By Ian Thomsen
June 27, 2008

NEW YORK -- No Weekly Countdown today, I'm sorry to say, but there is plenty of mail rescued from the spam to which I'm glad to respond ...

As a Sonics fan, I'm really puzzled by the Russell Westbrook pick. He was third-team All-Pac-10 and now he's the fourth pick in the draft? Convince me that I'm wrong.-- Jamie H., Seattle

I can't prove you right or wrong. We won't know about Westbrook for two or three years, which is OK with the Sonics, who are trying to build a team that turns the corner as Kevin Durant matures and as they spend their cap space in 2009 and '10.

There is a huge swath separating the opinions of those who believe that Westbrook will supplement his athleticism and defensive abilities with improvement as a ball handler and shooter, as opposed to the non-believers who doubt he will ever be anything more than a backup point guard lacking the ball skills to be a starter in the NBA. On his behalf, I would say that Westbrook is a hard worker in the gym and he will make the most of his potential, whatever that potential may be.

If Sam Presti is looking for guys who play on both ends of the floor, why has he linked his future to Kevin Durant? Durant is a great offensive player -- and was the obvious second pick in the draft last year, once he didn't go first -- but he does nothing on the defensive end.-- Paul F., Los Angeles

The thing about Durant is that he is a competitive guy who is going to try to play defense. He is popular among other players -- they would love to play with him, which shows he is a team-first guy. That is a rare quality in someone of his talent. Most players of his age don't know anything about defending in the NBA, anyway. He may never become an excellent defender, but it's a good bet that he'll eventually help create an environment that encourages hard play at both ends of the floor.

What do NBA types think about Yi Jianlian's long-term outlook? Does he have the tools to be a big-time, impact player? The Nets gave up a pretty solid, well-established small forward to get him.-- Michael, New Jersey

Yi is something of a big man's Westbrook. Those who like him praise his versatility, his ability to run the floor as a big man and his potential to outwit other power forwards with his quickness. Whether he'll be able to defend his position is a worthy question. The Nets have been looking to unload their big contracts -- next up, Vince Carter -- while developing cap space to join the Knicks in making a free-agent run at LeBron James in 2010. A bonus for the Nets is that Yi may deliver a base of Chinese fans to a franchise that has been lacking in support forever. But Yi will have to become a star to fulfill that hope for the Nets.

One omission stands out on the U.S. Olympic team: the lack of big men. Don't get me wrong, Dwight Howard will perform great, but after Howard, I see only Chris Bosh at 6-10 and maybe Carlos Boozer at 6-9. Can either of these players provide the presence in the middle that is needed in the international game? What happens if Howard gets into foul trouble, or worse yet, sustains an injury? It appears it will fall to center by committee.-- John Pyne, Lewisburg

See, this is what I like about this roster. Team USA isn't going to win with traditional low-post NBA big men. Tim Duncan hates the FIBA tournaments because he can't play to his strengths down low. The team needs shooting at every position, and Bosh and Boozer provide that. This is by far the best U.S. team since 2000, and I would be shocked if it doesn't win the gold medal in Beijing.

Kobe is definitely one of the greatest ever, absolutely. In the NBA Finals, though, he lost his only chance to be the greatest ever. Without a championship post-Shaq, how do you rank Kobe? Top four, seven or 10?-- Jason Koonce, Cleveland

It's too early to rate Bryant historically. The Lakers had a terrific season in reaching the NBA Finals ahead of schedule with a young team while trading for Pau Gasol. A lot of people will be picking them to win the championship next year -- and if that forecast were to come true, then Bryant would be a 30-year-old with four rings, one fewer than Magic Johnson and two behind Michael Jordan.

Why not have a two-pronged approach to the flopping problem: 1) Allow the refs to call fouls or technicals on any blatant flops they see. 2) Have a league official review games afterward and penalize floppers. This way, a ref can call obvious flops, and if he isn't immediately sure he can let it go with the knowledge that someone with more time can review and judge it. That said, I'm not convinced that fining players will halt the flopping, but at least it would remove some of the pressure off the refs.-- Shane Bauman, Bentonville, Ark.

I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about flopping, because doesn't the NBA have much bigger problems? It's the same way I felt about the decision to change the NBA ball a couple of years ago: Sometimes you can mess things up by trying to make them better. Maybe the league should assess some form of penalty after the fact for flopping in order to prevent unnecessary collisions and potential injuries to the NBA's expensive players. The league wants to keep its stars on the court for as long as possible. But in another sense, I maintain that it weakens the NBA to give the referees one more judgment call when they're overwhelmed as it is.

Do these executives actually watch the college game? Take Donte' Greene, for example. Sure, his stats look good, and I guess those highlights show him hitting threes, but if you ever actually went to a Syracuse game, you'd know the guy was the fourth-best player on the team. I'm a season-ticket holder at Syracuse, and I can tell you for certain that Greene lacks maturity, has poor fundamentals and has a poor understanding of the game. He will never get off the bench for the team that drafts him.-- Walt, Syracuse

You may be right. But the inexperience and unfinished nature of the players who enter the draft forces NBA scouts to look beyond the here and now. Two executives have told me that Greene has a terrific shooting stroke that is especially hard to find in someone of his size. That said, he wasn't drafted until No. 28, ultimately landing in Houston, so many teams share in your doubt.

I keep hearing that today's game is a "guard's game." When, exactly, did this happen? Eight of the last 10 NBA championships have been won by either Tim Duncan or Shaq, two of the greatest big men of all time.-- Garrett S., Davis, Calif.

It isn't a guard's game. Guards are more important now that the NBA has outlawed hand-checking on the perimeter and it's easier to pierce the first line of defense, and there are fewer big men to be found who are skilled in the footwork and low-post fundamentals of previous eras. But physical, hard-fouling defense is still being enabled by referees during the playoffs, and the Celtics proved that mobile big men are as important as ever for showing on pick-and-rolls out to the perimeter and staving off lanes to the basket.

It's usually laughable how wrong the so-called "experts" are with their mock drafts. I have to say, though, that you were pretty accurate this year. So you have that going for you, which is nice.-- Steve Baker, New York

I had the first eight picks right and nine of the first 11, which, as I stand today upon the mountaintop of NBA mock-drafting, makes me feel like a total nerd. I mean, is there an emptier, more hollow victory in sports than to win the NBA mock draft?

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