I asked a trusted NBA scout to name the American lottery picks he finds most intriguing as the college season opens next week.
5. Blake Griffin, 6-foot-9 sophomore power forward, Oklahoma. "He's undersized for a 4 but unbelievably powerful," the scout said. "He can jump out of the gym, he has great hands. Really, really strong and explosive. He's going to have to improve his perimeter game a little because his size will make it tougher for him to get to the rim; he can get there with ease in the Big 12, but he can't do it in our league on a nightly basis. He can become a pick-and-pop guy, and I think he will because he has a really good work ethic. He wants to be good, so I think the skills he needs to develop will come his way. He would have been in the lottery last year had he decided to come out as a freshman.''
4. Brandon Jennings, 6-1, 19-year-old point guard, Lottomatica Roma. The former Arizona recruit has averaged 9.7 points in 19 minutes in his first three Euroleague games with his Italian club.
"I'll be curious to see what kind of year Jennings has in the Euroleague and Italian league," the scout said. "He's a highly talented guy, and I think his life has gone well over there so far. His brother is there with him, he's in a great school in Rome, his mom is over there. But the basketball -- I think he's finding out that it's really hard. The Euroleague is more than people think.
"He's left-handed and he can fly. He's a little wild, though, and he's not a great shooter. He can definitely score, and there will be nights when he'll bang out a bunch of jumpers, but that's not his forte. He's not as powerful as Derrick Rose. Jennings has the same kind of speed and elevation, but Rose is taller and wider. This kid is thinner but he's just going to attack, attack, attack.
On Dec. 11, Jennings matches up against Ricky Rubio, the 18-year-old point guard for the Spanish Olympic team who now plays for DKV Joventut of Spain.
"There will be more NBA scouts that day than there will be at the Carolina-Duke game, I promise you," the scout said.
3. Demar DeRozan, 6-6 freshman shooting guard, USC. "Most of the other top Americans in the draft are going to be college freshmen, like it is every year. DeRozan is athletic, he can really score and he can make shots. It's unfair to say this about anybody, but he is Kobe Bryant-ish. What I mean is that if it all works out for him, he can do some of the same things. I don't know yet what kind of kid he is and whether he has the same kind of killer instinct; I doubt whether anybody does. I'm just talking about DeRozan's skill set.
"This guy is a definite one [year] and done. He's different from O.J. Mayo, who always had the ball in his hands for USC last year. This kid is more of a wing. He'll be mainly a 2 in our league, though he'll swing to the 3 sometimes.
2. B.J. Mullens, 7-foot freshman center, Ohio State. "He has skills and a little bit of bounce to his game. I'll be curious to see how he develops this season and to see whether he's grown physically since last spring. He's one guy I don't know enough about yet, but I'm interested.
"The thing with big guys is to find guys like him who have skills, who can catch and shoot and who don't look lost down there. When you have a big man with that kinds of skill set, then you can build upon that. It's much harder to take an athlete and try to teach him a skill set. Give me a big guy with a lot of skills and I'll surround him with athletes.''
1. Austin Daye, 6-10 sophomore forward, Gonzaga. "He's very skilled. He's also -- as of last year -- very thin [190 pounds]. And that's OK, because at his age you're supposed to be skinny and developing physically. I think with lineage of his father [Darren Daye], who played in the NBA and in Europe, he'll tell Austin, 'Look, you've got to get stronger.' And I'm sure his coach addresses that also.
"To me, he's a lottery pick without question. He shoots threes [41.3 percent last season], he shoots free throws [88.1 percent]. If you're asking me how he compares to a guy like Jonathan Bender, I'd say that Bender was way more athletic. I really liked Bender, but this kid doesn't jump like he did. This kid has better ball skills, however. Bender was a 4 morphing into a 3, but Daye is a 3 right now.
"I see something of Danny Manning in him. I never thought of Manning as a super-quick high flyer, and this kid isn't either. But Daye is very cerebral, he cuts without the ball, he's long, he makes shots and he has all of that skill. Plus, he plays on a Gonzaga team that is loaded with multiple players, so people will be seeing a lot of him this year.
"You notice I don't have someone like Tyler Hansbrough on this list. He is a very good player, but as a senior he is an aberration in the draft. He won't get taken in front of Daye because people will see Hansbrough as a finished product -- albeit a very good one -- who doesn't have the upside and skill set of someone like Daye. An NBA team might win more games with Tyler six years from now than with Daye, who is thin and soft as butter. But you know how we all think: We all want upside. That's the nature of our game right now.''
4. It's not so glamorous in New York. At this moment, at least. About one-third of the seats were empty throughout the Knicks' 101-98 win over the Bobcats in coach Larry Brown's return to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. He was greeted mainly with boos, but they were delivered in the shrill, high-pitched voice of children -- not the hoarse, bellicose sound we used to hear when the fans would chant "Jeff Van Gun-dy'' during the team's defense-first era.
New Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni has been fighting a bad cold for almost a week, which makes him look far more depressed than he really is. In two decades of successful coaching in the NBA and Europe, D'Antoni has endured only one bad full year, with the Nuggets during the 1999 lockout season, when after his 14-36 debut he was replaced in a horrendous power grab by general manager Dan Issel. (That isn't going to happen here.) Not only are the problems of winning games going to be new for D'Antoni, but also his first regular-season week on the job has been consumed by Stephon Marbury, his team has struggled to keep up with his open-court style, and three skilled big men -- Jared Jeffries (fractured left fibula), Eddy Curry (overweight) and rookie Danilo Gallinari (back injury) -- have been out.
"I still think we can make the playoffs,'' D'Antoni said stubbornly before the victory against the Bobcats. "I know it's a tough place, but the guys are going to have to get some college-like spirit and make the town fall in love with you.''
3. Having fun isn't as easy as it looks. Apart from adapting to D'Antoni's new offense, the players must accept the convoluted issues of New York's bloated roster. The Knicks like David Lee, for example, but they can't afford to re-sign him while they are trying to reduce their payroll by 2010, when LeBron James and several other stars can enter free agency. As much as Lee tries to not dwell on his future, he has no experience in dealing with contract issues and so it becomes another lesson that must be learned the hard way.
"David Lee is playing a lot, which means we have faith in him,'' Knicks president Donnie Walsh said. "We're not just showcasing him. We're trying to build with guys like him.''
D'Antoni runs the league's most gratifying offense, and you would think players wouldn't need to be told more than once to shoot the ball whenever possible. So far, it isn't working out that way.
"When we played against Phoenix,'' Lee said in reference to D'Antoni's tenure with the Suns, "I thought they were just running around playing street ball. I didn't realize there was as much structure as there is. I have to learn to be a lot more aggressive.
"It's a lot easier for the guards because a lot of the guards -- who have been the best player on their team before -- have had that [opportunity to shoot]. But I think we're going to be very successful as we learn the reads and how to get open.''
The offense appears to be perfect for shooting guard Jamal Crawford, but through four games he was hitting 39.6 percent from the field for his 15.0 points.
"Everything you've been taught in the past is almost reversed,'' Crawford said. "Usually, teams want to work it around and work the clock down, but with him it's the opposite. He wants to get a quick shot so the defense can't set up.''
The Knicks need to learn to play off one another (rather than watch each other go one-on-one) and to exploit the seams created by their floor spacing (which could benefit small forward Wilson Chandler, who could be a better scorer by attacking the basket occasionally rather than by trying to prove himself as a perimeter shooter).
"There will be good moments, and then we've taken steps back,'' Crawford said before Wednesday's game. "But if we win tonight, we'll be 2-2.'' Which they were. "And that's not bad.''
2. Marbury needs to think outside the box. The Knicks do not want to buy out Marbury unless he is willing to accept a reduction in salary. He should hire an agent, who can find him a new team that will enable Marbury to deduct his new salary from what the Knicks owe him -- and still pocket the remainder. In other words, he would be maintaining his current $20.8 million salary while playing for a new team and showcasing himself to earn a new contract next season.
But when people try to make this suggestion, Marbury boils over. He thinks the Knicks are trying to stick it to him by not honoring his full guarantee.
Instead of playing the role of victim, Marbury should be aggressively trying to stick it to the Knicks. He can average 18 points for another team while New York is still paying him $19 million. Who will have the last laugh in that scenario? Has Marbury no understanding of revenge?
1. 2010 is the finish line. Until now, the Knicks have avoided payroll discipline and a long-term overhaul based on the argument that a team in New York can't afford to rebuild. The truth is that the promise of signing LeBron, Chris Bosh or other stars should be enough to see this franchise through the next two years. Bring in a big name and the frustrations of these two seasons to come will be forgotten. Instantly.
3. You wrote last week that the Celtics "endured much conflict among their three stars last season." What conflict are you talking about? I watched every game and followed them daily in the Boston newspapers. There was never any indication of friction or conflict. Do you know something that nobody else does?-- Dave, Providence, R.I.
During the preseason, Ray Allen told me that the Celtics didn't always get along so well.
"It was harder than it looked,'' he said. "We definitely went through adversity last year. We had arguments in the locker room, arguments on the bus, arguments on the plane, arguments on the court. It was just little stuff. But I think teams that don't argue are teams that don't really care enough or want it enough.
"We were fighting for it because everybody thinks they know how to do it. So together we have to come to even ground. We fought for a lot -- the players, the coaches, everybody, because we all had to give ground in order for us all to be on the same page. We really fought to be on the same page.''
Every team suffers from tension among its players. The bigger the egos, the greater the tension.
2. I'm glad you broke down what Ben Gordon's been doing, but what are the trade scenarios? The Bulls probably won't wait until the trade deadline this year. They need to get a lineup established as soon as possible so Derrick Rose and Vinny Del Negro will be as comfortable as possible when running it during the playoffs. What scoring players do you see the Bulls possibly being able to acquire?-- JB, Chicago
The Bulls almost certainty won't be able to trade Gordon during the season. Not only must he approve any deal, but also the Bulls will not be able to trade his Bird rights, which means that team would have to be under the cap in order to re-sign him to a contract worth more than the mid-level exception. This looks like a year that will be invested in developing Rose and finding out which players fit around him. The Bulls can make a flurry of moves next summer, including a sign-and-trade involving Gordon.
1. Here's why you're wrong about your Finals prediction: The Lakers don't need anyone besides Kobe Bryant to be their closer. Why? Because the strength of their second unit -- by my estimation, the strongest in the league -- will allow Kobe to conserve his energy and take over the game only when necessary. Conversely, I believe the Celtics will find themselves lacking without the key defense and shooting of James Posey and P.J. Brown. Oh, yeah, and the Spurs ... do they even have a second-unit player of note? Ime Udoka? Roger Mason? I think you'll find yourself slapping your forehead for picking the Spurs to beat the Celtics in the Finals. San Antonio will be out in the second round.-- Jordan, Baltimore
I still think the Lakers need to develop a No. 2 star behind Kobe, and they could use a tough veteran or two to come off the bench. But you may turn out to be right. Udoka, Mason and Matt Bonner must prove themselves reliable as reserves for San Antonio (it wouldn't hurt for athletic big man Ian Mahinmi to join the rotation either), and the Celtics need to acquire length for their bench.
2. Ron Artest. Kings coach Reggie Theus on how his high-maintenance former player is similar to a complicated Hollywood star:
"From a coach's perspective, I didn't have any problems with Ron. I think all of the superstars in the league -- maybe with the exception of one or two -- all have something going on where you have to coach them. You have to deal with what makes them special, that little thing that makes them who they are. You look at all walks of life and it's the same with all of the extraordinary or exceptional people. Like Al Pacino -- he's not Al Pacino just being a great actor; he's really got all of that [inner tension] going on.
"When you talk about Ron the player, the other night I watched Houston play against Dallas and I think he guarded four different guys. I miss that.
"I'm happy for him he has this opportunity. We all felt here that Ron needs to be on a team where there are people he would consider his equal, so I think he will find it a nice place there. And listen, that doesn't mean they're not going to have a couple of moments during the season when Ron's going to be Ron. But the good thing is that [Rick] Adelman knows how to coach that because he's been with Ron before.''
1. Allen Iverson. An advance scout makes the case that Iverson will improve the Pistons:
"Iverson scores more points, averages more assists and shoots a better percentage than [Chauncey] Billups. A problem for Iverson is that he holds the ball a long time. In Denver, AI played with a lot of one-on-one guys, which meant he could hold the ball for 15 seconds before passing it to Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith, and they would still have time to make a shot. The good thing about Detroit is that Rip Hamilton plays off the ball a lot. I think Iverson wants to win, he's at the late stage in his career when he needs to win, and he'll sublimate himself to do what they need him to do.
"Billups was overrated defensively. One of his weaknesses was that he couldn't keep quicker guys in front of him; Iverson will be able to do that. He's going to need to gamble less and play the fundamentals, which is the way he defended when he was playing in Philly for Larry Brown. So he'll draw from that experience.
"The biggest thing is his intensity. As good as Billups is, he's too cool for school. Iverson is going to come in with a lot of energy, and guys like Rasheed [Wallace] are going to feed off that. I'll be surprised if Iverson doesn't have a positive impact.''
1. That pro athletes will remain committed politically. Two years ago, Hill told me that a majority of American players in the NBA were probably siding with the Republican party. As African-Americans, most of them had been raised as Democrats, but as their salaries soared into the eight or nine figures, they had been lured to the conservative side by President Bush's lower tax rates for the rich.
Those affiliations changed this year as LeBron James and other NBA stars campaigned openly for President-elect Barack Obama. Hill believes his colleagues became involved not just because Obama is a fellow African-American.
"There was that quote, 'Republicans buy Nikes too,' " Hill said, referring to Michael Jordan's explanation for his political neutrality. "I don't think that's as big an issue as it was 15 to 20 years ago. Guys are more comfortable getting out now and using whatever platform there is to endorse somebody. And that's on both sides: I saw where [Cleveland Browns quarterback] Brady Quinn came out for [John] McCain at a rally. So I think that's all good.''
It will be interesting to see how this plays out within the NBA's small, lucrative world. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, at least 20 NBA players will pay $1 million or more in additional taxes annually under the Obama administration. Can the good will of this election be transformed into a social movement of lasting power?
"The problems that exist are far greater than the benefits of certain tax brackets and certain NBA players,'' Hill said. "During the Bush administration, a lot of guys saved a lot in taxes. But I think a lot of guys are willing to look past that to try to do what's right and make the necessary changes to improve things.''