No kidding -- Harrington best bet at No. 3
June 13, 2004
BY CAROL SLEZAK SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST Advertisement
Emeka Okafor, who gathered with other NBA hopefuls Saturday at the Wyndham Hotel to meet the press, took a look around the room.
''I see a lot of young faces out there,'' he said.
Only at an NBA predraft event could a 21-year-old kid feel old.
While a slew of stringbean high school boys slouched in their chairs, the strong-shouldered, 6-10 Okafor sat straight and tall.
While 18-year-old Dwight Howard, the country's top high school player, spoke in a barely audible whisper, Okafor's voice was loud and assertive.
As Kris Humphries, the freshman from Minnesota, was saying he just does ''what my agent tells me to do, and hopefully it will work out'' Okafor was remarking that ''the older you get, the more you learn the ropes.''
Okafor, who left Connecticut after his junior season, has won a national championship and earned his college diploma. Of all the players who have declared for the draft, he is the most ready to play immediately and make an impact. Too bad, he won't be around when the Bulls pick at No. 3.
So what should Bulls operations head John Paxson do?
He should trade the pick for a quality veteran starter. Because the Bulls cannot afford to get any younger or any more inexperienced.
Luol Deng, the Duke freshman who should be available at No. 3, might become an excellent NBA player. He is smart and talented and, he says, ''driven to achieve.'' If the Bulls had a solid foundation, Deng would be a solid pick for them.
Ah, but Deng also is refreshingly honest. Asked whether he was ready to play in the NBA, the 6-8 forward said, ''I think I'm ready to compete, but I also believe I have a lot to work on. My game is not there yet. There is a lot of room for improvement.''
The Bulls can't wait.
Which brings me to the Pacers' Al Harrington. The 6-9 small forward averaged 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in 31 minutes a game last season. This season's runner-up (to the Mavericks' Antawn Jamison) for the sixth man award, Harrington believes he's earned the right to start. At present, the Pacers don't have room for Harrington in their starting lineup. And they won't, so long as Ron Artest remains on the team.
You think Harrington could start for the Bulls? Yeah, me too. He is worth the No. 3 pick, which is useless to the Bulls as a pick. If the Pacers will take Eddie Robinson along with the pick, the deal will get sweeter still.
In 1998, when Harrington went straight from high school to the NBA, many teams didn't dare use a lottery pick on high school kids. Indiana took Harrington with the 25th pick. If Harrington were coming out of high school today, he would be a lottery pick. Oh, how times have changed.
Will the top kiddies in this year's draft eventually develop into stars? Shaun Livingston, the point forward who was bound for Duke until changing his mind Friday, is a great talent. Andre Iguodala, the Arizona sophomore, has impressed every team he has worked out for. Josh Smith, a 6-9 forward out of Oak Hill Academy, reminds some of Harrington and is projected to be a top-10 pick.
No one knows how long it will take for their bony bodies to fill out. No one knows if they ever will develop into All-Stars, or how long that process might take. There's too much guess work involved, particularly with the high school players. But don't take my word for it. Listen to Howard's response when he was asked about the uncertainty of drafting based on potential.
''You can't judge someone and know how good they're going to be 10 years down the road,'' he whispered.
Listen to what Deng had to say on the subject.
''Everybody who comes into the league wants [to be one of the best players],'' Deng said. ''Some achieve it, some don't.''
The Bulls desperately need a sure thing. Harrington didn't average double figures in scoring until 2001-02, his fourth season in the league. His rebound average has held steady at about six per game since then. He's a six-year veteran. He might have topped out. Then again, he's still only 24 years old.
Is there a veteran available for the Bulls better than Harrington? Tracy McGrady doesn't want to play in Chicago. Antoine Walker, Vince Carter, Chris Webber? Bigger salaries and bigger potential conflicts. (Defense, anyone?) They don't fit into Paxson's and coach Scott Skiles' rebuilding vision.
Tyson Chandler might yet develop into an All-Star. But right now, Harrington is better than any player the Bulls have. He also has playoff experience. And only two years and $13.3 million remain on his contract. Paxson already has talked to the Pacers about Harrington. Here's hoping he makes the deal.