By Frank Hughes
May 21, 2010

CHICAGO -- Given their time limitations Thursday, NBA executives said not a great deal changed in their assessments of the prospects for the June 24 draft.

Kentucky's John Wall is still No 1.

Ohio State's Evan Turner is still No. 2.

And thereafter, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Draft prospects descended on Chicago on Thursday, taking up in earnest the annual process of deciphering exactly which players will go in which order when the teams choose their players of the future.

The process has been made more difficult because the pre-draft camp is now broken up into restricted access to the players' physical skills and concentrated more on their independent interviews.

Each team was given a room in the conference section of a downtown hotel, where front-office personnel and coaching staffs grilled players on any and all topics that may help them better discern who would be the better fit for their franchise.

Players rolled their eyes as they glanced at their protracted schedules of interviews, knowing the questions, for the most part, would be the same; and executives looked at their watches as they anticipated the half hours rolling on with little to no elucidation, the answers practiced and, by the end, trite.

"The strangest question I got was from Washington," said Butler's Gordon Hayward, projected to be picked in the middle of the first round. "They asked me who I thought they should take with the No. 1 pick."

Hopefully, someone suggested, he told them they should draft Gordon Hayward. "No, I know I am not going that high. I told them they should take whichever player is a good fit," Hayward said.

Grinning, Hayward admitted, of course, that his answer was evading the actual question. But this is what these players are trained to do, both with the NBA's top brass and the assembled media: answer questions diplomatically, don't hurt your draft standing or build a faulty reputation.

One decision-maker joked that he must be the only one in the room who enjoyed an alcoholic beverage, because when each player was asked, they said they neither drank nor smoked.

Several executives said the process neither hurt nor helped anybody's case; the top five players in the draft remain Wall, Turner, Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors, Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins and Syracuse's Wesley Johnson, not necessarily in that order. Johnson, for instance, could go fourth to the Timberwolves, who need help at small forward, while either Favors or Cousins could end up going third to the Nets.

Cousins has been widely criticized for his attitude and work ethic, but one front-office executive said the center acquitted himself nicely.

"I would not say he is a great kid, but his interview went far better than I was led to believe it would go," the GM said.

The workout portion of the camp is so limited that most executives will wait either until three-on-three camps hosted by Minnesota and New Jersey take place or the individual workouts conducted by each team are completed before making a final determination.

Still, they need to be here, if for no other reason than in case something dramatic and unexpected happens.

On this day, nothing did. Wall was impressive, saying he would mesh seamlessly with Washington's Gilbert Arenas, he would be honored to play in front of President Obama and that he has limited discussion with LeBron James since the Cavaliers were ousted from the playoffs. Turner made a case for himself as the top pick, citing his national player of the year award and his Brandon Roy-like versatility. And Cousins tried to persuade most that his reputation is unearned and unfair, a figment of the imagination that is conjured by those who only know him from afar.

In a little more than a month, we'll see how successfully they argued their points.

MSNBC on Thursday published a story citing two highly placed sources who said the Wizards are committed to getting rid of embattled guard Arenas because they don't want him negatively affecting Wall, who is projected to be the No. 1 pick. The story went on to say that the Wizards would consider a buyout of Arenas' contract if they could not trade him.

Two sources here strongly denied the story and questioned its veracity, citing the money that Ted Leonsis will pay to buy the remainder of the team from Abe Pollin as a deterrent to paying additional money to buy out Arenas' contract, which has $80 million left on it.

This is not the way to make first impressions for Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

The Russian billionaire, approved by the league last week as the team's new owner, told media that GM and interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe would be let go after his contract expired this summer. This was news to Vandeweghe, who was on his way here to help president Rod Thorn interview draft prospects when Prokhorov made the announcement.

Vandeweghe's release comes as no surprise. He was in place for most of the Nets' historically bad 12-70 season and did little to turn around a team that started so poorly under Lawrence Frank, who was fired after an 0-16 start. But the way in which Vandeweghe was let go left few impressed at the league's annual gathering of draft talent, where a general undercurrent of "what's with the new guy?" was palatable.

Nets vice president of public relations Gary Sussman declined to comment.

Meanwhile, a source said Prokhorov will likely hire CSKA Moscow president Andrei Vatutin to a senior-level post in the Nets' front office.

It is unclear what exactly Vatutin's role would be, but Thorn will take over as GM. Thorn could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, it appears that the Nets have not yet begun a search for a new coach, in part because of the potential draw of LeBron James, who becomes a free agent on July 1 and who is everybody's top target.

With Thorn running the Nets and tasked with picking at No. 3 in the June 24 draft, there is no immediate need for a coach, particularly if allowing James to hand-pick his coach is part of the sales job in getting him to join an organization.

Other coaching openings appear to be closer to sorting themselves out. Several sources here indicated that Dallas assistant Dwane Casey is the front-runner to fill the Atlanta job vacated when Mike Woodson was fired. Casey will interview with Hawks general manager Rick Sund this weekend, sources say, and several well-connected sources say the job is Casey's to lose. Casey worked with Sund in Seattle, when Casey was on Nate McMillan's staff.

Sund declined to comment. He also will interview Portland assistant DeanDemopolous and ESPN analyst Avery Johnson, though Johnson appears to be the front-runner for the New Orleans job. Johnson's salary demands are a sticking point, though less so with Gary Chouest taking ownership control from George Shinn.

Chicago and the Clippers also seem to be in no hurry to bring on a new coach. But the Bulls appear closer to putting together a list of primary candidates, which is likely to, according to a source, include former Nets coach Lawrence Frank, who is at the pre-draft camp despite having no official affiliation with any team.

With four or five players expected to be picked in the first round, the University of Kentucky sent two members of its media relations staff to witness the interview process during the pre-draft camp.

John Hayden and DeWayne Peevy were blatantly obvious in their blue Kentucky golf shirts as they listened in on reporters' interviews of Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe. They were the only representatives from a college at the sessions.

"We've never done this before. We figured with so many guys here, we thought we'd come up and see what it is about and see if we can take back any valuable information for our players who may go through this in the future," Hayden said.

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