Friday, June 11, 2004

Jackson stars in Suns' workout - a.k.a Time for the Suns to dump their pick.

By Chad Ford
ESPN Insider

# Chad Ford's mock draft: Standard version | Slideshow version

CHICAGO -- While the NBA pre-draft camp continued to slog along at the Moody Bible College, Insider got exclusive access to what was shaping up to be the most interesting workout matchup of the week.

Wisconsin point guard Devin Harris, UConn point guard Ben Gordon, Oregon swingman Luke Jackson and junior college star Donta Smith were scheduled to work out against each other early Thursday morning at Hoops Gym. The workout, staged by the Suns, was significant for a few reasons.

It was the first time Harris and Gordon, who have been ranked neck and neck all season, would meet on the same court. The Suns are seriously considering taking a point guard with the No. 7 pick, and Harris and Gordon are the two most likely candidates. It also was a chance to see Jackson, who has been rocketing up most draft boards, work out against one of the best athletes in the draft in Smith.

Unfortunately, as these things often go, by the time we arrived at Hoops Gym the Suns had learned Gordon wasn't going to make it. He had problems with his flight out of New York, and Phoenix had to scramble to find someone to work out with Harris. At the last minute, they brought in Roko Leni Ukic.

While everyone was disappointed the marquee match-up didn't go down, the workout still was pretty spirited. Ukic, with his long arms and quick feet, gave Harris plenty of problems.

While there's no question Harris is quicker and much more offensively talented than Ukic, he struggled at times to take Ukic off the dribble and get to the basket. Though Ukic is just 6-foot-3, his length bothered Harris for much of the workout. Harris also struggled a bit shooting the ball in the drills. He still was shooting well, but he has shot it much better in the other workouts this week.

Defensively, Harris did a nice job on Ukic as well. His quickness and speed bothered Ukic to a certain degree, and several times Harris did a nice job of stripping Ukic of the ball.

The real stars of the workout, though, were Jackson and Smith. While Jackson didn't shoot the ball as well as I've seen him in the past, he showed a couple of things that validate why he's rising on most draft boards.

Jackson's athleticism is better than advertised. During a special shuttle drill the Suns run, Jackson's time was the quickest the Suns have measured this year. That's right -- faster than quick guards like Harris and Jameer Nelson. There's no question the scouting report that he has slow feet is false. In fact, Jackson's feet look very quick for a player his size (6-7).

His toughness and competitiveness were also on display against the stronger Smith. At one point he leveled Smith with a tough screen. Whenever he touched the ball on offense, he was in attack mode and was able to get past Smith to the basket.

Smith also had his moments, though. He shot the ball really well, was spectacular flying through the air and finishing dunks in a drill where the point guards threw him alley oops, and he had several blocks on Jackson during the one-on-one portion of the drill.

Seeing him in this environment was much more enlightening than anything I saw in his individual workout on Tuesday.

I'm not sure where the workout leaves the Suns. They've liked Harris for some time, but he didn't do enough in the workout to make him a slam dunk for the No. 7 pick. This is the second straight workout where Harris was less than spectacular (he also struggled against Northwestern's Tim Young in a workout for Golden State on Wednesday). Don't be surprised if the Suns try to schedule a rematch with Gordon in Phoenix over the next few weeks.

If Phoenix keeps the pick -- and that still is a big if -- I still think Harris could be their man. There are intangibles that just can't be measured in a workout, and Harris has them. He'd be a great fit in Phoenix and one of the few players in this draft who could step in right away and help a team.

The workout also could end up helping Jackson. Several members of the Suns' contingent walked away raving about the Oregon star. Drafting Jackson at No. 7 seems awfully high, not to mention a bit repetitive with Joe Johnson and Casey Jacobsen already on the roster. Still, it's tough not to like what Jackson is going to bring to the table. His shooting, athleticism, competitiveness and his wealth of experience could make him the first senior drafted this year. He also may end up joining Emeka Okafor and Gordon as a favorite for Rookie of the Year if he lands on a team that will give him minutes.

Livingston still a question mark

Shortly after the Suns finished working out Harris and Jackson, they joined the Wizards, Hawks, Sixers and Cavaliers for a private workout for Shaun Livingston. All five GMs and four head coaches (the Hawks still don't have one) attended the workout, to which Insider obtained exclusive access. Trainer Tim Grover took Livingston through an hour of shooting and dribbling drills. Unfortunately, though, Livingston worked out alone.

# He shot the ball fairly well -- he has a very nice release point and can do some nice stuff off the glass, a lost art these days -- and did a number of impressive things with the ball in some of the dribbling drills -- he has the longest fingers I've ever seen -- but the bottom line was that no one got to see what they really wanted to see: His decision making and feel for the 5-on-5 game.

It's tough to get much information out of workouts like these. The most important tidbit was a confirmation that Livingston has put on 20 pounds since the McDonald's all-star game two months ago.

The reaction from teams and scouts was mixed. Everyone was disappointed they couldn't see Livingston go head-to-head against another top guard in the draft. With that said, they also were impressed with the skills they did see and were most impressed with his body.

"That 20 extra pounds changes everything for me," one executive told Insider. "If his body is improving that quick, it means he'll have a real shot of playing right away. That will make a big difference for a lot of the teams here."

Livingston really staged the workout in an effort to get enough feedback to make his final decision on whether to stay in the draft. So far the feedback has been pretty positive. According to sources, it's very likely he'll stay in, and he could make that official as early as Saturday at the NBA media day.

Livingston is one of the toughest players to project in the draft right now. Based on sheer talent and potential, I think he's the best prospect in the draft. However, given team needs and his relative lack of exposure, his draft range is anywhere from No. 4 to the Bobcats to No. 10 to the Cavs, if no one makes a trade.

Another day, another list

On Wednesday, Insider obtained the "physical only" list -- players invited to Chicago to take the league's physical and be officially weighed and measured, despite not taking part in the actual pre-draft camp. It's typically a very good indicator of which players the NBA believes are first round locks.

Thursday, the league released an even more important list -- the players invited to Saturday's NBA Draft media session. Typically the players invited are considered by the NBA to be locks for the lottery. Here's a look at who got the invite:

Andris Biedrins, Latvia
Josh Childress, Stanford
Luol Deng, Duke
Ben Gordon, UConn
Devin Harris, Wisconsin
Dwight Howard, SW Christian Academy (Atlanta, Ga.)
Andre Iguodala, Arizona
Shaun Livingston, Peoria (Ill.)
Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's
Emeka Okafor, UConn
Josh Smith, Oak Hill Academy (Va.)
J.R. Smith, St. Benedict's Prep (N.J.)

There were only two real surprises: J.R. Smith's appearance on a second big list by the NBA means he's probably going in the lottery. There are teams that really like him and believe he can be a superstar. After a couple of poor workout performances, we had dropped him to No. 18 on our mock draft. It looks like he won't be on the board that long.

Inviting Jameer Nelson is less of a surprise. I don't think this is indicative of his draft position as much as it's an acknowledgement that he's the college player of the year and the only senior in the room.

T-Mac holding up No. 1 pick

# The fate of the No. 1 pick is still in flux, in part because the Magic still are waiting to hear what Tracy McGrady intends to do after next season. Contrary to printed reports, McGrady has not informed the Magic whether he plans to opt out of his contract next summer and play the free-agent market.

McGrady's decision dramatically alters what the Magic will do on draft night. If McGrady is committed to staying, they'll either try to move the pick for a veteran or take Emeka Okafor, the one guy in the draft who could help them immediately. If McGrady wants out, the Magic will hang on to the pick, take a serious look at high school players like Dwight Howard and Shaun Livingston, and start exploring various trade opportunities involving McGrady.

Magic owner Rich DeVos will meet personally with McGrady next week, along with club president Bob Vander Weide, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

"We want to look Tracy in the eyes and say, 'What do you want to do?' No matter what the agent is suggesting or not suggesting as to options for the kid," Vander Weide told the paper. "At the end of the day, I think it's really important that both Rich and myself say, 'Tracy, tell us where your heart is, and we can work through it, whatever it is.'

"Going into draft week, we really want to have a feeling about where he is. ... We're not going to make any decisions until we know where Tracy the person is. The pieces are very much tied together.

"We can't go through what we did with Shaq ... in the 11th hour, being in the last year of the contract. We have to know between now and the 24th whether Tracy's in or whether he's out ... knowing that we'd love to rebuild through and around him.

"He needs to know that. He needs to feel that. But he also needs to understand if his frustration is real and genuine. ... We are at a point where we can only change so much. We all know we can't be the same team. We got to be different, we got to be better."

Houston, Indiana, Detroit, San Antonio and both L.A. teams have been mentioned as possible trading partners for the Magic if T-Mac decides to leave. The Rockets are dangling Steve Francis. The Pacers likely would offer anything on their roster besides Jermaine O'Neal or Ron Artest. The Pistons have enough cap room to swallow a big deal and also could offer Richard Hamilton, Mehmet Okur (in a sign-and-trade) and even Darko Milicic in return. The Clippers could offer Corey Maggette, Quentin Richardson (in a sign-and-trade) and the No. 2 pick in the draft.

Nets, Blazers talking trade?
The most interesting rumor coming out of Chicago on Thursday, repeated by several sources, has the Nets and Blazers discussing a possible trade of Kerry Kittles and Aaron Williams for Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

It's no secret the Blazers have been trying to move Abdur-Rahim. He didn't fit in with the team last season and is attractive trade bait because his contract comes off the books after next year. The Blazers have been trying to pry Ray Allen from the Sonics, but so far Seattle isn't biting.

While there's talk that the Sonics aren't averse to moving Allen -- which may explain why they've been working out several top shooting guard prospects -- apparently they want more than just Abdur-Rahim in the deal.

Kittles, like Abdur-Rahim, has just one year left on his contract. The trade would be very interesting for the Nets and could be a sign they still aren't sold on re-signing Kenyon Martin, who becomes a restricted free agent this summer.

Sonics not married to their pick

Add the Sonics to the list of teams that don't seem to be in love with their position in the lottery.

"We're not married to keeping our pick this year," Sonics GM Rick Sund told Insider. "I think we've got a young team and that, for the right deal, adding a veteran to the roster will help us more."

Sund believes the draft is deep but doesn't see many impact players at No. 12.

"In two or three years, many of the players in the draft are going to be helping teams," Sund said. "But I think a team can only develop so many young players at a time. We got Nick Collison and Luke Ridnour last year, and we like them both. We just need to surround them with guys who already know how to play."

The Sonics aren't the only team that feels that way. Bulls GM John Paxson told me something almost identical last week. The Wizards are in the same boat and looking to move out. The Suns and Clippers would prefer to add a veteran free-agent point guard like Steve Nash instead of a rookie. Sources claim the Cavaliers also are talking to several teams about swapping their pick for a veteran.

"There's a lot of talk going on right now," one veteran GM who wished not to be identified told Insider. "The veteran teams like the younger players and want to start to replenish the roster. The lottery teams want veterans. I wouldn't be shocked if the draft ends up getting turned upside down."