Sonics uncertain as they weigh possible picks

  • By Rich Myhre / Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, June 23, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – Late this afternoon, NBA commissioner David Stern will step to the podium and tip off the league’s nationally televised draft.

One by one, over the span of a few hours, Stern will call out the names of those athletes fortunate enough to be selected in the first round. And more than half of those players, you can bet, will be teen-agers.

They will be products of varied backgrounds. Some will be just a few weeks removed from their high school graduations. Others will have been to college for a year or two. Still others will be from overseas, Europe mostly, where they have been playing as teens in junior pro leagues that are the equivalent of the Western Hockey League, home of the Everett Silvertips.

What unites these prospects is their age. Because more than a dozen of the fellows who will be chosen in tonight’s first round will almost certainly be 18 or 19 years old.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. College graduates, or at least those players whose class had graduated, were once the norm in the NBA draft. Yet those days belong to a bygone era, just like canvas sneakers and the two-hand set shot.

In today’s NBA, youth is served.

The Orlando Magic, which has the No. 1 pick, can get immediate help by selecting a premier player like Emeka Okafor, who spent three seasons at the University of Connecticut. But for the Seattle SuperSonics and most of the league’s other teams, this year’s draft will be about making long-term investments in promising but unproven talent.

Following a 37-45 season, the Sonics received the No. 12 spot in tonight’s draft. In that position, Seattle general manager Rick Sund admitted, “we’re not going to find anybody who’s going to be better right now than what we’ve got.”

Knowing that, the Sonics have explored several options. They have looked into trading a player or two, and perhaps a combination of draft picks, to move up in tonight’s order. They have explored the possibility of trading down. And they have weighed offers that involve trading out of the draft altogether.

Even now, with the draft just hours away, the Sonics still don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. They may not until the last moments before their turn to pick, which will happen about 5 o’clock tonight.

“With all the youth in the draft this year, there is just so much uncertainty,” Sund said. “I think this draft in particular, perhaps more than others (in recent years), is one that will be judged and evaluated best in about three, four or five years from now. And that’s because there are so many high school kids and so many European players that are just so young.”

Last year the Sonics had two first-round draft picks – their own and one from Milwaukee that was acquired in the multi-player trade that sent Gary Payton to the Bucks on Feb. 20, 2003. Those selections, the 12th and 14th, allowed Seattle to fill specific needs. The first choice was used to draft forward Nick Collison from Kansas to help bolster the Sonics’ front line and the second was used for Luke Ridnour, who is expected to be the team’s point guard of the future. Unfortunately, Collison missed the season after undergoing surgeries on both shoulders.

This year Seattle seems to favor another frontcourt player, most likely a center or power forward. Several of the promising youngsters, both from this country and from overseas, will be available when the Sonics make their pick, “and that’s something we certainly will have to look at it. … We have two bigs on our team whose contracts are up after next season (Jerome James and Vitaly Potapenko). So if we drafted a big, and even if we had to wait on him, we could put him over in the hopper and develop him. So that’s certainly an option.”

“There are some very good prospects among these young players from Europe,” added Lojze Milosavljevic, Seattle’s European scouting director. “But right now no one is stepping out from the others so it’s difficult to say (who would be a good fit).”

Assuming the Sonics do not trade for an established NBA player, then, the majority of Seattle’s minutes next season will probably go to their returning core of veterans, regardless of how the draft unfolds.

“In our estimation,” Sund said, “our team should have made the playoffs last year had we been healthy (both Ray Allen and Brent Barry missed big stretches of time with injuries). So we consider our team one of those playoff-type teams and we’re excited about next year.”

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