Thursday January 20th, 2005

NEW YORK -- The second five things I think I saw on the floor of the NBA Draft on Thursday night.

(If you missed the first five, click here.)

With visions of Darko Milicic still fresh in GMs' minds -- visions of him, with tape over his infected earlobes, flailing during garbage time of the NBA Finals, that is -- fewer teams were willing to take high first-round risks on international projects.

Seven-foot-5 Russian center Pavel Podkolzine, who had been rumored to go as high as No. 5 to Dallas, was the second-to-last player waiting in the green room Thursday night. He was finally selected 21st by Utah and subsequently shipped to Dallas. The longest green-room vigil, meanwhile, was held by fellow Russian Sergey Monya, who didn't go until 23rd (to Portland).

I stood by Podkolzine's table during picks 13 through 18, watching the big man and his interpreter/guardian, Gianni Chiaparro, exchange distressed looks and nervous chatter. Chiaparro was killing time by jotting down each pick in a notebook. I asked him why he thought Pavel had dropped so far. He shook his head and told me, "Not idea," which led me to believe they had expected to go much earlier ... and also that this man was not a professional interpreter.

Now, Podkolzine is a monster, and from what we've all seen in a couple of grainy videotapes, he has serious potential and would have been an understandable pick late in the lottery.

I'll admit I may not have realized how extensive of a project this kid was, though. ESPN's on-screen "factoid" for Podkolzine was, "Has been playing organized basketball for four years." Which is roughly the equivalent of NBA TV noting, during their interview with me, that Winn "knows most of the alphabet."

Podkolzine's agent, Justin Zanik, was at least pleased his client landed in a internationally friendly environment with the Mavs, "because Pavel hasn't been coached in the past couple of years. His situation in Europe [playing for Varese in Italy] was such that he was on a playoff team, but they didn't work with him. It was an older team, a lot of 35-, 36- and 37-year olds, and he was just this big, 18-year old kid."

So if we put two and two together ... in the four years Podkolzine has been playing basketball, he has not been coached in at least two of them. He's not just a project, he's a full-time job for some lucky guy on Don Nelson's staff.

That label combined with concerns over a glandular problem, the fact that he has spent less than 10 days working out for teams in the U.S., and an abundance of American high school "projects" available ... turned into a bit of a letdown for the big Russian. Young U.S.-born big men like Robert Swift (No. 12 to Seattle) and Al Jefferson (No. 15 to Boston) were deemed much more reasonable first-round gambles.

"The Draft Hat" is as much a part of draft night as awkward international interviews, silly suits and Portland picking a problem child. Within seconds of a pick being announced, an NBA underling hands a player's jubilant party a stack of team lids that are immediately donned by everyone at the table. But trades tend to complicate things.

The deal that sent Luol Deng from Phoenix to Chicago wasn't formalized in a timely manner, so the folks in Deng's party who were in the Garden seats wore their Suns hats for quite some time after the trade. I was in the interview room and missed the trade news, so when I interviewed Manute Bol, who was wearing a Suns cap and talking about Luol being on the Bulls ... let's just say I was totally confused.

Near the end of the evening, one of Podkolzine's associates in the green room was holding a stack of Jazz hats, well after the 7-5 Russian had been shipped from Utah to Dallas and been reissued the proper headwear.

"Are you guys going to give those back?" I asked about the stack of Utahs. "No," the man said. "We'll probably take them back [to Russia]." Good thinking.

In most of his high-school game footage, Shaun Livingston sported a funky 'fro that bore resemblance to Stretch Monroe from EA Sports' NBA Street 2. But Livingston has opted to keep his hair in corn rows lately ... leaving Stanford's Josh Childress, of the college game's most classic 'do, as the draft hair king.

Yet the "draft hat" rule forced Childress' afro to be smothered -- it was barely visible -- on the way to the podium to meet David Stern, as well as in his ensuing press conference. In his euphoric state as a new Atlanta Hawk, Childress did not share my level of concern regarding the hair damage.

"I'm so happy man, I don't care about the hair," he said. "I've never a worn a hat. I never get hats. But this is a good hat -- it's an NBA hat."

Sebastian Telfair's decision to turn pro (and sign an adidas shoe contract) in May was a big ordeal in Times Square. And yet, when the draft rolled along at the Garden in June, he was nowhere to be found. Telfair, who was selected in the lottery by Portland, claims he was not invited to sit in the green room -- so he decided not to show up. Sad, really. It should have been his night in New York, after being the city's prep b-ball darling for years. Instead, he celebrated at Jay-Z's 40-40 club ... less than 10 blocks from MSG on West 25th street.

I got a look at Bassy's new shoe at the draft, though. The adidas folks released a prototype of what will be called the "Gameday Lightning" ... an excessively shiny, metallic model with a curvy, black variation of the three stripes on one side. It should distract NBA players who are actually playing, while Telfair rides the Blazers' bench. And for the average street player looking to reflect automotive headlights with his footwear, this is your shoe. Just save $80 by December, when the Lightning will reportedly strike stores nationwide.

Four superlatives to send this thing home ...

BEST SUIT: Give it to Emeka Okafor, who was always GQ in his UConn days and did not disappoint on draft night. 'Mek was clearly happy when a female reporter asked him about his pinstriped duds. Enough so that he even stopped deadpanning that he wasn't upset about not being No. 1, smiled and said, "Ohhhh, you like this?"

BEST SARTORIAL COINCIDENCE: The designer of Okafor's snazzy suit was none other than Cary Mitchell, who designed the new uniforms for Okafor's new team, the Charlotte Bobcats. Mitchell also stylishly decked out No. 1 pick Dwight Howard, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Josh Smith, but the designer told the Charlotte Observer last week, "None of them are clothes-savvy except for Okafor, who is a pretty sharp kid."

BEST RETORT IN A PRESS CONFERENCE: Without fail in every post-pick press conference, some reporter asks some derivation of this mind-numbingly generic question: "How will you adjust to the NBA, coming from the college/high school/international game?" Most players, facing the inquiry for the 100th time in a week, take it in stride and throw back a few obligatory cliches. But congrats go out to Jameer Nelson for this snappy response, straight from the Phil Martelli school of communication:

"Being down there in Orlando on the East Coast is definitely going to help because I don't have to adjust to the time change."

BEST ATTEMPT AT NOT SOUNDING DEFENSIVE: Also goes to Nelson, who was unhappy there was so much focus on his long green-room stay (he was taken at No. 20 by Denver, then traded to Orlando).

"I wish people would get it out of their head that, because I'm not drafted at a certain spot, I was supposed to be disappointed," he said. "If I was disappointed, I wouldn't be here talking to you because if I was disappointed I wouldn't want to talk. I was just as happy to go at 20 as I would have been to go at 13."

Wait, I changed my mind. That was the worst attempt. No worries, Jameer -- I have no doubt you'll be a much better point man than Telfair. Especially with that chip on your shoulder.

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