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Monday, June 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

NBA
NBA draft: College players set for comeback

By Percy Allen
Seattle Times staff reporter

STEPHAN SAVOIA / AP
Saint Joseph's Jameer Nelson elected to remain in school for his senior season. Nelson, a point guard, went on to share player-of-the-year honors.
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Draft info: top college players and Sonics slant

Right now.

Ask Jameer Nelson, when he'll be ready to make a significant contribution to whichever NBA team selects him in Thursday's draft, and he'll stare at you with a blank look on his face.

"Look man, I didn't wait this long, play four years in college to sit another four years or spend any time on somebody's bench," said Nelson, the Saint Joseph's point guard. "I'm ready now. Right now. I'm not like some of these kids that's going to take some time to get comfortable playing ball. I'm ready."

The seniors have spoken.

Listen to Nelson, who has become the ambassador for staying in school, and forget what you've heard about the so-called international invasion.

Never mind all of that talk about implementing an age restriction that would have prevented the record of nine high-schoolers who remain in the draft.

Instead, pay attention to what's happening in NBA draft rooms across the country.

Despite an early entry list originally littered with high-school and international prospects, college players appear as if they will dominate the early portion of the draft.

It's becoming in vogue once again to invest in college players such as Nelson and Connecticut forward Emeka Okafor, who shared the college player-of-the-year award.

"Well, right now, if you're a GM, you got three ways to go," said Okafor, who starred for three years with the Huskies and is the No. 1 pick in many mock drafts. "You go overseas and find your guy. You go to the high schools or you go to college.

"It's like buying stock. You never really know what you have until you buy it. I guess you can play it safe, and that's taking us (college players), or you can gamble with your money."

The lure of selecting the next preps-to-pros phenom is still strong, hence the excitement surrounding 18-year-old Dwight Howard, a 6-foot-10 forward out of Atlanta.

Still, most NBA executives are in agreement that players such as LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant come along once every five years or so.

And finding those players is becoming increasingly difficult.

Only one high-schooler, Jackie Butler, a 6-10 forward out of Coastal Christian Academy in Virginia, participated at the NBA predraft camp in Chicago two weeks ago.

"I've talked to some teams, and they've told me flat-out that they will not take a high-school player," Stanford junior Josh Childress said. "Some teams have said, 'I don't want an international player.' Some teams have said it doesn't matter.

"It is broken up in groups. Rather than saying, 'I don't want this particular guy,' they are now saying, 'I don't want anybody from this group of people.' It's happening. That's how things have become."

Aside from James, no other American prepster taken in the first round last year played with any regularity as a rookie. Travis Outlaw scored eight points in eight games for Portland. Minnesota's Ndudi Ebi managed 13 total points, and Kendrick Perkins appeared in 10 games and finished with 22 points.

A handful of players with minimal college experience, including Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kirk Hinrich and Josh Howard held starring or supporting roles for their teams.

"It's what we've always said, college players for the most part are better prepared to handle the rigors of the NBA life," said Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting. "We push kids to go to school, to stay in school and then apply for the draft. The proof is in the pudding. ... By and large, college players are better-adjusted."

Andre Iguodala, a 6-6 defensive stalwart, spent just one year at Arizona and felt it was the best decision he could have made in terms of his basketball development.

"Talent-wise, yeah, maybe I was ready for the NBA last year, but mentally, nah," he said. "This past year, I learned a lot about defense and playing in a team concept. ... There's a lot of great players at Arizona. There's wars in practice every day, so you have no choice but to get better. I'm a better player now than I was last year."

There are potential drawbacks to staying four years in college as well.

Chris Duhon was a high school All-American before attending Duke. The 6-1 point guard created tremendous buzz when he won the ACC Rookie of the Year award after his freshman season, and many suggested he should bolt for the NBA.

Duhon remained at Duke, where he led the Blue Devils to a national championship and collected an armful of awards. His scoring average, however, improved marginally from 7.2 as a freshman to 10.0 last season.

Three years ago, Duhon might have been a first-rounder and possibly a lottery pick.

Thursday, he'll be lucky if he's chosen in the draft at all.

It didn't help that Charlotte general manager Bernie Bickerstaff said he "could probably evolve into a good journeyman basketball player" after a workout for the Bobcats. Or that Duhon had a lackluster performance at the predraft camp.

"What happened to Chris had no effect on my decision, but you know those things happen," said Duke freshman Luol Deng, a 6-8 forward who left the Blue Devils after just one season. "You just have to do what feels right.

"Whether it's one, two, three or fours years. Or even no college at all. You have to do what feels right, and for me, after one year, I'm ready to see what's next."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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