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June 29, 2008

NBA Draft Prep Notes

A True Hometown Hero

Memphis freshman Derrick Rose, this year's No. 1 overall pick, led Simeon High of Chicago to back-to-back Class 2A state titles in 2006 and 2007 and was a serious EA SPORTS National Player of the Year contender his senior season. When the Chicago Bulls won the NBA Draft Lottery despite long odds, they were able to draft the homegrown point guard. Amazingly, Rose is the first No. 1 overall draft pick to be selected by a pro team from the same town he attended high school in over 40 years.

You have to go all the way back to 1963 when the New York Knicks picked Duke University's Art Heyman to find a similiar occurence. He was a prep All-American in 1959 at Oceanside High on Long Island, leading the Sailors to a 19-3 record while averaging 29.1 points per game. Technically, New York City is not Long Island but Heyman is considered a home grown product. A similar situation took place in 2003 when the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted wunderkind LeBron James. James attended St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, some 25 miles south of Cleveland, but don't try to tell Cavs fans James is not homegrown.

Before the 1966 draft, the territorial draft clause allowed teams to pick college stars that played near a pro franchise. The only time this applied for a high school player occurred when Wilt Chamberlain, the 1955 National Player of the Year and Student Sports Athlete of the Century, was assigned to the Philadelphia Warriors. Owner Eddie Gottlieb shrewdly argued that since Kansas did not have a NBA franchise, Chamberlain belonged to his team since he was a household name and had a large following while at Overbrook High School. Gottlieb was right as "The Dipper" is considered the game's first true national star in the mold of New York's Lew Alcindor and Ohio's Jerry Lucas and James.

Love & Mayo Stay Connected

Roughly two hours after the draft was completed O.J. Mayo of USC, the No. 3 pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves, was part of an eight player trade between the Wolves and the Memphis Grizzles. Kevin Love, the Grizzlies' lottery pick at No. 5, was sent to Minnesota with Mayo going to a team a tad closer to his hometown.

Love is from the Pacific Northwest and Mayo from Huntington, West Virginia, but their career paths continue to cross. After Love decided to attend the 2005 ABCD Camp to test his skills against 2007 No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden, it was hard not to mention Love when talking about Mayo and vice versa as the final two years of their prep careers unfolded. They were staples of Sonny Vaccaro's ABCD Camp and his Las Vegas Big Time Tournament during the summer. In Vaccaro's final Roundball Classic All-Star game in 2007 after 43 consecutive years of showcasing elite high school talent, the duo was the headliners and MVPs of their respective teams.

Love won most of the National Player of the Year awards during his senior season while we honored Mayo as the EA SPORTS National Player of the Year. The Oregon and Mountain State natives both chose to continue their careers in Los Angeles with Love deciding on tradition rich UCLA and Mayo on USC. Mayo wanted to play at a school that would aid his marketability as a pro athlete and subsequently he's been accused of taking improper benefits while still an amateur player. With a much stronger supporting cast, Love thrived and was named Pac-10 Player of the Year in a very strong year for the conference.

So would Love have been the better choice for national honors in 2007? Mayo, with a much weaker supporting cast than Love, averaged 20.7 points per game and was named first team All Pac-10. His scoring average was the second highest in conference history among first-year players. Ironically, the Timberwolves wanted to draft Love all along, but went with Mayo because his draft value was higher. Minnesota ended up with a pretty darn good player in Mike Miller and cleared some salary cap space by drafting the USC guard so it's still debatable as to which player was the better player of the year choice dating back to high school.

With Love and Mayo being traded for each other on draft night, the debate that started in high school and grew in college will now continue in the pros.

The Draft's Ultimate Late Bloomer

Every year during the NBA Draft there are picks that are surprising, unpopular or downright dumb (think Michael Olowokandi over Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Peirce in 1998). The pick of UCLA's Russell Westbrook at No. 4 to the Seattle Supersonics was the first head-turning pick of this year's draft. What's even more surprising than the UCLA sophomore going that high is how he developed into the prospect he now is in the first place.

At Leuzinger High in the Southern California town of Lawndale, Westbrook did not make the varsity team until his junior season. When we saw Westbrook play during the summer of 2005, he did not make a splash but he was rapidly improving. He grew at least three inches and filled out during his senior season and was the thirtieth and final selection to the 2006 CalHiSports.com All-State team. The third team all-state pick averaged 25.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Olympians, but anyone that thought he would develop into the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft two years later was obviously in the minority.

Ironically, the next year the Olympians had another late bloomer on the recruiting radar in Donnell Beverly. He too was a third team all-state pick and Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun recruited him to play for UConn. When Westbrook and Beverly were entering high school, the top young prospect at Leuzinger was another player who never got the chance to actually prove how good he could become.

Khelcey Barrs was a highly-touted 6-foot-6 forward and considered one of California's best rising juniors in the spring of 2004. Unfortunately that May, Barrs passed away as the result of an undetected heart condition while playing pick-up games at L.A. Southwest College. We'll be rooting for Westbrook and Beverly but we'll always wonder how good a player Barrs could have been.

Pac-10 Dominance in the Draft

Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo and Russell Westbrook weren't the only players from the Pacific 10 Conference selected at the top of Thursday's NBA Draft. In fact, the conference better known for dominating in the non-revenue sports (swimming, softball, etc.) dominated the whole thing. Five of the first eleven picks were Pac-10 products and seven were taken in the first round. In all, twelve of the picks, or 20 percent of the entire draft, came from the conference.

The picks of twin brothers Brook (No. 10 overall to the New Jersey Nets) and Robin (No. 15 overall to the Phoenix Suns) Lopez was expected since both were considered future NBA prospects coming out of San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno in 2006. In fact, back in 1990 when their older brother Alex was a hot-shot 6-foot-10 eighth grader at Porter Junior High School in Granada Hills, the young twins were already known to college recruiters.

With their size and strength (Greg Oden told us at the 2006 McDonald's All-American Game that the twins "are strong and hard to move") it was mildly surprising that Brook lasted until the tenth pick and Robin fell out of the lottery. As prep players they were actually complimentary scorers to Quincy Pondexter, now at the University of Washington. The 6-foot-7 forward was named league MVP and California's Div. IV State Player of the Year in 2006 over his two teammates, both of whom received more national honors. Pondexter is the son of Roscoe Pondexter, a third round selection in the 1974 NBA Draft, and nephew of Cliff Pondexter, a first round selection in that same draft. Quincy's father and uncle both played at Long Beach State and also attended San Joaquin Memorial.

Even with Quincy and the Lopez twins in the lineup, the team still lost to Horizon of San Diego in the SoCal Div. IV Regional Final in 2006. A year earlier, some high school basketball fans considered it a major shocker when SoCal power Mater Dei lost to Oak Ridge of El Dorado Hills in the Div. II state final, 60-44. Oak Ridge product Ryan Anderson seems to have made a wise choice to stay in the draft as he will now be a teammate of Brook Lopez in New Jersey. The Nets nabbed the 6-foot-10 forward with the No. 21 pick in the first round.

Looking back on that game three years ago, can it really be considered an upset with a player as talented as Anderson in the lineup going up against a relatively young Mater Dei team?

For the second straight year, two freshmen have been the top two picks in the draft and with Mayo going third, the top three picks were one-and done college players for the first time ever. The first of the twelve Pac-10 picks became the highest USC player ever taken in an NBA Draft. Prior to Mayo, Paul Westphal was the highest USC product taken in the NBA Draft at No. 10 in 1972. The Aviation of Redondo Beach product is the 1968 Student Sports National Player of the Year. It was a close call over Ralph Simpson from Detroit Pershing, who was picked one spot behind Westphal in the same draft coming out of Michigan State.

Jefferson & Gordon Left Out in the Cold

Not all of the endings were happy ones for college players entering this year's NBA Draft. In 2005, when he played alongside Kevin Durant, last year's No. 2 pick, North Carolina's Ty Lawson and Syracuse's Eric Devendorf at famed Oak Hill Academy, Jamont Gordon just might have been the best player on that team. He and Durant were both named first team EA SPORTS All-Americans.

It was clear Durant was going to develop into a special player although he had barely turned 16-years old. Gordon was more of a finished product, but he was around 6-foot-3 and played on the wing. Despite a productive college career at Mississippi State, Gordon could not overcome his lack of height and went undrafted after his junior season.

Besides Gordon, the other notable "junior" that got what looks like bad advice to declare for the draft was USC's Davon Jefferson. Jefferson actually joined Mayo, Love, Arizona's Jerryd Bayless (No. 11 overall pick), and Arizona State's James Harden on the All Pac-10 Freshman team, but he actually finished his prep eligibility in 2005.

An enigma while at Lynwood High School, we thought Jefferson was at worst the second best pure talent in the state that season behind Mr. Basketball pick Amir Johnson of Westchester. Jefferson, however, only made second team all-state because he was so inconsistent. One game he would look like a world-beater against a team like Oak Hill and the next game lay an egg against a team such as Canyon Springs of Moreno Valley. Sitting out two years, it easy to see why he didn't get drafted watching the way No. 2 pick Michael Beasley threw him around like a rag doll during USC's first round NCAA tournament loss to Kansas State.

Too bad Gordon couldn't have some of Jefferson's height and Jefferson some of Gordon's muscle.


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