Slim Pickens at Slots 2-7

June 4, 1997

Desperate young men eager to become members of the World's Greatest Basketball League assume that the movers and shakers of the NBA must be monitoring their every move as they knock each other around on the court here at Solheim Gymnasium on the campus of Moody Bible Institute, but it just isn't so.

What the kids at the Chicago pre-draft camp don't realize is that a coach always has time to talk.

Take Rick Pitino, for example. He's currently holding draft picks No. 3, 6, and 55. "And I don't even know if we'll keep 55," he confides. It is not necessary for him to be worrying about whether gargantuan Garth Joseph (officially checking in at 7 feet 2 inches and 313 pounds) can handle Michael Andersen, a.k.a. The Greatest Player Ever To Come Out Of Denmark, in the low post. He's got Chris Wallace and Leo Papile to check up on that matter.

"For me," says Pitino, "this is valuable because while I'm here, I can talk to someone from every team in the league about possible trades, about possible exchange of draft picks, and about anything."

With the possible exception of Pat Riley, who never comes, everyone who's anyone, and who is not involved in the NBA Finals, is here. It is a phenomenal candy store of coaches, general managers, and scouts, with one Hall of Fame legend chatting up another, even as a third Hall of Fame legend is standing by with his hand extended.

Thus far, nothing.

Pitino has talked and talked, and the only thing resolved is that the Boston Celtics will not be picking No. 1. San Antonio has Tim Duncan on deck, and the Spurs are going to keep him. Duncan is a perfect insurance policy in case David Robinson's back is really as bad as I've been hearing. And if it isn't, well, how does a Robinson-Duncan-Sean Elliott front line sound? (It sounds like 55-60 W's to me.)

So forget the Spurs, Rick says. They aren't budging.

The first round of the 1997 NBA draft has three tiers: 1. Tim Duncan. 2. Nos. 2-7. 3. Everybody else.

For the record, Nos. 2-7 consist of Tony Battie, Ron Mercer, Keith Van Horn, Chauncey Billups, Antonio Daniels, and Adonal Foyle. Assuming the Celtics keep both picks, their selections will be two of those young men.

"I'm really pumped up, really excited," Pitino says. "I am excited about the draft. Yes, it's disappointing that we didn't get the first pick, because Duncan is the real deal. And yes, it's a weak draft overall. But it's strong through 7, and then the question marks start."

Here are Pitino capsules on Nos. 2-7, in alphabetical order:

2. Tony Battie, 6-11, Texas Tech. "A power forward and backup center who will play center for a Philadelphia or a Boston. Everyone wishes he would stay in school, but here he is. He's going to need weight training for about two years, and will eventually be a very good player."

3. Chauncey Billups, 6-3, Colorado. "Chauncey Billups took a Colorado team that had very little else into the NCAA tournament out of one of the two toughest leagues in the country. People say he's not a natural point guard, but to me, he has all point guard skills. When he catches the ball, he's in the triple-threat position" - shoot, pass, or drive. "He can get a team into an offense and he has a good sense of the clock."

4. Antonio Daniels, 6-4, Bowling Green. "I know Chauncey better because I tried to recruit him, but I like Antonio. He's a little bit bigger, and I like his court vision. He did not have a great workout with us because he had a flareup of patella tendinitis."

5. Adonal Foyle, 6-9, Colgate. "I love Adonal Foyle because he's such a great kid, and I think he'll be very good in this league, but he is not a center. He blocked shots at Colgate, but he is not an NBA shot-blocker. He will be a good low-post scorer. He's got good hands. My question with all these kids is whether they are willing to work hard in the offseason, and I think Adonal will."

6. Ron Mercer, 6-7, Kentucky. "I've heard it suggested we can't take Ron Mercer because of some friction with Antoine Walker. Let me say, unequivocally, that is not true. I know Antoine very well - he's like a son to me - and he is capable of saying anything. He might have said we don't need Ron Mercer, because we need a big man. But there is no problem with Ron Mercer, because he doesn't have an ego. He needs more of an ego. He will be a fine 2-guard in the NBA. People say, 'So why don't you take him?' We might, but it's not that simple."

7. Keith Van Horn, 6-10, Utah. "I've been in Boston long enough to know what people are thinking. So let me say right now he is not Michael Smith, and I don't mean any disrespect to Michael Smith. He's a legit 6-10, he runs very well, he jumps very well, and he shoots it very well. He's not a great passer. He weighs 232, and he'stronger than people think."

Note the absence of two names. No Tracy McGrady ("Not at 3 or 6, but if we drop down . . . ") and no Tim Thomas, although that, theoretically, could be subject to change. "I recruited him, and he may be the most skilled player in the draft," says Pitino. "He's got a body, he's got a touch, and he could become a great player. We haven't worked Thomas out yet, and what I need to determine is, does he really like the game of basketball? Is he really committed? It wouldn't surprise me if he hadn't touched a ball from the end of the season until people started working him out.'

Pitino reiterates that the plan over the next two years is to start maneuvering the salary cap in order to be in the free agent hunt next summer. "Antoine Walker, if he works, has a chance to be an All-Star," says Pitino. "Eric Williams can get a lot better. One of our picks this year could develop into an All-Star-level player. Then if you get a quality free agent next year, you've got something."

An immediate priority is to bestow that million-dollar exception on someone. As for Rick Fox, "I told him he's the captain of the Celtics, and that means something," Pitino points out. "He opted out of his contract, so he's also a businessman, which is fine. He's going to shop around, and we'll see what happens. I would love to have Rick Fox."

Pitino expects trade and draft spot-swapping talk to heat up as the weeks go by. "There is a great deal of romance attached to the draft," he says. "People always want to do something in the end. This could be a year when, five minutes after someone is taken, you'll hear, 'There is a trade between . . . ' "

He says he wants the rest of the league to realize that his players aren't "sale items at Filene's Basement. Everyone wants to make a trade that benefits them, not us," he laughs.

Oh, he's back, all right, and don't think everyone doesn't know it. "We were flying down to Orlando in their private plane," says new Magic assistant Brendan Suhr, "and out of nowhere, Chuck Daly says, 'How are we going to get the ball in against Pitino?' "

For the past two years, it has been as if this were British soccer and the Celtics had been "relegated" to the Second Division. That's over now. Rick Pitino's here, and the Celtics are going to matter once again.

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