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Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Updated: May 31, 3:38 PM ET
Hard to separate top foursome; lottery may be decider

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

For the first time since 2001, the team that wins the NBA draft lottery Tuesday night probably will be truthful if its representative says he doesn't know who his team is going to select.

The consensus among NBA personnel and notable agents is that there are four likely possibilities for the No. 1 overall pick -- with no clear-cut favorite. The potential top selections in the June 28 draft are LSU redshirt freshman forward Tyrus Thomas, Texas sophomore center LaMarcus Aldridge, Gonzaga junior forward Adam Morrison and Benetton Treviso (Italy) forward Andrea Bargnani.

None of the past four NBA drafts has featured more than two possible choices.

A year ago, Milwaukee Bucks general manager Larry Harris won the lottery and picked Utah's Andrew Bogut over North Carolina's Marvin Williams. In hindsight, it's easy to question why NBA rookie of the year Chris Paul, a Wake Forest point guard, wasn't in the mix at No. 1. The reason was twofold: The Bucks didn't need a point with T.J. Ford and Mo Williams under contract, and a year ago at this time Paul and fellow playmakers Deron Williams (Illinois) and Raymond Felton (UNC) were considered too hard to separate for any one of them to be No. 1.

Thomas might have the highest upside in this draft class.

In 2004, Orlando went down to the final hours before deciding on high school center Dwight Howard over Connecticut center Emeka Okafor. The two years before that were more settled, with high school star LeBron James the consensus choice for Cleveland in 2003 and China's Yao Ming landing in Houston in 2002. Only in 2001 was there any real choice, with Washington settling on high school senior Kwame Brown over fellow preps Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry and Spain's Pau Gasol.

This year's draft could have resembled 2002's and 2003's if the NBA had not decided to change the draft rules for high school seniors. High school center Greg Oden would have been the consensus No. 1 pick had he been able to opt for the draft instead of attending Ohio State. Now, if Oden decides to come out after his freshman season, he is projected as the runaway top pick in 2007.

"This is the first year where you don't have the high school kids and there are a variety of players who are going to be very good pros, but also some that won't initially make an impact," said John Paxson, the Chicago Bulls' executive vice president of basketball operations.

The Bulls have the second-best chance of landing the No. 1 pick because they own New York's top draft choice as a result of the Eddy Curry trade last year. Portland has the best shot overall, with Charlotte, Atlanta, Toronto, Minnesota, Boston, Houston, Golden State, Seattle, Orlando, New Orleans/Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Utah also in the lottery (the first 14 picks).

"There is a wide range of opinion on the top guys," Paxson said. "Some [of the teams] really like a few of the players while others may be lukewarm on them."

"It is always the beauty in the eye of the beholder," he said.

Paxson said the top picks usually won't work out for individual teams until after the predraft camp, which this year is in Orlando during June 6-10. To get four or more players in and really dress up the visit, though, could be difficult before the June 28 draft, which is why Tuesday's lottery order may determine a lot.

A year ago, Milwaukee had Bogut and Williams come in during a four-day period before making a decision.

"The biggest thing about getting the No. 1 pick is that you're in charge because you can trade it or make the pick," Harris said of essentially dictating the top of the draft. "There are so many options, and if there is no clear-cut choice then you're more flexible."

Morrison has the look and the personality to go with the game.

Harris said he could see the competition for No. 1 this season become more intense over the next month because there are more candidates. The fact that more players have a chance to be No. 1 could mean they'll be anxious to prove they deserve the honor.

The politicking already has begun.

"I've talked to all of the lottery teams and I know how they feel about [Morrison] and I personally feel he will go No. 1," said Mark Bartelstein, Morrison's agent. "He'll step in the league and have an immediate impact. He can score the basketball. When you're drafting No. 1, you've got to pick someone who has a chance to be a star. Adam's season was off the charts."

Morrison's chances of being the top pick are probably highest if Charlotte lands the selection, but don't rule it out if the Blazers, who had the league's worst record this past season, get it.

"I'm not lobbying, but I think he'll be the No. 1 pick and be the best player in the draft," Bartelstein said. "Whether he goes No. 1 or not isn't going to change his success in the NBA. It's more about going to the right situation."

If Chicago's number is called (via New York), then it could be Brian Elfus' client, Thomas.

"He falls in the top three," Elfus said. "I think there are only three legitimate candidates to be the top pick -- Tyrus, Aldridge and Bargnani. From what I'm hearing, we're in a good position."

The fact that an agent for one of the other possible No. 1 picks doesn't think Morrison is even in the discussion shows how wide open this year could be.

Andrea Bargnani
Bargnani has the talent to be one of the first few picks in the draft.

For equal time, Aldridge's agent, Arn Tellem, was contacted but he is out of the country and could not be reached. Bargnani could be looking for an American agent to go along with his Italian representative, so the lobbying on his part may be multinational.

Don't rule out a trade, either, since there are options. Elfus said he has been told teams at the bottom of the first round are interested in his client. That's probably true for every possible No. 1 pick.

"With salaries, luxury taxes, there will be a team that wants younger talent and is willing to trade [players] currently under contract," Paxson said. "I do think there are a lot of things to discuss with any team that gets the top pick this year."

Bill Duffy, who doesn't represent any of the top four mentioned here but does have Yao as a client, said that had Florida sophomore forward Joakim Noah decided to enter the draft, he might have made the decision moot. Maybe, maybe not, since like Thomas and Aldridge, Noah would be making a case to be No. 1 on one significant season.

"Thomas has the physical upside, Bargnani is probably the most polished, Morrison's durability is a question and [with] Aldridge, the concern is consistency, so there really isn't a difference [among] 1-4," Duffy said. "Whoever goes four could go 1."

"We're in the era between LeBron and Oden, so there isn't a clear-cut choice."

Picking No. 1 is more than just choosing the player who will be the most effective on the court. There is also an aura attached to the selection. Teams want someone they can market, too.

Thomas is a high flyer who will certainly become a highlight reel with his shot-blocking and alley-oops, but he's also a bit reserved off the court. Morrison is flamboyant, is a big-time scorer and is a character with his mustache and '70s hair. He also has the name recognition after winning a share of a few national player of the year awards. Aldridge is only scratching his potential as a center and has an infectious smile, but still is learning how to crawl out from his shell. Bargnani isn't known here, so there may be an adjustment period, although Duffy said he could be more of a global catch "and a Yao Ming-type because Italy has never had a player of this magnitude and they love basketball."

So, who is it going to be? Well, watch closely for the lottery winner Tuesday night. Whichever team it is may provide the first hint as to whether Thomas, Morrison, Aldridge or Bargnani will be this season's No. 1 overall pick.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.