A year ago, when an ecstatic Pat Williams learned that Orlando had obtained the first selection in the NBA lottery, the general manager was prepared, plucking a black-and-white striped Magic shirt out of his bag, with "O'Neal" written over No. 1.
"The village idiot could have made this pick," said Williams, who only had to find a way of clearing some $40 million to sign the 7-foot center from LSU.
But today at New York's Sheraton Center, during halftime of the New York Knicks-Chicago Bulls game, it hardly will be that simple for representatives of the 11 non-playoff teams possessing from one to 11 pingpong balls in the lottery hopper.
The Washington Bullets, with the third-worst record (22-60), will have nine balls in the bin. Only the Dallas Mavericks (11) and Minnesota Timberwolves (10) have a better mathematical chance of landing the big prize. The Bullets can finish with no worst than the sixth pick, which they used last year to select forward Tom Gugliotta.
In last year's draft, only O'Neal and Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, taken by the Charlotte Hornets, were considered franchise-type players. This year's talent pool includes no such guarantees.
Most general managers and scouts view Shawn Bradley, the 7-foot-6 center who played only one season at Brigham Young, and muscular power forward Chris Webber, who went to the NCAA finals in his two seasons at Michigan, as the top prospects. Still, Bradley, because of his slight physique and limited experience, and Webber, who lacks a polished inside game, raise as many questions as they provide answers.
Memphis State's Anfernee Hardaway, a 6-7 point guard with excellent court vision, Kentucky forward Jamal Mashburn and Indiana forward Calbert Cheaney carry strong credentials. But none is viewed as a player who will make an also-ran a contender.
The Bullets brass appears divided on whom to choose if #F fortunate enough to get the No. 1 choice. Since the team needs help at almost every position save small forward, there is sentiment for Bradley, Webber and Hardaway.
General manager John Nash seems inclined toward Bradley, and head coach Wes Unseld, seeking to add muscle to his frontcourt, appears to favor Webber.
Asked if long-frustrated Bullets fans, without a playoff team in the past five years, patiently could watch Bradley develop, Nash said: "That's not my concern. I've been told by the owner [Abe Pollin] to pick the best player in my judgment."
But on the eve of the lottery, Nash remained noncommittal.
"There are four guys you might pick first," he said, likely referring to Bradley, Webber, Hardaway and Mashburn. "It's like 1989, when Sacramento picked Pervis Ellison as No. 1. That year, you also had strong sentiment for Danny Ferry, Sean Elliott, Glen Rice and Stacey King."
"Five years from now, you might have another Bill Walton on your hands," said Kings general manager Jerry Reynolds.
Said Warriors coach Don Nelson, seeking a big man: "Bradley is a Manute Bol with skills. He's not just a shot blocker. He has great hands, he can score from inside or outside and he can pass. He's an impact player with a huge upside."
Alan Srebnick, who has scouted for the Bullets and Detroit Pistons, saw Bradley play his freshman season and considers him an unusually gifted player.
"The big concern pro teams will have is whether he can stand up to the 82-game schedule," Srebnick said. "Teams that consider picking him will have doctors examining his body with a fine-tooth comb."
No one questions the physical attributes of Webber, 6-9 and 245 pounds, and that is what makes him so appealing.
"Given a choice between Webber and Bradley, I'd definitely take Webber," said an Eastern Conference general manager who requested anonymity.
"He's got a perfect pro body like a Karl Malone, and the strength and speed to develop a strong inside game. He'll help you turn it around long before Bradley."
With the pro game favoring speed, movement and versatility, a point guard such as Magic Johnson or John Stockton becomes almost as valuable as a powerful front-court player. That is why Hardaway could be favored by lottery teams already blessed with big men. In fact, in averaging 8.5 rebounds, the slender guard surpassed Bradley and Mashburn in their final college seasons.
"He's just a wonderful player," said Jerry West, the Hall of Fame guard who is now the Los Angeles Lakers general manager. "He's got a great feel for the game and makes everyone around him play better."
If a team wins the third pick, it could use it to select Mashburn, who has both an inside and outside game.
"Mash is mentally and physically ready to turn pro," said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who previously directed the New York Knicks. "He reminds me a lot of Larry Bird."
A look at the players expected to be among the 11 lottery selections in the NBA draft on June 30:
Shawn Bradley, Brigham Young
Center 7-6 235
Played only one season at BYU before spending the past two years on a Mormon mission in Australia. Averaged 14.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.2 blocks as a freshman. Possesses a fine shooting touch from outside. Must develop inside game. Physical strength remains a key question.
Chris Webber, Michigan
Forward 6-9 245
Led Michigan's "Fab Five" to two straight NCAA finals. A strong, physical player with excellent hands and solid rebounding skills. Lacks post-up moves. Averaged 19.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
Guard 6-7 195
Played only two years of college ball. Scouts compare him to a raw Magic Johnson. An excellent ballhandler and passer who can create his own shot. Must improve shooting percentage. Averaged 22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists.
Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky
Forward 6-8 240
Another underclassman who figures to be among the top five picks. Blessed with a pro-style body, Mashburn possesses excellent ballhandling skills and can score inside and outside. Averaged 21.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
J. R. Rider, UNLV
Guard 6-5 215
An explosive scorer, Rider has the quickness to beat his man off the dribble and the leaping ability to post his defender inside. Averaged 29.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Runnin' Rebels.
Calbert Cheaney, Indiana
Forward 6-7 209
Voted College Player of the Year, Cheaney was a model of consistency for the Hoosiers. Reminds pro scouts of former pro star Jamaal Wilkes. An excellent perimeter shooter who delivers in the clutch. Averaged 22.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Rodney Rodgers, Wake Forest
Forward 6-7 235
Declared for the draft after his junior year. A physical force, the left-handed Rodgers showed ability to score down low or from the perimeter. Shot 55 percent from the field, averaging 21.2 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Allan Houston, Tennessee
Guard 6-6 200
Considered the best pure shooter of the eligible players. Highly effective coming off screens. Averaged 22.3 points and 4.8 rebounds playing for his father, Wade Houston, at Tennessee.
Vin Baker, Hartford
Center 6-11 232
A "big fish in a small pond." Rated an offensive force with three-point shooting range and an effective post-up game. Averaged 28.3 points and 10.7 rebounds, but seldom faced big-time competition.
Bobby Hurley, Duke
Guard 6-0 165
Led the Blue Devils to two NCAA titles with his strong leadership ability and excellent play-making. The son of a high school coach, Hurley has basketball instincts and proven toughness in crunch time. Has improved his outside shot significantly. Slight size remains major question mark. Averaged 17 points and 8.2 assists.
Terry Dehere, Seton Hall
Guard 6-4 185
Excellent long-range shooter who set school scoring record as Pirates' leader. Clutch performer had best games in pressure situations. Averaged 22 points, shooting 46 percent from the field.
What: Draw to determine the selection order at the top of the NBA draft.
When: Today, during halftime of Knicks-Bulls game, which begins at 3:30 p.m.
! TV: Channels 2, 4