As NBA draft grows increasingly specialized, uncertainty remains

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At its most elemental, the NBA draft is all about finding the right pegs to plug into the various teams' round holes.

Only there's nothing elemental about it anymore. The draft is big business, a multi-million dollar enterprise responsible for seeding talent into the NBA's multi-billion, international operation, while inspiring a fleet of services, publications and careers dedicated to the once-a-year roundup of pro prospects not just nationally but globally. Broadcast live around the world, bigger than big, the draft is as famous now for a culture all its own -- Look at what Joakim Noah's wearing! Did you see the look on Mom's face when her son got picked by the Clippers?! OK, time for Knicks fans to boo! Who's going to be the last guy left in the green room? -- as it is for matching young hires with their new employers in one of the world's most glamorous job fairs.

Still, it's not entirely removed from the playground, where you'd pick five, I'd pick five and the 11th kid would cry and face a lifetime of expensive therapy. There is, for instance, the game of tug o' war that has been added through the years in the run-up each June to the draft. Teams want to poke, prod and learn as much as possible about each player before committing a high pick and vast sums of money to his uncertain NBA future. Agents prefer to sell the proverbial pig in a poke.

"As long as there's a blank canvas, you can dream pretty big," San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford told me last week, when he attended a group workout of late-first-round-or-somewhere-in-the-second prospects in Minneapolis. "The more you fill that canvas, the more complete the evaluation becomes. Whether it's positive, negative or otherwise. If I start with a picture, and Picasso starts with a picture and they're both blank, they look the same. When you see his paint on it and my paint on it, you'll be able to determine who the painter is."

Having both eyes on the same side of one's head, in the NBA, is not a good thing. Some franchises still are figuring that out.

The power of players' agents is just one of myriad changes in the approach and execution of the NBA draft from its inception until now. In its infancy, each club's general manager had a few round pegs within easy reach -- the league recognized "territorial rights" to certain players, allowing a team to court fans by grabbing local or regional favorites while forfeiting its first-round pick. That's how Overbrook High's Wilt Chamberlain came home to Philadelphia in 1959, Ohio State's Jerry Lucas went to Cincinnati in '62 and, er, Michigan's Bill Buntin wound up in Detroit in '65.

Starting in '66, the league went traditional, with teams selecting in inverse order of their records and the last-place finishers in the two divisions (later conferences) flipped a coin for the right to pick No. 1. The first few unlucky teams did OK -- Detroit called tails, lost and got Dave Bing anyway, while Baltimore landed Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld with No. 2 picks in '67 and '68, respectively. But Phoenix guessed heads in '69, the coin showed tails and the Suns selected hirsute Florida big man Neal Walk a few sad moments after Milwaukee took Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) off the board.

Expansion meant more non-playoff qualifiers, more teams willing to backpedal late in the regular season for a 50-50 shot at the nation's best collegian. The Houston Rockets were suspected of that in '84 when they positioned themselves for No. 1 draftee Hakeem Olajuwon 12 months after landing Ralph Sampson with '83's top pick. The NBA countered with the first draft lottery in '85, hoping to thwart similar moves in what many considered a bigger sweepstakes for Patrick Ewing, but giving birth to a new strain of conspiracy theories (think envelopes, hopper, dry ice, New York Knicks). The lottery got tweaked more than once after that -- and Orlando's luck in scoring the first picks in '92 and '93 -- in noble but still unsatisfying attempts to find the perfect system.

The draft's format has changed through the years to something more streamlined and slickly packaged. Initially, it lasted as long as a any team wanted to continue picking; in '73, the Buffalo Braves and the Boston Celtics pushed it out to 20 rounds, making 12 of the last 19 picks after most teams had gone home. The next year, the NBA imposed a 10-round limit that lasted until '85, when the draft was reduced to seven rounds, then three ('88), then the current two ('89).

The presentation has changed dramatically, too, from a telephone conference call to a backroom meeting in New York to a live event staged for prime time, rotated for several years to various league venues as if it were All-Star Weekend. The draft has been back in New York since 2000, still a showcase that -- with the lottery each May -- tries to stoke NBA interest in markets whose teams have fallen by the playoff wayside.

More than any structural, cosmetic or marketing changes, though, the scope of draft preparation has expanded as the event, and the stakes it represents for franchises valued at $300 million or more, have grown. Tales of great players falling through the cracks or going underscouted are legion and even amusing, a little quaint -- after their careers are over. Willis Reed, Nate Archibald, Gilbert Arenas and Rashard Lewis lasting until the second round? Eleven teams passing on Karl Malone after Ewing went first in '85, followed by three more (including Dallas twice) passing on Joe Dumars? Seattle picking Central Arkansas' Scottie Pippen at No. 5 for Chicago GM Jerry Krause in '87, immediately swapping him for No. 8 Olden Polynice and minor considerations long forgotten? Great stories, but not so great for the less savvy or less fortunate teams to endure.

No one wants to make a mistake, same as always. Only now, mistakes are measured in seven and eight figures rather than five or six. And with foreign pools of talent to tap, bad decisions or lack of preparation can expose personnel departments on a multinational stage.

Scouts who used to be sent mostly to the major NCAA conferences and to independents now have to hit the minor conferences, Division II and lower schools and junior colleges. For 11 years, from '95 until the NBA made prep players ineligible after '05, they had to fight for bleacher seats in tiny high school gyms. Meanwhile, the level of overseas scouting was ramped up, either from true interest or just self-preservation.

"As the number of players qualified to play in the NBA has gone from one to 80," Buford said, "you've had to make decisions: How much do you want to scout it, and how much do you want to play with those types of players? They don't fit with every coach, in every system."

Tell that to your fans, though, when Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, picked 57th and 28th in their respective drafts, fit in just fine with the Spurs.

So draft prep work has changed, which is not the same as evolved. The process is more vast, with way more data -- think terabytes of information, not reams -- at evaluators' fingertips. Everything is televised, recorded, cataloged, maybe even YouTubed. Prospects get scrutinized, analyzed and brain-typed. Let's not forget search-enginged, either.

"The last 20 years, everybody's always done the psychology tests, the background checks," new Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders said. "But now you know more about players because of the Internet. You can Google a kid, find out if he's been in any article in any paper, for any trouble. You can find out so many things now."

Even then you're kept guessing in other ways. For two decades, the top 32 senior prospects were invited to the Aloha Classic postseason camp in Honolulu, a must-see for every NBA team; Kevin McHale's draft stock rose when he was MVP there in '80, Pippen got noticed as an all-tournament pick in '87, the camp's last year of existence. That event was moved to Orlando, with similar pre-draft camps held in Chicago and Portsmouth, Va. But the talent level began to slip as agents advised their clients to not participate, lest they have a bad game or suffer an injury with the draft approaching.

"Everybody played then. Now they don't play," said Randy Wittman, the No. 22 pick by Washington in '83, traded that summer to Indiana but back finally as a Wizards assistant. "Back then, even if you were the consensus No. 1, you were going to be there playing. There were no individual workouts. They did interviews at the [camp]."

By the late 1980s and early '90s, the big names were making cameos merely to be measured and chatted up. "For a while, Chicago had some pretty good guys, guys on the cusp of the first round who were starting to move up," Minnesota general manager Jim Stack said. "Then you were lucky if you got second-round guys. It got to a point where there was all this expense, but we weren't getting the caliber of players to evaluate. Now they've gone to interviews and drills [only] -- there's no competitive component." No 5-on-5 play, in other words, which is the simulation that matters most.

A recent change in draft preparation is the mass workout, with clusters of players auditioning for several teams, or even a dozen or more, at once. Golden State hosted such a "combine" early last week, the Nets have one at their facility this weekend and, for four days in between in Minneapolis, the Timberwolves were the center of the NBA's offseason universe for fellows like Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Rod Thorn, Daryl Morey, John Hammond, Buford and. Teams shared the cost of flying in six or eight players at a time, two groups per day, rather than having them bounce city to city for a week or two, repeating the workouts and mostly getting fatigued.

"They were on some pretty demanding itineraries," said David Kahn, new Wolves president of basketball operations. "Can you imagine this kind of intensity, this kind of stress, in four cities in four days? It seems as if the consensus is, this is a more productive use of everybody's time, to see this many prospects in four days."

But wait, there's more: Representatives from every NBA team traveled to Treviso, Italy, over the weekend for a showcase of 50-60 players, some ineligible until drafts beyond '09. This one even featured 5-on-5 play, cramming more available information onto everyone's hard drives.

Does it all produce a better result? Of the NBA's last nine Rookies of the Year, only two (LeBron James in '03-04 and Derrick Rose last season) were chosen No. 1. Buford said it is hard to evaluate, since the players drafted via all this extra data and scrutiny still haven't worked their way through their careers. "Ten years from now," the Spurs GM said, "when we can sit back and evaluate what we're doing now, we'll know more."

Then again, for all the changes in NBA draftology, one thing is constant. "What do you do with [the information]?" Wittman said. "It's like anything else."