Seniors used to being first-round snubs

CHICAGO -- The biggest news out of Chicago came Friday and took 30 minutes to unfold before the eyes of the NBA.

In a single display of strength, foot speed and unlimited potential, a 7-foot-4, 300-pound, 18-year-old Siberian named Pavel Podkolzine changed the 2003 NBA draft -- from possibly the third pick on down.

After Cleveland takes LeBron James and Detroit likely selects Darko Milicic, every team in the lottery will have to give considerable thought to picking Podkolzine. Denver officials, who own the No. 3 overall pick, said they will certainly bring Podkolzine into town the week of June 16 for a workout -- after the Nuggets' brass returns from a camp for foreign big men in Italy.

That means Carmelo Anthony could end up sliding. Not too far, mind you, but there is certainly now at least a possibility of Anthony not going No. 3.

And, during Friday night's late-games at the Chicago pre-draft camp, more NBA personnel were talking about Podkolzine than watching the final game being played in the Moody Bible Institute.

Boston College's Troy Bell, Arizona's Luke Walton, Brigham Young's Travis Hansen, Duke's Dahntay Jones, North Dakota's Jerome Beasley and Kentucky's Keith Bogans all made strong cases this week at the Chicago pre-draft camp to be selected in the first round.

Bell scored at will. Walton was clearly the best passing big man. Hansen was probably the hardest worker and wasn't afraid of the contact he'll find at the next level. Jones was one of the top athletes, and proved he could make shots. Beasley was efficient in the low post and has the size at 6-9 to be taken among the top 29 picks on June 26. Bogans simply seemed to make every shot he took in three games.

Marquette's Robert Jackson and UCLA's Jason Kapono might still be considered a tad behind, but were pushing the first-round threshold. Jackson led his team in scoring and was always around the ball. Kapono worked hard to get shots off and made a few NBA 3-pointers. Arguments could be made to take Mississippi State's Derrick Zimmerman because of his ability to play at two speeds (fast and faster). Miami's James Jones can't be overlooked due to his range as a shooting forward.

All these positives would have meant something more for seniors hoping to be drafted in the first round -- in the late '90s. But the reality in 2003 is while these seniors might have first-round talent, the majority are likely to end up somewhere in the second round.

"The longer you're in college, the more chances they have to critique you," Bell said. "It's always about the new guy and it doesn't matter if you're better than them or not."

That new guy Friday was Podkolzine. Make no mistake, even before wowing NBA coaches, general managers and others, Podkolzine was going to be a first-round pick. The chance to take a raw, unproven, young, international big man is always more tantalizing for NBA teams than 22-year-old seniors.

And this year, there simply aren't enough spots for seniors in the first round.

There are plenty of reasons why a senior won't hear David Stearn call his name, but politics seem to push them into the second round more than anything else. For every Shane Battier, there is a Steve Logan -- senior All-Americans who for some reason other than their skills are chosen in the second round, rather than the lottery or at least the first round.

Guarantees occur every year for underclassmen and international players, each of which push another worthy senior into the second round. Powerful agents aren't going to keep their clients in the draft if they don't get a guarantee that they will go in the first round. And teams are willing to play this backroom draft game by the agent's rules in the hope they'll receive favorable treatment when it comes to a free agent.

The seniors who will find a spot in the first round must overcome the off-court games they can't control with the talented they've shown on the court for four years at school -- and for some -- three days in Chicago and an endless string of workouts over the next 2½ weeks.

"There are 29 spots and if the players are deemed good enough by those teams then they'll be in one of those spots," said Jeff Weltman, Denver's director of player personnel. "There aren't 29 guys being sent overseas. If you're good enough to be picked then you'll be picked."

Yes, there will still be seniors selected in the first round -- likely as many as six, possibly seven, and maybe eight to 10 if some of the players from Chicago can crack the top 29. Kansas' Kirk Hinrich will probably be the first senior taken as high as No. 8. Louisville's Reece Gaines will probably go toward the the back end of the lottery. Kansas' Nick Collison could also be wearing a lottery team's hat on draft night.

Illinois' Brian Cook, Xavier's David West, Wake Forest's Josh Howard and UNLV's Marcus Banks are all being discussed as mid-to-late first-round picks.

Seniors, however, do get a bad rap, whether justified or not.

Last year's first-round lot didn't fare so well as NBA rookies. Seven were taken in the first round, only Tayshaun Prince was a major contributor, and that didn't occur until late in the season and during Detroit's playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals. None of the rest -- Juan Dixon (Washington), Ryan Humphrey (Orlando), John Salmons (Philadelphia), Dan Dickau (Atlanta), Freddie Jones (Indiana) and Melvin Ely (L.A. Clippers) -- were able to earn significant minutes.

"I don't see why seniors don't (get taken)," Hansen said. "We've got a great group of seniors here. Hopefully they all can take their game to another level like Tayshaun Prince did."

Being a first-round pick is the prize coveted by every player in the draft. The main perk is the guaranteed money that comes with it. But coming out of the second round isn't awful, either. Players like Bell, Walton, Hansen and Jones are using Gilbert Arenas and Carlos Boozer as successful second-round examples out of the past two drafts. Arenas is ready to cash in after two years of making second-round money.

"I try not to let it bother me (about the politics of the first round) and being a second rounder has positive points," Jones said. "I'll make the best out of it. You can still make good money in the second round."

The beauty of the Chicago camp is that players arrive with the hunger and passion to try and earn a spot in the first round. And the chemistry on some of the teams made it seem like they had played together for years. Walton, Hansen and Bell worked seamlessly on the court for three days.

"I was real comfortable out there, more than I thought," Walton said. "I thought there would be a lot of guards shooting a lot and being selfish. We're out there having fun."

Walton said that Bell, who averaged 18 points and 7.5 assists in three games, helped him play at his best throughout the week. He said he was vocal and was everything a point guard should be. "From the first day I knew he was a great teammate to have," Walton said.

Bell, in turn, said he wanted to come to Chicago to prove that he could play the point and wasn't about to duck the competition.

"Why not come?" Bell said. "I'd do it again."

But the question will remain: Is he good enough to be in the first round?

"I thought we were good enough to get into the NCAA Tournament," said Bell of Boston College's apparent snub last March. "I don't know. I'd like to think I am better than a lot of people. I just happened to be in this position (of trying to crack the first round). As long as I get my foot in the door, it's OK. I think I played well enough to get into the first round."

Bell and the rest of the seniors are lucky there is a second round. Sixteen seniors were taken in the second round last year and the NBA isn't about to turn its draft into a one-round affair. But not for the sake of seniors, but rather largely because of the benefits it brings from a European standpoint.

"The second round plays to the strength of the draft today," Weltman said. "You can draft a younger European player and bring him over later. I know having one round was bandied about in the collective bargaining agreement, but we've always taken advantage of the second round."

When Weltman was with the Clippers, the team selected Marko Jaric in the second round in 2000. Jaric spent the 2001-02 season in Italy before coming over to play in 2002-03. Now that Weltman is with the Nuggets, he's inherited their '99 second-round pick Francisco Elson out of California. Elson went back to his native Spain and Weltman said he's due to return next season to the Nuggets. Teams own a player's second-round rights for as long as they are playing somewhere on the globe. Knicks general manager Scott Layden said he's in favor of the second round, and why not? New York gets Milos Vujanic in another year (most likely 2004-05) after the 2002 second-round pick gets another season of seasoning at no cost to the Knicks in Yugoslavia.

"The second round is great for taking players who someone else took a pass on in the first round, or was afraid of them for some reason," said Weltman. Minnesota did exactly that with Loren Woods in 2001 after teams in the first round were afraid of his back injury. "The second round factors into the overall strategy of the draft. Second-round picks are very valuable."

The value of being selected in the second round to seniors, however, is nothing compared to the guarantee of the first round. But, it's from No. 30 to No. 58 where you'll find most of this season's college seniors, not to mention the stars of the Chicago pre-draft camp.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.