DALLAS -- Is it a bad sign if your second-round selection overshadows your first?
That certainly was the case Thursday night when the Dallas Mavericks selected 27-year-old center Bernard James out of Florida State, and more notably the Air Force, with the 33rd pick. The 6-foot-10 rebounder, shot blocker and veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq easily served as the draft's feel-good story as the clued-in crowd at the Prudential Center rose to its feet for a rousing ovation and began chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
The Mavs' surprising first-round pick at No. 24, seven spots back from where they started, drew mostly raised eyebrows and mad dashes for the NBA draft guide that provides player bios. The Mavs say 6-foot-5 combo guard Jared Cunningham, out of Oregon State, was among their top three targets all along with UConn's Jeremy Lamb and Iowa State's Royce White, and the only one left when they came to the plate at No. 17.
Believing they could get Cunningham later, the Mavs took Cleveland's deal, one that Mavs general manager Donnie Nelson said was pre-arranged, and turned one pick into three players -- plus a cap savings of some $1.4 million, which could come in handy in this summer's busy free-agent pursuit.
The latter two picks turned into the defensive-minded and high-character James, and the burly, blue-collar, high-energy Marquette forward Jae Crowder. Dallas then sold its 55th pick, Crowder's Marquette teammate, Darius Johnson-Odom, to the Los Angeles Lakers for about a half-million bucks.
After all that activity, the question is: Did the Mavs, who spent a lot of time talking about finding a solid rotation player in this deep draft, and then passed on Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones and Mississippi State rebounder extraordinaire Arnett Moultrie, get players who will be contributors next season?
That was the goal, after all, as Dallas seeks to remake its roster in what coach Rick Carlisle called this "time of change."
The real change will come as early as Sunday when All-Star point guard Deron Williams becomes a free agent. If he picks his hometown Mavs, the selection of Cunningham, something of a bigger, more rugged Rodrigue Beaubois and not too terribly dissimilar from Dominique Jones, will be tossed to the backburner.
So for the moment, the Mavs are smiling, selling a theme of getting more athletic, more hard-nosed and doing so with a nifty 3-for-1 bargain.
"We just thought this was a really, really strong draft and that if we could get some top-of-the-second-round picks, we were going to get real players, guys that could come in and make the team," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "So, the opportunity to have one guy versus having three, and to save some money …"
If Williams decides to stay with the Nets and Jason Kidd follows him to Brooklyn, the pressure will turn up to turn Cunningham into a player fast and perhaps backup whomever the Mavs acquire in free agency.
Kidd and Delonte West are both free agents. Kidd has stated his desire to play with Williams and West will be seeking a multiyear contract. At the moment, the Mavs are looking at Beaubois, Jones and Cunningham, all combo guards with limited point guard experience, as candidates to potentially run the point to an undetermined extent.
Carlisle said he expects all three to be on the roster when training camp opens in late September.
"It's going to be a great situation for those guys to all compete against each other. It's going to make them all better," Carlisle said. "You never say never that somebody could be moved, but right now I expect these guys to be here. The guys on our roster are working hard right now. We have high expectations for Roddy and we expect DoJo to be a guy that can help us next year."
The Mavs believe that in any other year, both of their second-round picks could have been first-rounders because of the unusual depth. To compare Cunningham, Russell Westbrook was invoked. To compare Crowder, the former Ron Artest came up. Thankfully, they didn't get around to comparing James, who acknowledged after his selection that he hasn't played basketball all that long. The decorated Airman might have been linked to Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Mavs' draft history allows for some built-in cynicism. At the end of a long night, they believe they turned one player into three and set a tone with athletic, hard-working, high-character players.
The Mavs entered the draft with several strategies, one being to stay conservative and take the closest thing to a sure thing. But, that's just not the Mavs' way.
"When you sit next to Mark in the draft room like I did," Carlisle said, "you put your seat belt on."
The draft is a crapshoot and the Mavs seemingly took a gamble on Cunningham when they had said all along that No. 17 in this particular draft is no place to get cute.
Only time will tell on these picks. And as time ticks down on free agency, the importance of those picks will come into greater focus.