now, they'll get a lot worse when T-Mac opts out next year.
Odds of winning the lottery: 20 percent
Another simple call. GM John Paxson has had his fill of high school kids. Even though Howard shouldn't experience the same problems that Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry have, the team and the fans are out of patience. In fact, if the Bulls get the No. 2 pick and Okafor's off the board, expect them to trade it. Okafor represents everything Curry and Chandler aren't. Along with Kirk Hinrich, he'll represent a new vision of a grittier, tougher Bulls team. Drafting Okafor would free up the Bulls to trade Chandler and possibly Antonio Davis this summer. With the Mavs desperate to add some size and toughness to the team, you have to believe they'd consider sending Michael Finley (a Chicago native) and a guy like Josh Howard for those two.
Odds of winning the lottery: 15.7 percent
The Wizards are another team that has been burned by 6-11 high school players with upside. Kwame Brown is in his third year and is just now starting to become a real contributor. In other words, you won't be hearing Howard's name called as the No. 1 pick on draft night if the Wizards are drafting first. The problem for Washington? As much as they like Okafor, do they really have a place for him? The Wizards really need a legitimate, physical center to take some heat off Brown. Expect Washington to either trade the pick to a team desperate to land Okafor or, alternatively, to try to move Brown to a team willing to give up a legit center in exchange.
Odds of winning the lottery: N/A
The Bobcats are locked in at the No. 4 pick. However, they aren't precluded from making a trade that also could land them the No. 1 pick in the draft. What do they have to offer? Cap room and their No. 4 pick. If they were willing to take a bad contract off a team's hands and give their No. 4 pick away, it's possible for the Bobcats to end up with the No. 1 pick. Teams like the Suns or Wizards (both trying to clear cap space for free agency) would love to make a deal like that. If the Bobcats had the No. 1 pick, don't be surprised if they go with Howard. He's younger, more versatile, has more upside than Okafor, and the team can afford to wait on him.
Odds of winning the lottery: 12 percent
Here's the first team with a clear-cut preference for Howard. The new owners are trying to spark interest in the team and are using local appeal to the max. They already have hired Dominique Wilkens as vice-president, will make a strong push for former Hawks point guard Doc Rivers to coach the team and would love to add Atlanta's finest as their starting power forward next season. The Hawks have been bad for a long time, but the team is at rock bottom now. Anything will be an improvement over what they have.
Odds of winning the lottery: 8.9 percent
The Suns have a young power forward in Amare Stoudemire with as much or more upside as either Okafor or Howard and thus have very little interest in this pick. Phoenix has a great young core of players and really needs a star veteran or a center to make the team complete. Neither Okafor or Howard fit the description. If the Suns win the lottery, you can expect them to start dangling the No. 1 pick immediately. However, if they can't cut a deal to their liking, I think they'd grab Howard and hope they can turn him into a center.
Los Angeles Clippers
Odds of winning the lottery: 6.4 percent
This is a tough call. The team just signed Elton Brand, another low-post bruiser, to a long-term deal last summer. If they bring in Okafor, you can guess that Brand's days in Clipper-land would be numbered. Howard has the versatility to play more positions. The Clippers also could agree to trade this pick, if they get it. Priority No. 1 this summer seems to be landing Kobe Bryant. If they fall short (imagine that), point guard seems to be the next-most important position to address. Would a team like the Mavs give up Steve Nash for a chance at Okafor? If the Clippers could get a veteran like Nash, they'd pull the trigger in a heartbeat. For that reason, I'd expect the Clippers to take Okafor.
Odds of winning the lottery: 4.9 percent
They spent their lottery pick last year on a young big man, Chris Bosh, who has looked very good this season. What Toronto really needs is a true center. However, the Raps might be able to play Okafor and Bosh together in the paint. Bosh likes to play in the high post on offense, and Okafor prefers the low block. Okafor has the strength and explosiveness to guard most fives in the East. Bosh is much more comfortable guarding fours. It's not an ideal situation, but Okafor is the best big man the Raptors are going to find in the draft or free agency. I think they'd take the risk.
Odds of winning the lottery: 2.9 percent
The Cavs have one of the most interesting dilemmas of the group. They had great success with a high school player last year (guy named LeBron), and they already have a low-post, blue-collar bruiser doing great work in Carlos Boozer. Would they gamble on Howard, hoping to turn him into either a big three or a high-post five. There are scouts who believe Howard is versatile enough to play three positions. Given the buzz generated by LeBron, the climate in Cleveland might be right to try one more high school kid. If Howard turns into the player scouts think he can be, the combo of him and LeBron would be unstoppable for a decade.
Odds of winning the lottery: 1.8 percent
The Sixers are another team running out of time. With Allen Iverson, Eric Snow, Aaron McKie and Glenn Robinson all pushing their walkers to the nursing home as we speak, the team needs someone who can help immediately. The combo of Okafor and Samuel Dalembert would be the most potent shot-blocking duo in the league. While the Sixers would love the low-post offense of Howard, they, like most teams in the lottery, just don't have the time to wait him out.
Odds of winning the lottery: 1.1 percent
Okafor's name immediately comes to mind when you think about the Sonics. They've been missing his kind of toughness and shot blocking skills for years. The team's other fours -- Vladimir Radmanovic, Reggie Evans and Nick Collison -- wouldn't hold a candle to him. However, I think Rick Sund also has a thing for Howard. He's built his team in the mold of the Mavericks and is missing that versatile big man who can run the floor and get it done both inside and outside. It's a tough call. If Nate McMillian remains the coach, I think he'd be devastated if the team passes on Okafor. If McMillan is fired or leaves the team, Howard might be the better fit long term.
Edge: Okafor (by a nose).
Golden State Warriors
Odds of winning the lottery: 0.7 percent
Chances are both Erick Dampier and Adonal Foyle will bolt the Warriors this summer, and they'll take just about all the team's rebounding and shot blocking with him. With everyone in Golden State restless to make the playoffs, Okafor seems like the safest bet to help turn around the franchise.
Odds of winning the lottery: 0.6 percent
Kiki Vandeweghe always has been an unconventional guy. With PF Nene Hilario already in the fold, look for Kiki to lean toward Howard. Nene and Okafor are just too similar. Howard and Nene, however, would give the team an nice inside-outside punch. Kiki has bought himself plenty of time in Denver to bring along yet another big kid. It also frees him up to dump Marcus Camby and trade Nikoloz Tskitishvili this summer.
Portland Trail Blazers
Odds of winning the lottery: 0.5 percent
The Blazers already are over loaded at the four. Between Zach Randolph, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff (currently playing at the five) the Blazers already have enough front-line rotation problems. And let's not forget they drafted another four, high schooler Travis Outlaw, last year. Playing Ratliff and Okafor together would frighten any opposing team. If Portland opted for Howard, though, the team could bring him along slowly while sorting out who's staying and who's going from the rest of the crew.
Utah Jazz: I know Utah currently is in position to make the playoffs, but they're in a virtual dead heat with the Nuggets. Should Denver end up in the playoffs, the Jazz will have a .5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick. If they get it, Jerry Sloan will issue a pretty simple ultimatum -- draft Okafor, or I walk.
Boston Celtics: The Celtics also look like they'll be in the playoffs, but should the Cavs catch them for the No. 8 seed and they subsequently win the No. 1 pick, they'll have a tough decision in the draft. They need the toughness, rebounding and shot blocking Okafor can bring. They also need the low-post scoring and all-around game Howard can give them. Ainge isn't afraid to do the unpopular thing, and his claim he wants athletes who can score at will seemingly would tilt him in toward Howard. However, I have it on pretty good authority that Okafor would be the man.