In the days leading up to the 2002 NBA draft, Phoenix Suns general manager Bryan Colangelo remained coy. But if you listened carefully to Colangelo, it was clear the Suns had to draft a player who could help them in 2002-03. And, with the No. 9 pick, the favorite appeared to be Indiana's Jared Jeffries.
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Just two weeks earlier, though, Bret Bearup was holding court in the Chicago Wyndham hotel, pontificating about Amare Stoudemire being the draft's best player. Not Yao Ming. Not Jay Williams. Not Mike Dunleavy. Not Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Drew Gooden, Dajuan Wagner or Nene Hilario.
Then again, as the financial advisor to a number of draft picks every season, Bearup could have just been talking up his client Stoudemire. There was reason to be skeptical. There was plenty of bias coming out of the Bearup camp. Add Stoudemire's checkered academic past and his relocations from school to school over the past four years, and there was reason for concern.
Bearup's endorsement wasn't a slam-dunk.
Colangelo's poker face was a hard read.
And, while Phoenix was playing a game of "Guess our draft pick," the Miami Heat was quietly waiting to see if Connecticut's Caron Butler would slide down to No. 10.
Looking back at the 2002 draft today, for some reason, a few teams got scared of Butler's once troubled past prior to prep school and two years at Connecticut. There were unsubstantiated rumors about an injury, as well. Regardless, the Heat coveted Butler and got him, deflecting some desperate pleas for a trade from the Clippers and Cavaliers.
Sure, Yao was a no-brainer at No. 1. But Stoudemire and Butler were the two biggest steals of the 2002 draft.
"We felt like (Stoudemire) was one of the better players in the draft," Colangelo said. "But no one in this organization would be truthful if they said we thought he would have this much of an impact. If Tom Tom Gugliotta didn't get hurt with a stress fracture, then he might not have had as much of an impact."
"It's hard to say (Butler) was a 'sleeper,' because of the way he played at the end of the year (in 2002). But people got caught up in some issues about him," Heat general manager Randy Pfund said. "I don't know to this day what those rumors were about Caron. They were never specific. But I do know if he got past the Clippers at eight, we were going to get him."
Stoudemire went on to average 14.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a game for the Suns. He was a dominant player and won Rookie of the Year, helping the Suns get back to the playoffs. Butler, meanwhile, was one of Miami's few consistent scorers (15.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and is now the cornerstone of a continuing rebuilding project in Miami.
So who is this year's steal of the draft? The better question may be what makes a player a sleeper in any draft?
"It's hard to project," said Dennis Lindsey, the Houston Rockets director of player personnel. "Butler was a mature player (two years at Connecticut and a post-graduate year at Maine Central Institute) and Amare was a year older than most high school players (20 last November). What you have to look at is who has the opportunity to be a scorer or contributor on the team they go to."
Lindsey's candidate to fill the role of 2003's sleeper is Georgetown junior forward Michael Sweetney. But he's not alone. Illinois' Brian Cook, Louisville's Reece Gaines and Georgia's Jarvis Hayes could all be picked outside the lottery, but turn into impact players on the right team.
"The question is, can Sweetney transfer the free-throw production he had in college to the pros, and will he have the chance to do it 35 minutes a game," Lindsey said.
Sweetney's best fits to become a major contributor right away are Seattle (No. 12) or Memphis (No. 14). If selected by either team, he has a chance to play more minutes for teams looking for an inside presence. Comparisons between Sweetney and Kansas' Nick Collison are being tossed around NBA draft rooms, but they are unfair. Sweetney is more of a power player than Collison, although Collison can be productive as a face-the-basket player. Collison will probably be picked ahead of Sweetney, if for no other reason, he is more of a household name after playing in consecutive Final Fours.
"Collison is a safer pick, but Sweetney has more upside because he's such a prolific scorer," Pfund said. "He's got a pro game and he would be a real gem from eight to 11 or higher."
There was also a certain amount of mystique created around Sweetney because he kept the NBA guessing until finally signing with an agent last week. He also didn't go on the usual tour de June to a half or so NBA teams. Instead, he held a few workouts at Georgetown.
"Teams didn't have the chance to study him again and again," Pfund said. "So, it's tougher to evaluate. A guy like that has the ability to create contact, finish in the post. You can pour the ball into him to be an offensive threat."
Cook, meanwhile, was the Big Ten Player of the Year. His scoring average rose each of his four seasons at Illinois, going from 9.0 points per game as a freshman to 20.1 points per game this past season. A big man with a nice outside shot, Cook had his 3-point shooting dip a few percentage points (30 percent in 2002-03), but he was asked to take more 3s (89 attempts from 74 in 2001-01) because the Illini relied more on him. But his 6-foot-10 frame and long reach make him a tantalizing pick.
If Cook winds up on the right team -- like say Phoenix, where he could get some time facing the basket behind Shawn Marion -- he'll have a shot at following Stoudemire as a nice sleeper pick. But, if he falls too far in the first round, he won't get a ton of minutes on a team that doesn't need him to step right in and contribute. Cook might have the experience and the shooter's touch to make an impact, but the timing could be off if he's picked by a playoff team.
Gaines and Hayes are a pair of mid-first round sleepers who aren't exactly household names -- yet.
Gaines will likely go to a team that needs a scoring point (see Seattle at No. 14 or Orlando at No. 15) and get plenty of touches, while Hayes is a small forward who has NBA teams drooling over his outside shot. Hayes, however, could be the draft's true steal in part because he was under the radar throughout March and April.
Hayes was about to break onto the national stage during March Madness when Georgia's administration withdrew the Bulldogs from the SEC tournament and then ultimately from the NCAA Tournament because of allegations of academic fraud leveled against the basketball program. As a result, Hayes (18.3 ppg, 42 percent on 3s) didn't have the stage to push his draft case. He wound up entering the draft early as a junior, laid low in May and into June, until finally starting his workout schedule over the past 10 days.
If Hayes is able to crack the lottery, look for him to go to Washington at No. 10, where he could challenge Jeffries (coming back from a knee injury), Bryon Russell (a free agent) or anyone else the Wizards try to put at small forward.
Gaines, meanwhile, played both the point and shooting guard during his four years at Louisville under Denny Crum and Rick Pitino. He was a money player in late-game situations, notably against rival Marquette. If Seattle takes him, Gaines could challenge Kevin Ollie and Ronald Murray for major minutes off the bench.
The Sonics are looking for somebody to take the ballhandling duties away from Ray Allen and Brent Barry, a pair of shooting guards who often brought the ball up the court. Orlando, meanwhile, isn't overly satisfied with its point position. Inconsistent play from Jacque Vaughn, Darrell Armstrong, Jeryl Sasser and Chris Whitney could give Gaines the opportunity for minutes right away.
"The best thing about Hayes is that he's got the one great skill," Pfund said. "He shoots the medium range shot very well. He's not a great creator and doesn't get to the free-throw line as much.
"Reece Gaines might be the (sleeper) because he can do a lot of things and defends the 3-pointer. He can penetrate and play multi-positions. He's tough and comes from a tough system. You won't have to worry about him getting pushed."
As for last year's draft-night thieves Miami and Phoenix? What can we expect from the two teams this year?
Miami has the fifth overall pick, so it may be careful to gamble too big. If they do, a younger player like 18-year old Maciej Lampe of Poland could be the first surprise of Thursday night. The safer route, however, is Kansas senior guard Kirk Hinrich, Texas sophomore guard T.J. Ford or Central Michigan junior center Chris Kaman -- assuming, of course, Georgia Tech freshman forward Chris Bosh goes No. 4.
Phoenix, at No. 17, is looking for another gem. Regardless of who the Suns choose, they won't know how polished their pick is until next season.
"What we found in Amare was an absolute hunger to be one of the best," Colangelo said. "That's the kind of element you want in the draft picks, but you can't find in advance through a personality test or in a workout. Sometimes it shows up and sometimes it doesn't. Hopefully, the fire is in there and with Amare it was."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.