Next Thursday's draft is loaded with paradoxes. It's deep in talent but full of players short in stature. It's top-heavy with potential point guards who are largely unschooled at the position. And for those lucky teams picking from Nos. 3 through 10, the choices are damnably difficult because there is so little to differentiate one prospect from another. "I have no doubt that whoever we pick will be a good player," says Knicks president
Much of the uncertainty stems from the draft pool's wealth of combo guards, a term traditionally applied to backcourt scorers who are too short to be shooting guards and too selfish to run the point. But that altogether negative view is passé in the modern NBA, where long-established roles have merged to the extent that pure point guards such as the Suns'
That's not the strongest endorsement of their future as floor leaders, but it's a start. The combo candidates who are viewed to varying extents as potential point guards are 6-3½
Of this year's combo foursome, one is best equipped to run an NBA team from Day One. "O.J. Mayo can be a true point," says Celtics coach
The wild card is Westbrook, who has been rising up teams' draft boards. While each of his fellow combos, all freshmen, led his respective club in scoring this past season with at least 19.7 points per game, Westbrook, a 19-year-old sophomore, averaged just 12.7 points. He made his impact in other ways: Though he spent most of the year at shooting guard, Westbrook nonetheless led UCLA with 4.3 assists per game as the Bruins advanced to the Final Four. (UCLA opened the season 7-0 while Westbrook ran the point for the injured Darren Collison.) He used his explosive athleticism and impressive 6-7¾ wingspan to become the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year; in head-to-head matchups he squelched the production of Mayo and Davidson's
Westbrook is a late bloomer who didn't dunk until midway through his senior year of high school. As a 5-10 point guard at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif., he was being recruited by the likes of Creighton, Kent State and Wyoming before he grew five inches entering his senior year. His coach shifted him to shooting guard, he made third-team all-state, and he signed with nearby UCLA, where he played just 325 minutes as a freshman. Westbrook decided to enter the draft as a sophomore based on initial speculation that he would be a mid-first-round pick -- "from the late lottery to maybe 20," he says. "I don't know what happened next."
What happened was a profitable merger of supply and demand. At least half of the teams in the lottery are seeking a long-term solution at point guard, and their executives have spent the last month connecting the dots of Westbrook's potential. Scouts now rate Westbrook as a more likely point guard candidate than Gordon or Bayless, who are natural scorers, and some observers have him going in the top 10.
As terrific as Westbrook is in the open floor, he must still improve his ball handling and decision making in the half-court. But the team that drafts him will be gambling wisely on his winning demeanor, which he traces back to scoldings from his father,
It will help Westbrook and his fellow combos that the responsibilities of an NBA point guard aren't necessarily as complicated as they used to be. "The wing positions have changed and in turn that's changed the point guard position," says an Eastern Conference team president, referring to new-school creators such as Wade,
"How hard is it to be a point guard in the league?" asks another Eastern executive. "Nobody's picking up and pressuring you. You advance the ball uncontested to half-court, make a couple of dribbles, pass the ball and cut -- and now you're into the motion offense. Today fewer teams are setting up each time and calling a play, because we're getting to be more and more like European teams."
As much as any coach might prefer to have a quarterback like Paul or Williams, the fact is that recent championship teams dating back to the Bulls' dynasty -- with the exception of the Spurs (with
The teams that pick them will be counting on it.