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In NBA draft, ex-Terp Blake looks like long-shot selection

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Steve Blake spent four seasons running the Maryland offense as a starting point guard, became the school's all-time assists leader, led the Atlantic Coast Conference in three-point shooting as a senior and helped the Terrapins win their first NCAA championship a year earlier.

How will that translate at the professional level, where Blake intends to make his next mark in the NBA, starting with Thursday's draft?

In NBA circles, where he has been busily working out for individual teams throughout this month, Blake is considered an on-the-bubble prospect who could be taken in the second round or go undrafted and later sign as a rookie free agent.

League personnel types like Blake's ability to handle the ball, shoot from the outside, defend, make shots in the clutch and keep his teammates involved. They still wonder about his ability to penetrate, create shots off the dribble and break down quicker NBA defenses. They say he is tough enough, but remain uncertain if he is athletic and strong enough to survive and thrive with the big boys.

Still, Blake is viewed as the ex-Terp most likely to hear his name called on draft night or at least stick on an NBA roster eventually as a free agent. The consensus among pro personnel departments appears to be that Maryland guard Drew Nicholas and forwards Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle probably will end up pursuing careers in Europe, with Nicholas having an outside shot at landing in the NBA because of his exceptional shooting range.

"I think [Blake] has impacted winning at the highest level of college basketball, and that means something at this level," said one NBA scout. "He's a smart player who can lead a team. He's underrated defensively, and he has improved his shot.

"The problem is, when he penetrates, he doesn't get deep penetration and finish as well as some of the other [point guards] in our league. All it takes is one team to like you. My guess is that he's draftable. I think it's 50-50 whether he's on a roster next year."

Blake, 6 feet 3, who ranks fifth in NCAA history with 972 career assists, also is Maryland's all-time leader in games started (136) and minutes played (4,312) and is the only player in ACC history to amass more than 1,000 points, 800 assists, 400 rebounds and 200 steals.

He has worked out for nearly a dozen NBA teams, although he did not play in either pre-draft camps in Portsmouth, Va., or Chicago. Blake passed on the former in April and skipped the recent Chicago camp because of a minor knee sprain he suffered in a pickup game.

In a draft in which at least a dozen point guards could be taken - led by Texas' T.J. Ford and Oregon's Luke Ridnour - it's seen as a detriment that Blake missed both camps. Boston College point guard Troy Bell, for example, supposedly improved his stock significantly with a superb showing at the Chicago camp.

"It's a very deep draft, with a lot of point guards, and a lot of teams would rather take a 6-10 guy in the second round instead of a 6-3 guy," one NBA scout said. "There are good college guards, but I'm not sure too many people think [Blake] is a pro guard. I think he really hurt himself by not playing in the camps."

Joel Bell, Blake's agent, said Blake has turned heads at his individual workouts for teams that have included the Memphis Grizzlies, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Jersey Nets, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers.

"No one has questioned his shooting, except to say he shoots better than they thought," said Bell, who declined to make Blake available for an interview. "He will hit big shots in the fourth quarter. Put Steve Blake in a competitive situation, and he will win. You can't ignore his track record. The guy wins."

Blake spent most of his first three years at Maryland mainly setting up others - such as Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox and Terence Morris - to score. With Blake at the controls of the offense, the Terps made back-to-back appearances in the Final Four.

As a senior, Blake led the ACC in assists for the third straight year and earned first-team all-conference honors for the first time after also assuming a considerable portion of scoring responsibility. He finished Maryland's 21-10 season with a career-high average of 11.6 points a game. He also led the Terps with 50 steals.

Nicholas, who rode the bench behind Dixon for three years before taking over as a starting shooting guard last season, made the most of his chance to star as a senior. He led the Terps and finished second in the ACC in scoring average (17.8) and improved his average by 10.7 - most in the league - over his previous season.

At 6-3, Nicholas drove to the basket enough to get to the foul line more than any other Terp last season. He also has played a considerable amount at the point during his career.

The NBA likes Nicholas' range, which he put on display twice in March. He made a game-winning shot just before the buzzer to beat North Carolina State late in the regular season. Three weeks later, he made a desperation shot at the buzzer that allowed the Terps to avoid a first-round NCAA tournament exit against UNC-Wilmington. Both shots were well beyond the NBA three-point line.

But there are doubts about his ability to handle a point-guard role in the pros and how well he would adapt to shooting guard with a slight, 165-pound frame. After scoring 29 points in three games at the Portsmouth camp, Nicholas was not invited to Chicago.

Nicholas, who has worked out for the Denver Nuggets, Miami and Orlando and said he is considering offers from Italy and Spain, does not sound worried about his future.

"At the end of the day, [the NBA] always needs shooters. A lot of times it depends on the team you're with and the offense you're in. If I get enough minutes, I'm going to put points on the board," said Nicholas, who shot 41 percent from three-point range last season.

"I'm a pretty realistic person. Someone will be smart enough to take a shot at me. I'm still going to be playing basketball somewhere, and probably making very good money doing it."

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