Underclass names change, but NBA teams remain predictably ecstatic


LANDOVER -- The first few players taken in last night's NBA draft were Chris Webber, Shawn Bradley, Anfernee Hardaway and Jamal Mashburn, underclassmen all.

No, wait, that doesn't sound right. That was the 1993 draft. Where did those notes come from?

This time, it was Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill and Donyell Marshall, save for Hill, kids with college eligibility remaining.

Understandable mistake. Every year, it's pretty much the same thing: Great hoopla, music, noise, cheering, sometimes a groan or two. And commissioner David Stern, for local TV consumption, saying over and over, "The [whatever] pick in the 1994 NBA draft belongs to [fill in the name of the team] and they select [fill in the name of the player]."

Exciting? Well, yes, because in each of the league's 27 towns, hope springs eternal. Better make that expectation. For, surely, every one of these first-rounders is either Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, or the man who will join this trio as all-time all-timers.

In turn, the players jump up, high-five their soon-to-be fellow millionaires and sprint to a table where they are issued a cap of the team they are selected by.

For the next week or so, or until they can officially start negotiating with the representatives of players, ballclubs, coaches and general managers will speak only in superlatives about their quarry. The idea, of course, is to get fans to the phones ordering up tickets in wholesale lots.

Chances are, most of us know exactly who Juwan Howard, the Washington Bullets' first-round selection and fifth overall, is.

After all, as one of Michigan's "Fab Five" the past three seasons, he's been on television in high-profile Big Ten and NCAA tournament games at least a hundred times.

Just in case the telly has been on the fritz, though, Bullets braintrust John Nash (GM) and Jim Lynam (coach) were there to fill us in. "Ecstatic to get a player of this caliber," Lynam says.

"We're delighted with Juwan Howard," Nash trumpets. "When we had him in here for an interview, the things that impressed me most about him were his character, his intelligence and his insight. He's a leader type."

Suddenly, the men were talking about a three-man rotation at the forward position, Howard joining Tom Gugliotta and Don MacLean. "And he can do some minutes at center, too, if you ask him," adds the coach.

Possibilities are flying all over the joint now. "This means Calbert Cheaney will log a lot of big guard time," says Nash. "Right now, it's Calbert, Rex Chapman and Michael Adams back there, but who knows if Brent Price or Doug Overton is about to step up?"

Step aside Rockets, SuperSonics, Pacers, Bulls, Knicks and Suns, make way for the gang from the nation's capital! That's the general feeling at USAir Arena until someone mentions Kevin Duckworth as the center. The lack of booing suggests this is a very polite crowd.

The crowd notes that with the 14th pick, the New Jersey Nets tab Yinka Dare, a 7-1 sophomore center from George Washington University in the District. Maybe they think of how fans up at The Meadowlands are envisioning this Nigerian "project" as the next Hakeem Olajuwon. Then, a bolt of reality when Nets GM Willis Reed says, "He has to learn how to play basketball."

The show drones on. "He's a winner," says TNT pro hoops analyst Doug Collins of almost everyone. "This is a dream come true," says player after player, even Jason Kidd, who is headed for Dallas, and Donyell Marshall, grabbed by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

But this is no time to check out the record; it's strictly for fantasizing and seeing this draft as probably the greatest in the franchise's history even though only a couple of players are being selected.

The plain fact is, however, eight, 10, maybe a dozen players have the kind of impact everyone expects. Last year, the first 12 players taken averaged about 12.5 points, five rebounds and 3.5 assists while learning the pro game. The next 15 chosen in the first round averaged less than four points, two rebounds and an assist. Nearly half the players taken on the second round drew a DNP (did not play).

Next to last in the first round, the Knicks took Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward of Florida State. The choice originated in Houston and went through Atlanta before trudging up the Appalachian Trail to Gotham. It was something to discuss until these kids show up in camp and the dynasty lifts off.

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