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03-05-2004, 12:58 PM
Livingston, Harris top point guard list

After a three-year point guard drought, the 2003 draft flooded the NBA with a plethora of unbelievable point guard prospects. Kirk Hinrich, Dwyane Wade and T.J. Ford have been great. Luke Ridnour, Marcus Banks, Zoran Planinic, Leandro Barbosa, Mo Williams and Steve Blake have shown flashes of promise. Reece Gaines? Eh ... not so much.

It was about time. It had been three pretty long years since the point guard explosion of 1999 brought us Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Andre Miller and Jason Terry in the lottery.

Suddenly it's vogue to be a point guard again. This year Insider already has identified 15 potential point guard prospects who could hear their name called on draft night. As many as four of them could go in the lottery. Ironically, the player scouts feel may be the best point guard of the bunch, Wake Forest's Chris Paul, probably won't be in this draft.

The amazing thing about this class is that it shows the definition of a point guard gets fuzzier and fuzzier by the day. After years of claiming the smallish point guard is dead, the Bucks rewrote the script last summer taking Ford with the No. 8 pick. So far, Ford has proved his worth.

"I thought that tiny point guards were a thing of the past," one GM told Insider. "Now, with guys like Earl Boykins and T.J. doing well, who knows? There just isn't a prototypical point guard anymore."

This year you have your choice of small (Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton and Sebastian Telfair), supersized (Shaun Livingston, Sasha Vujacic and Roko Leni Ukic) and everything in between (Ben Gordon, Devin Harris).

Small point guards give you the speed to run a high-octane offense. The big guards can play multiple positions, create defensive nightmares and see over their opponents. The in-betweens tend to be shooting guards in point guard clothing. But with the success of players like Gilbert Arenas and Chauncey Billups running and gunning, there's now a place for those guys too.

Here's our first look at what should be a pretty decent point guard class.

Note: The list includes all players who we believe might declare for the 2004 draft.

1. Shaun Livingston, Peoria (Ill.)
The line: 6-7, 185, HS Senior
The skinny: The jury's is still out on whether Livingston will put his name in. But with several NBA scouts claiming he could be a top-eight pick in this year's draft, that's probably enough to get him out of Coach K's hands in Duke. The comparisons to Penny Hardaway are pretty close, but Livingston is much, much closer to the type of "pure" point guard NBA coaches love. There's no question he needs to get physically stronger, but right now that's the only real knock on his game. The fact he possesses an excellent shooting touch and can score off the dribble at will is really gravy. Add in the flair with which he plays the game, and many believe he'll be the first-ever high school point guard to make a successful jump to the pros.

2. Ben Gordon, Connecticut
The line: 6-2, 185, Junior
The skinny: Is he a point guard or isn't he? That's still the big question on everyone's mind. Gordon is a great scorer, a good passer and an excellent ball handler. The fact that he almost always plays under control also helps his cause. But he didn't improve this year the way some scouts expected him to and it's pretty clear that he's slipped just a bit this season in most scouts' minds. He's still a lottery pick, but he may be closer to the late lottery than mid lottery right now.

3. Devin Harris, Wisconsin
The line: 6-3, 185, Junior
The skinny: No one has gained more ground this year than Harris. He really wasn't on most scouts' radar screens at the start of the season, but now some of them believe he's the best point guard in college basketball. Harris appears to be the complete package. He has the size, speed, quickness, explosiveness and shooting stroke that scouts love. He's quickly catching up to Gordon in the minds of the scouts who Insider's talked to. He's a late-lottery to mid-first-round pick right now, but he's climbing.

St. Joseph's magical run has helped Jameer Nelson's stock.

4. Jameer Nelson, St. Josephs
The line: 5-11, 190, Senior
The skinny: All of the euphoria from an unbelievable season at St. Joseph's has really helped Nelson's stock. Last season he was a borderline first-rounder. Without changing his game at all, he's now planted himself firmly in the first round. How high? Several teams that had him in for individual workouts last spring claim they weren't overwhelmingly impressed and hadn't seen anything this year that's changed their opinion. There's no question that Nelson is a good scorer and can run a basketball team. He also has NBA strength, which is a plus. However, his small stature and a lack of lateral quickness probably have him slipping a bit once individual workouts begin. His range right now is anywhere from 12-24.

5. Raymond Felton, North Carolina
The line: 6-0, 190, Sophomore
The skinny: It's not clear whether Felton will be in the draft, but if he is he'll challenge Nelson for the fourth point guard taken in the draft. Felton's lack of size and his inconsistent shooting stroke hurt his cause, but his blazing speed and feel for running a team make up for it. Several scouts consider Felton the best "pure" point guard in the draft and claim that he's on par with T.J. Ford, a lottery pick last season. Right now Felton is considered a mid-first-round pick.

6. Sebastian Telfair, Brooklyn
The line: 5-11, 180, HS Senior
The skinny: He has the talent. I think there are no questions left about that. What scouts are fretting about are his size and his maturity. Those are the two big reasons why Livingston is on top of this list and Bassy is here. Telfair has a lot of influences around him right now pushing him to go pro. A cover story this week in Sports Illustrated won't help things. It's probably a mistake. Lottery picks are rarely used on players under 6-feet, even great players with tons of college experience. It would be unprecedented for an undersized high school point guard to get that type of commitment from a team in the lottery. If he doesn't get a lottery commitment, he'd be stupid to come out now. Two years from now he'll be at the top of this list. If a lottery team can wait that long, it might just make a deal. But if I were Telfair's adviser, I'd tell him to go to school. The Clippers (the one lottery team said to be enamored with him) aren't worth the trouble.

7. Sasha Vujacic, Udine (Italy)
The line: 6-7, 205, 19 years old
The skinny: Vujacic, a native of Slovenia, impressed scouts with a good performance at the Chicago pre-draft camp last season. He's a 6-foot-7 combo guard with some definite point guard skills. He's had a great season playing two guard for Udine, but scouts feel he can make the transition to the point in the pros. He'll need to get stronger and speed up his game to succeed in the NBA, but several scouts see a young Brent Barry when watching him. He's a great shooter and has special court vision. He's now a lock for the first round and could go as high as 15 depending on how he looks in workouts.

8. Roko Leni Ukic, Split (Croatia)
The line: 6-5, 180, 20 years old
The skinny: One of the real sleepers in the draft. He just signed with SFX agent David Bauman (who represents Peja Stojakovic among others) and Bauman is claiming that Ukic is definitely in the 2004 draft. Bauman is also claiming that Ukic has no substantial buyout issues to deter teams from taking him. He's a big kid, but he's all point guard, according to several scouts who have seen him. Several scouts claim he's the best young point guard in Europe right now, averaging 15.2 ppg for KK Split. There are issues about his body (he's rail thin) and his long-range shooting touch (Will he be able to sink an NBA 3?) but teams love his energy, ball handling, quickness, work ethic and athleticism for a point guard that size.

9. Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech
The line: 6-3, 200, Sophomore
The skinny: Here's your American sleeper. He's got good size and nice court vision for a point. He's got the NBA body and athleticism. He's had a pretty solid season for Georgia Tech and is said to be leaning toward testing the waters. Scouts worry that the plays a little out of control at times, but they feel the talent is there. The biggest question for Jack is really whether now is the right time to declare. Given the depth at the position, it seems like he'd be better off staying one more year at Tech.

10. Chris Thomas, Notre Dame
The line: 6-1, 182, Junior
The skinny: He's a true point guard, but his size and lack of strength are scaring teams away. He doesn't have the speed or the floor vision you'd like to have in a point his size. He's a good shooter, but scouts consider him just an average athlete. Some have compared him to a poor man's Mike Bibby. But given Bibby's up-and-down NBA career, that doesn't make him a lock for the first round. He flirted with the draft last year, but couldn't get a first-round commitment. Has anything changed this year? There won't be 10 point guards selected in the first round, that's for sure.

11. Ivan Koljevic, Buducnost (Serbia)
The line: 6-2, 175, 19 years old
The skinny: Koljevic got off to a hot start for Buducnost this season, but lost his starting job when the team changed coaches. Since then his numbers have really started to suffer. To make matters worse, scouts are still pretty split on his ability to make the transition to the point in the pros. No one questions his ability to score at will, but most haven't seen the playmaking skills to confidently declare that he's a first-rounder at the end of the day. He'll need great workouts for that.

Can Duhon won't be a high pick, but he'll likely stick in the league.

12. Chris Duhon, Duke
The line: 6-1, 190, Senior
The skinny: We've been hearing some nice things about Duhon lately that suggest that he'll be drafted and have a chance to stick in the league. Scouts still contend that he has the athleticism, intelligence and court vision to be a good pro, but he's just not the type of player who you ask to run your team 30 minutes a game. Expect him to go somewhere in the second and then expect him to make a roster.

13. Marcelo Huertas, Paulistanto (Brazil)
The line: 6-3, 200, 20 years old
The skinny: Another international sleeper who has been personally endorsed by Leandrinho Barbosa. Huertas has been described as a poor man's Steve Nash. He's another athletic, sharp-shooting point guard who's received little to no exposure in Brazil. The good news is that he doesn't have a buyout, speaks fluent English and is ambidextrous. The few scouts who have seen him play like him. We'll wait until he gets over here and begins workouts before assigning a draft stock to him. For now let's just say that he's emerging on everyone's radar screen.

14. Blake Stepp, Gonzaga
The line: 6-4, 200, Senior
The skinny: He's slow, doesn't have a great handle, rarely gets to the hole and is known as just a so-so defender. So how does Stepp get on this list? With zone defenses gumming up the lane, shooting now comes at a premium and Stepp is an unbelievable shooter with real point guard skills. He's not going to out run anyone, but teams make take a look in the second round and consider Stepp. They underestimated Kyle Korver last year because of very similar issues and Korver has been a contributor in the league. Stepp's cut out of the same mold.

15. Marcus Moore, Washington State
The line: 6-6, 208, Senior
The skinny: He was ranked much higher last year based on his size, scoring ability and floor vision. But he tanked at the Chicago pre-draft camp and then has suffered through a so-so season at Washington State this year. He's had his moments (like a 29-point outburst against Arizona earlier in the season) but for the most part he's fallen off the board. He'll get a second look at draft camps and I think people understand that the potential is there. But will it actually translate into draft buzz? Moore may have missed his opportunity.

Best of the Rest: Luis Flores, Manhattan; Timmy Bowers, Mississippi State; Antonio Burks, Memphis; Jason Parker, Tulsa; Alexsandar Capin, Germany

Wait until next year: Chris Paul, Wake Forest; Dee Brown, Illinois; Shannon Brown, Michigan State; Cedric Bozeman, UCLA

Draft Cards

Drejer in 2004 draft? It looks like former Florida forward Christjan Drejer made a bigger mistake than anyone realized by dropping out of Florida to sign a pro contract with F.C. Barcelona. League sources have told Insider Drejer will automatically be entered into the 2004 draft.
He will not have the right to withdraw his name if he doesn't like his draft position the way most college and international underclassmen do. Drejer's hand is forced because of rule that states that if a college player fore goes his college eligibility and signs with pro team, he immediately becomes eligible for the next NBA draft. NBA spokesman Tim Frank confirmed this interpretation to Insider on Thursday.

That could be a major blow to Drejer, who was considered a likely lottery candidate at the start of the year. However, a lack of playing time, combined with his decision to jump ship for Barcelona, will take its toll on his draft stock. He's now looking like a borderline first-round pick. Had he stayed in school another year, he may have been able to increase his draft stock back into the lottery.

Former Michigan State center Erazem Lorbek faced a similar dilemma last year. Lorbek declared for the NBA draft last spring, pulled his name out of the draft and then signed with a pro team, Skipper Bologna, in July. Normally, under this rule, he too would have been put into the 2004 draft.

However, Lorbek's agent, David Bauman, told Insider that Lorbek received a special exception because of some bad advice given to the family by league lawyers. Originally, Lorbek was told that he would have the ability to enter the draft and remove his name the way all young international players do. When the league realized the mistake it granted Lorbek the exception. Bauman claims that Lorbek will be entering his name into this year's draft. However, he will be able to withdraw if he doesn't like his draft stock.

Spanish cup sensation: A plethora of NBA scouts and GMs were in Spain last week watching the Kings Cup. Almost all of them came away raving about Joventut Badalona's Rodolfo "Rudy" Fernandez. The 18-year-old, 6-foot-5 inch two guard walked away with MVP honors and wowed scouts with his athleticism, scoring ability, outside shot and active defense.
"He could be a devastating offensive player in the NBA," one scout told Insider.

Another went even further. "He's the best Spanish prospect since Pau Gasol, no question."

Based on the advice of several international scouts, we're going to move him into the top 10 of our Insider international rankings. The only two guards we have ranked higher at the moment are Russia's Sergei Monya and Slovenia's Sasha Vujacic.

Podkolzine, Andriuskevicius shine at junior tournament: The other big destination for most league scouts was a junior tournament held in Forli, Italy. The tournament was for players born in 1984 and later and featured two big-time prospects in Pavel Podkolzine and Martyans Andriuskevicius.
Podkolzine (7-5, 300) led his team to the championship with a dominant 31-point, 20-rebound performance. Eye witnesses claim that he faced constant double and triple teams and still scored at will. The performance really heightened the mood of several scouts, who had begun to wonder when Pavel would ever show his dominance.

"He was amazing," one scout said. "I've been waiting a long time to see that. He looks a hundred times better than he did last year. Based on what we saw in that tournament, he's a legit top three pick in the draft."

Another scout wouldn't go quite that far. "He was good, but the competition was young and no one could match his size," the scout told Insider. "Still, I'll be stunned if he's not a top 10 pick on draft night. He really has the chance to be special."

The other player who caught many scouts' eyes was Insider mystery man Andriuskevicius (7-3, 250). This was the first time many GMs and scouts were able to see him play, and according to reports, he didn't disappoint. He dropped 20 points and 18 rebounds in the final game, showed his ability to score in the post and on the perimeter and reportedly took the ball coast to coast on one play.

We've been projecting for several months now that he was the sleeper of the draft, and based on the reports we're now hearing from scouts who saw him in Italy, he could be one of the top three international players taken in this year's draft.

Lakers' success hinges on Malone's health

If Karl Malone returns Monday to exact vengeance on a Utah Jazz franchise that he played with for 18 seasons, then he and the Lakers will have 20 games to get it together.

And everyone is asking if that is enough time to salvage a season marked by injury, in fighting and a rape case against Kobe Bryant that won't go away anytime soon.

"Despite all that's going on, my main contention is that 99 percent of it is injury-related," general manager Mitch Kupchak said in the L.A. Daily News. "The problems as far as players speaking out, I think a lot of it is due to frustration -- frustration over not winning as many games as we hoped to win. If we can get this group back together and have them play together for close to a month, then we have to feel fortunate."

Karl Malone
Power Forward
Los Angeles Lakers

24 14.0 9.5 3.7 .506 .738

Malone has not played since Dec. 21 when 260-pound Scott Williams fell on his knee. Originally, the injury was thought to be a minor ligament sprain, but it turned into a much more serious tear after second MRI.

Prior to this season, Malone had missed 10 games in 18 years. This year alone, he has already missed 36 and it will be at least 38 by Monday's game against the Jazz.

"He's going to have to have two, three, four days of practice, and demonstrate that he can practice, and then the next day be able to come in and do it again without increased swelling," general manager Mitch Kupchak said in the L.A. Daily News. "He has another hurdle or two to clear. But this is significant, because he's being allowed back on the basketball court. It's a little bit earlier than was discussed three or four weeks ago, so I guess its good to say that he's ahead of the curve."

But just as important as Malone's physical recovery is the team's fragile dynamic, which has been on the mend as the team has gone 10-3 recently but has, nonetheless, shown weaknesses.

The question is not only about Malone's knee, but whether a healthy Malone will actually help the team when he does return.

The statistics say it will make all the difference in the world.

The Lakers began the season 18-3 with all four of their superstars playing major roles. In that month of November, the combination of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton averaged 55.6 points per game and everyone seemed happy.

Since then, the Lakers have gone 21-18 as Shaq, Kobe and Payton have gone on to average a combined 59.1 points per game on the season.

That's a difference of only 3.5 more points as Shaq has complained about touches, Payton about minutes and Kobe about where he will even play next season with Malone out of the lineup.

An even closer look at their most recent games as Shaq and Bryant have returned from injury show that the Lakers are still desperately missing their Hall of Fame power forward.

As mentioned previously, the Lakers have gone 10-3 in their most recent games. But in those three loses to the Rockets, Kings and Hawks, the starting power forward for Los Angeles averaged a mere 6.6 points per game, 3.3 rebounds and one assist on 24 percent shooting.

Compare those numbers to Malone's 24 games with the Lakers, which happened to come at the beginning of the season.

2004 season: 14 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.7 apg, 50% shooting

That's a difference of 7.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists, which become even more important when you consider that the Lakers lost to the Kings by one point and the Hawks by another point three games later.

Of course, the Lakers know that injuries are part of the game. They know that their locker room chemistry is at a critical point. And they know that Malone is a 40-year-old player who has already played in 1,630 playoff and regular-season games and is returning after his first major injury.

But they also know that Malone would trade in his 36,710 points for one championship ring in the next 20 regular-season games and ensuing playoff run.

He has something to prove to Utah fans on Monday and himself over the next couple months.

"I would suppose that one practice doesn't do it," Kupchak said. "Our coach has to be comfortable with it also, as far as conditioning, etc. ... It makes no sense to push this guy after waiting eight weeks, 10 weeks (for him to recover)."

Defense could be Kings' undoing

With the impressive return of Chris Webber, the question has to be asked: Are the Kings the favorites to win it all? C-Webb has looked better than anyone could have expected in his first two games back, and the Kings, who had the best record in the league without him, haven't missed a beat.
Chris Webber
Power Forward
Sacramento Kings

2 25.0 9.0 7.0 .588 .769

You can't argue with their firepower. Peja Stojakovic continues to score at will; Brad Miller and Vlade Divac are as good as any bigs in the league from the high post and both are decent rebounders; and there is no better point guard tandem than Bobby Jackson and Mike Bibby (who has hit as many big shots this year as Peja). Offensively they have no weaknesses. They all shoot it well and pass it well, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on opposing defenses.

Also because so much of their offense is created by their bigs from the high post, it makes it hard to pressure them. Most centers and power forwards are not nearly as effective when they're asked to defend 15-20 feet from the basket.

There is no question that, on the surface, you'd have to say they're the favorite to win it all. But are they? Their Achilles' heel is still on the defensive end, where teams shoot better than 45 percent against them. Only four teams in the league give up a worse percentage of field goals. Conversely, only four teams shoot 45 percent or better. Sacramento is one of them, but the other three -- Minnesota, Dallas, and the Lakers -- will stand between the Kings and a trip to the Finals.

Sacramento also gets out-rebounded by its opponents on a consistent basis. Come playoff time, you're only playing against the very best teams. To have to win three consecutive seven-game series by outscoring your opponents could be an issue.

In fairness to the Kings though, they have not been healthy all year, and that will impact your team's overall performance. It also prevents you from focusing on the little things that would help them to improve on the defensive side of the ball. Dallas and the Lakers also have struggled defensively, and both teams will have to improve if they want to win it all.

Doug Christie
Shooting Guard
Sacramento Kings

60 9.2 3.8 3.8 .465 .850

One issue I have with the Kings is that when Doug Christie first began his run in Sacramento, he was a breath of fresh air in that he brought toughness and commitment to the defensive end, and the team followed. But over time, his game has begun to mirror that of his teammates -- more flash than substance -- and the Kings, while extremely talented and very successful, lost the edge they were developing.

The question is can they get it back? I think they can, but Christie and Bobby Jackson are the guys who can provide the toughness and bring the other guys over to the Dark Side. Just use the force, and they truly could win it all. Of course, Minnesota, San Antonio, Dallas and L.A. may have a thing or two to say about that, but if the Kings show the heart and desire on the defensive end, the Western Conference championship banner might hang at Arco Arena. Who provides the Kings' greatest challenge? For me it's the Timberwolves and the Lakers. San Antonio has the defense and the two-time MVP, but I don't know if they have enough offense to get back to the Finals. They have been improving, and you can never question the heart of a champion.

Dirk Nowitzki
Dallas Mavericks

55 21.3 8.7 2.9 .450 .872

Dallas has improved its rebounding and has great versatility. Michael Finley has been off the charts for this team of late, and Dirk Nowitzki finally has figured out how to be a force alongside the likes of Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison. Their young players -- Marquis Daniels and Josh Howard -- have been very impressive, and Steve Nash has been very solid.

But their inability to defend the paint is still an issue, and you would like to see them score more from inside in the half court. Their zone defense has been effective, but in a seven-game series, when teams have time to prepare for it, you're going to have to be able to guard individually. That takes a commitment from all five guys on the floor, and I still have yet to see that. But they have improved, and you have to play well to beat them. They know who they are offensively and can score as well as anybody, but I believe you win championships with big stops, not just big shots.

Peep Show

Sacramento Kings: Chris Webber hasn't seen the last of his legal problems, yet. "U.S. Attorney Keith [Corbet] is going to review the bond conditions set by the court to see what, if any, action should be taken," Gina Balaya, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said in the Detroit Free Press. She is referring to the fact that Webber was recently suspended by the NBA for eight games. But only three of those games were a result of his criminal case in which he lied to a grand jury. Five of them were for violating the league's drug policy, which would also violate the terms of his bond in that criminal case.

Maybe the Kings can just pass the ball to Bobby Jackson. "I was going to try to do some running (today)," Jackson said still suffering from an abdominal strain "but it doesn't feel right yet. I can jump and shoot, but that's about it right now." There is no timetable, yet, for his return. "He's just shooting," Kings coach Rick Adelman said in the Sacramento Bee. "That's all I've seen him do is shoot. I think he's got to have a lot more activity before he's even close to coming back."

Milwaukee Bucks: Head coach Terry Porter has cracked his last whip. "He played, and he's definitely a players' coach, because he understands when too much is too much," said point guard Damon Jones in the Sun Sentinel. "He gives you a day off, and he gives you a chance to rest." And as the Bucks enter the race for the playoffs, he's not about to change. "What ends up happening is coaches get frustrated because you call them into practice and try to get something accomplished," Porter said. "Well, the players don't want to practice so you're butting heads there. So you might as well let them have a day off."

Dallas Mavericks: Owner Mark Cuban is mad again. Read on for details. "It will be remembered, especially Ervin Johnson trying to shoot a 3 as time expired and then getting mad when it got blocked," Cuban is quoted in the Pioneer Press after the Timberwolves hammered the Mavs, 121-97. "That was low-rent and classless. Someone told me Garnett did some stuff, but I didn't see it." And Cuban vowed that it wouldn't happen again. "I can't wait to play them again when we aren't on the second game of a back-to-back," Cuban said. "The schedule gods gave them the ultimate break."

Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Miller is going with door No. 2. "I feel pretty good," Miller told the Commercial Appeal after getting a second opinion on his back problem. "The doctor said that (the condition) wasn't going to be career threatening. That was my main thing. He said this wouldn't hurt me long term." Miller is suffering from degenerative disks is his back, but is hoping to return to play in the playoffs with the help of an old friend. "It comes down to how those [cortisone] shots work," Miller said. "Hopefully, I can come back soon."

San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan is getting restless. "I'm not going to be out for two weeks," Duncan said. "I don't have the patience for that. As I feel up to it, I'll start pushing it more and more. (The medical and coaching staffs) will know when I'm ready. I'll know when I'm ready. We're going to kind of work together to figure out the right time to come back." And head coach Gregg Popovich can hardly wait. "He does continue to progress. He's just not strong enough yet to put him out there," Pop said in the San Antonio Express News. "We'll continue to wait until that time comes."

03-05-2004, 01:04 PM
Kudos to the Insider for finally talking about both Sac and Dallas when discussing the dangers of a great offense and a poor defense. I've seen Dallas singled out way too often this year (rightfully chastised, mind you) with no mention of how bad Sac's defense has been. Fair reporting is all I can ask.

And thanks for posting thebac.

03-05-2004, 02:20 PM
I agree with Cuban.

I can't wait to face this team(if they manage to get out of the 1st round) when we aren't at the end of a back-to-back.