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In search of the next Westbrook

The Thunder's Russell Westbrook has unavoidably become part of the 2009 draft conversation despite already having completed an encouraging rookie season. That's nothing. Randy White, a 1989 first-rounder, is back in, too.

Four weeks until the draft, and it is impossible to avoid the intersection of past and present in a sign that lottery teams are grabbing for any safety vest while staring at greater risk than usual. So, UCLA's Jrue Holiday is eerily Russell Westbrook and Memphis' Tyreke Evans is a little bit. And in breaking news, White didn't work as the No. 8 pick 20 years ago.

Evans and Holiday epitomize a draft filled with the unproven and one-hit wonders. Similar uncertainties are everywhere past Blake Griffin at No. 1 and maybe 18-year-old Ricky Rubio at 2 or 3, with Rubio having shown well in the Olympic proving ground and European competition tougher than most NCAA conferences. UConn's Hasheem Thabeet and Arizona's Jordan Hill had flashy 2008-09 seasons after previous campaigns of unrealized potential; USC's DeMar DeRozan, Evans and Holiday are freshmen; and BrandonJennings played to mediocre reviews in his pioneer season in Italy. But all could go in the lottery.

It gets especially interesting with Holiday and Evans, though. They are projected at point guard in the NBA despite playing there some (Evans) or hardly at all (Holiday) in college. Evans is not a good enough shooter to handle the other backcourt spot and the 6-foot-3 Holiday is a bad fit at shooting guard without stud athleticism to offset the size disadvantage, so each will have to make it as a primary ball-handler. Westbrook, one year later.

Westbrook was at least a supreme athlete. He went No. 4 to the Thunder in what many at the time considered a big gamble, an inexperienced point guard for the position that requires instinct more than any other spot. It could have gone historically bad for Oklahoma City. Instead, Westbrook progressed, was the third-best rookie in a poll of coaches and immediately emerged as part of the foundation of a blossoming future there. General manager Sam Presti's gutsy pick turned into a great pick and Westbrook thus becomes the tease of what could be with those draft prospects who follow in attempting the same difficult transition.

Not only that, he is from a Los Angeles suburb, went to UCLA and played alongside starting point guard Darren Collison. Holiday is from a Los Angeles suburb, went to UCLA and played alongside starting point guard Darren Collison. Westbrook had the qualities to become a defensive star. Holiday, though not at that level yet, has the qualities to become a very good defender.

"I think you naturally make the connection," one personnel boss said. "If there wasn't a Karl Malone [the 13th pick in 1985], there wasn't a Randy White. [White] never would have gone that high if people didn't have that Karl Malone connection of power forward from the same school, Louisiana Tech. So there's probably some of that with Westbrook and Holiday. I think it's one of those situations where one guy makes another guy."

Said another decision-maker, choosing the same long-ago comparison without being prompted: "This is a copycat league. Everybody's saying Westbrook was a big hit, so Holiday will be a big hit. Well, that didn't work out so well with Randy White and Louisiana Tech. He got a lot of hype because of Karl Malone."

Westbrook may affect the 2009 draft that much, even though there are important differences in attempting to twin him with Holiday. Westbrook played two seasons in Westwood, though with a minor role as a freshman, and Holiday one. Westbrook got at least a handful of games at the point in 2007-08 with Collison injured, while Collison played the entire '08-09 season. Westbrook had more explosive moments to tempt the NBA, the thrill rides of attacking the basket on one end and locking up on defense at the other. Simply, he had a greater body of work as an untested point guard than Holiday as an untested point guard.

"He didn't handle the ball in college," one executive said of Holiday. "But he made some plays where you'd say, 'Whooaaaa.' Whether he can [play the point] full time, that's a tough call."

Evans is a better actual comparison to Westbrook, just without the geographical connection. Evans handled the ball enough at Memphis to erase a lot of the same doubts, even more noteworthy that he did it at 6-6 and 215 pounds, and with electrifying athleticism.

"An absolute freak of nature," one personnel evaluator said, adding, "He has Brandon Roy qualities in terms of ball handling, shiftiness, strength, the ability to get where he wants with the ball. You just don't see that very often."

At least one team has Evans going as high as No. 4 to the Kings. Proving how wide open the draft gets past Griffin-Rubio-Thabeet or Griffin-Thabeet-Rubio as the top three, the mock draft of another club has Sacramento going a completely different direction with Hill, the Arizona power forward. Holiday is mostly being slotted somewhere around 8 to 12, though the Kings liked what they saw at an individual workout. Everything is subject to revision the next four weeks, of course, the way stocks of players rise and fall. Just as things changed for Westbrook a year before.

It doesn't look good for the Cavaliers. It especially doesn't look for the Cavs because they're getting mauled inside by Dwight Howard and -- oh, yeah! -- had the chance to prevent at least some of this from happening.

It's impossible not to consider what may end up being a history-altering decision, unless the Eastern Conference finals take a dramatic U-turn from Orlando 3-1. In February, Cleveland talked to Phoenix about acquiring Shaquille O'Neal, who would have been better equipped to stand up to Howard than Zydrunas Ilgauskas or that Anderson Varejao hors d'oeuvre Howard was having in the pivotal first few minutes of the Game 4 overtime. At the very least, O'Neal, unable to match Howard's quickness, like every other center in the league, would have known to put the poor free-throw shooter on the line rather than allow a dunk or a 1-footer. Just maybe Shaq has heard of the strategy of fouling someone with a bad history of free throws.

Alas, no. The Suns would have been very tempted by a package topped by the expiring contract of Wally Szczerbiak and rookie forward J.J. Hickson, but were understandably unmoved by some mix with Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic. Phoenix wasn't ready to cash in the season without major incentive, so the deal faded at the trade deadline without ever getting too close and O'Neal finished his commendable season where it started.

If the Cavs are eliminated and Howard is the one pushing them out the door, they will have lost a real shot at the title over holding firm on Szczerbiak, who barely plays, and Hickson, a first-round pick who never plays. There would have been the additional, important consideration of another huge contract on the already-bloated 2009-10 payroll, but there is the alternative: the price the Cavs are close to paying for not making the trade.

• The predraft draft combine opened Wednesday in Chicago with team officials and most U.S.-based prospects gathering for physicals, light workouts and interviews. No actual games. This replaces the annual event in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., that had grown irrelevant as agents increasingly kept away clients who were not even safe bets for the first round, not wanting them to hurt their stock with a bad showing. It infuriated the personnel departments that began to wonder out loud about players being afraid of competition and drove commissioner David Stern to privately suggest to clubs that it was a waste of time and money. One front office that dispatched six representatives to Florida a year ago sent two to Chicago.

• Among the particularly interesting picks to watch in the lottery: the Warriors, who went college freshman in 2008 (Anthony Randolph) and college freshman in 2007 (Brandan Wright, as part of a pre-prearranged deal with the Bobcats). They are choosing seventh this year, a spot that should include several intriguing yet equally inexperienced players, but it's hard to imagine Golden State taking another member of the teen scene as pressure mounts to win now and coach Don Nelson approaches what could be his final season before retirement. Randolph, at least, has star potential.

• Dwight Howard does not do self-pity very well. His fun blog at his official Web site is becoming a constant drumbeat about the Magic not getting enough credit, about how the entire universe is supposedly rooting for a Kobe Bryant-LeBron James title showdown, yada, yada, yada.

Among the recent posts on how Orlando has always been a legitimate threat to beat the Cavs: "You would think people would see that by now after the way we fought back against Philly and Boston, but I guess we just have to keep on proving ourselves. But we're just lil' old Orlando and nobody is ever going to give us any credit for anything."

Woe is him. Cleveland had the best record in the regular season, went 39-2 at home and had been playing better than anyone in the league when the conference finals started. That's why the Cavs were favored. Finish them off within three games and the Magic will get credit for a lot.

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