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MFFL
06-24-2003, 09:49 AM
http://www.orlandosentinel.com/sports/basketball/magic/orl-sptdraft23062303jun23,0,7428703.story?coll=orl-sports-headlines

Trio signifies future of NBA

By Jerry Brewer | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted June 23, 2003


The last time the NBA draft was this certain at the top, a 7-foot-1, 303-pound phenomenon from Louisiana State stood upon hearing his name called first, opened his eyes wide and asked with mock surprise, "Who me?"

Everyone who could pronounce the word "basketball" knew the Orlando Magic would select Shaquille O'Neal No. 1 overall in 1992, just as they knew Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner would fall right behind him.

Those players were the divine trio. They were well-known commodities. O'Neal was a junior who so dominated the college game that there was no doubt he'd be special. Mourning, taken second by Charlotte, was one of the most intimidating forces in NCAA history. Laettner, who has had the worst pro career of the three after Minnesota took him No. 3, ended his college days as one of college's greatest winners.

"That was probably a once-in-a-decade draft," said Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams, who was the team's general manager then.

Eleven years later, another top-heavy draft has arrived.

Everyone who can pronounce "basketball" knows the Cleveland Cavaliers will select LeBron James No. 1 overall on Thursday, just as they know Darko Milicic and Carmelo Anthony will fall right behind him.

These players are the new divine trio. They are well-known commodities, too -- but with a twist.

James comes to the league fresh from high school graduation. Serbia native Milicic just turned 18. Anthony is 19 and enters the NBA after winning an NCAA championship with Syracuse as a freshman.

By now, you know them almost as well as you knew the 1992 class, or the 1982 class that featured James Worthy, Terry Cummings and Dominique Wilkins.

It's another sign of how the drafting game has changed.

"Get used to it, folks," Williams said.

Inside the NBA, the adjustment already has been made. Although some fans argue over whether James will become a star, most all scouts and general mangers have few doubts. They see him as a can't-miss prospect similar to Shaq, though not as dominant. They see Milicic (who Detroit will take) and Anthony (who Denver will take) as future stars, too. In 11 years, the fear over drafting super-young prospects has subsided.

The expectations of under-20 prospects are beginning to change, too. Most teams still follow a three-to-four-year model to fully develop a prospect that played little or no college basketball. Yet the reigning rookie of the year is Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire, a former Cypress Creek High School star. For the first time, a player has made the preps-to-pros leap and excelled more than his older counterparts.

Stoudemire has plenty of developing left, and his success was aided by the fact that Phoenix had two stars in place in Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion. Still, his breakthrough season has both enabled and placed a burden on the likes of James, Milicic and Anthony.

You're starting to hear more about immediate impact and less about "upside" when referring to these guys. You knew it would happen eventually. As young prospects become more accepted, players begin preparing earlier for the NBA. James, for instance, knew he needed to get ready for his jump after his sophomore year of high school.

The NBA has turned into a league of nurturing and development, but coaches and general managers need to win, too. So the pressure on these players increases.

"That word 'upside' goes right along with being fired," Utah General Manager Kevin O'Connor said. "'I thought he had a great upside. The minute you say that, that's one step closer to getting your pink slip."

Anthony expects to make an immediate impact.

"That is something I have been born to do. Just come in and not take over from the beginning but try to ease my way in and see where I fit," Anthony told reporters during a pre-draft interview session in Chicago.

In Cleveland, there is a Shaq-like excitement over James, an Akron, Ohio, product. The Magic know this feeling very well. Despite his departure four years into his career here, landing O'Neal remains the biggest moment in the history of the Magic franchise.

"We were an expansion team," said current Magic General Manager John Gabriel, who has been with the team since its inception in 1989. "When we got him, we were an NBA ballclub. We got our hope. There was no confusion about where we were going."

Most of Cleveland feels the same way now. They have never seen James play against even college-level players, but they have heard the stories.

"He's the Shaq of '03," Williams said of James.

He said those words without hesitation. He refers to history to explain. From Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Tracy McGrady to Dirk Nowitizki, the young prodigies are finding success in a league that is becoming more dependent on them and more welcoming of them, too.

"History says almost all of these guys make it, especially the ones drafted high," Williams said. "They almost all make it huge."

On Thursday, James, Milicic and Anthony will accept their expectations, just as O'Neal, Mourning and Laettner did. They may not be as ripe as their predecessors, but they certainly will feel as wanted.