Now that they're generating the type of exposure capable of making even Greg Oden cringe, the New Jersey Nets are zeroing in on their greatest excuse for optimism.
Right, it's the 2010 NBA Draft.
Unfortunately, the ability of bad teams to play even worse on purpose inspired a league rule that reduces the Nets' chances of landing the first overall pick to a shaky 25 percent. According to 100 percent of the NBA talent-evaluating professionals I've contacted, that choice would be Kentucky freshman point guard John Wall.
So, what on-court relief can be expected for the Nets or any of their peers that fail to achieve ping-pong victory at the draft lottery in Secaucus? Well, as usual, the evaluating sharpies are declaring the 2010 draft is -- in a word that terrifies fans of lousy teams -- weak. But, due to early entry and the subsequent need to draft on potential, the w-word has become standard. The sharpies insisted the 2009 draft was something of a joke and several rookies are working out quite well.
Anyway, in an attempt to sidestep these lords of negativism, I discussed this year's potential high-lottery selections with one college scout currently employed by an NBA franchise that has cut back on staffing. This has enabled the scout to spend more time studying players throughout the nation instead of a particular region.
"Here's my take on John Wall," the scout said. "Just crazy speed, end to end, which makes those (2009 Rookie of the Year) Derrick Rose comparisons pretty legit. He doesn't have Rose's strength yet, but strength won't be an issue. He may be more explosive than Rose, but -- in my opinion -- has much better vision and delivery skills as a passer and has a better shooting stroke."
And the negatives?
"Well, sometimes vision doesn't always lead to great decision-making," the scout said. "Just seeing a teammate cutting to the basket, for example, isn't enough. You have to be able to judge where the defensive help, the defensive rotation, may be. Eye contact with a teammate seems like a great thing to have, but if the defender can read your eyes and create a turnover ... that's not so good, is it?"
I'm guessing no.
"Wall is very active and aggressive defensively, which is rare for his age and position," the scout said. "Most young, highly rated point guards don't defend ... Wall really seems to like defense. He's really eager to run the team, move the ball, feed the post and has the jets to get anywhere on the floor he wants against anyone."
So, he's a fine choice to be the first choice?
"He has my vote."
It seems like the only concern regarding Wall is the Los Angeles Clippers' opportunity to duplicate last year's lottery magic.
Beyond Wall, most evaluation employees have narrowed the list of high-lottery suspects to a precious few. We'll list the names in no particular order, reminding you that intentional misinformation, knee-jerk reactions after pre-draft workouts and just plain uncertainty will cause the mock drafts to put these kids all over the place between now and late June.
Wesley Johnson, small forward, Syracuse
The 6-foot-7 Iowa State transfer has risen from player with draft potential to a high-lottery lock, according to the experts who are paid to make picks. In his first season at Syracuse, Johnson is giving the Orange 17 points and 9 rebounds per game. A premium athlete with the ability to shoot (and make) off the catch and create a little bit off the bounce, Johnson must overcome the perception of his duties in Coach Jim Boeheim's zone defense and prove he can guard at a pro level.
"Not really on the radar at all when the season began," the scout said of Johnson. "He sometimes coasts in that zone, which is a red flag, but he rebounds with some passion and has the feet to stay with guys laterally. I read somewhere that he was a Shawn Marion type, which is kind of questionable, let's say. I'm not sure if the kid can rebound at the same level as Marion in the league. But he's so much better creating his own shot than Marion and just really solid from deep. I think he's up to 45 percent from 3.
"I need to see him continue doing it for a while, although we've taken guys with a shorter resume. ... He's 22, which makes some people think he's closer to his ceiling, but anyone who can jump that close to the ceiling and has some skill and competitiveness has a chance to be good."
Derrick Favors, power forward, Georgia Tech
Considered by most recruiting gurus to be the top high school big man in the nation last season, Favors is averaging 11 points and 9 rebounds as a freshman. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound hometown star is another terrific athlete, but often seems to drift in and out of games.
"He's a freakish athlete," the scout said, "but he's not really refined on offense. He's not really great inside or that skilled on the perimeter, facing the basket. He can do a little of both, but doesn't seem to know what type of player he wants to be. I mean, he can really finish inside and has great agility, but he needs to learn how to post, take contact and finish without sacrificing balance and technique. He doesn't handle the ball or shoot it great, so working from the outside in is a stretch for his skill level, for now.
"But he definitely defends the rim with enthusiasm and rebounds the same way. He has too many physical tools to overlook and he's still young enough to develop skills. People said, and are still saying, Dwight Howard doesn't have a post-up game or go-to move and so on, and he's done pretty well. I'm not saying Favors will be as good as Howard, he's not as big, but he has that type of athleticism."
Evan Turner, swingman, Ohio State
The ability to spill into the margins on a stat sheet makes the Buckeye junior a top candidate for national Player of the Year honors and a high lottery selection if he (like we're assuming about him and the others on this list) enters the draft. He's not a freakish athlete, but did endure a freakish fall during a dunk that ended with two fractured vertebrae.
He returned more quickly than expected and is averaging 18.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists and ... 3.9 turnovers. Turner has a wicked crossover that enables him to get into the lane and behave as something of a point-forward.
"You just have to wonder how he'll blend in with a team that doesn't just give him the ball and all that freedom," the scout said of Turner. "Don't get me wrong ... the kid does a little bit of everything and that's a plus. But we really haven't seen what he can do off the ball. Not a great shooter, but OK. Not a great athlete, but OK. With all of that offensive responsibility, he tends to force things and turns the ball over too much. But he can really handle it and defends and rebounds very well.
"On second thought, the team that gets him probably isn't that good right now, so maybe they would let him have the ball, who knows?"
DeMarcus Cousins, center, Kentucky
Another big catch in John Calipari's first Lexington recruiting class, Cousins was the prospect the real scouting sticklers warned you about. During the high school camps and showcases, the 6-10, 270-pounder seemed aloof, disinterested in giving maximum effort and not exactly the definition of coach-able. But he's improved in all phases under Calipari and has elevated his considerable stock; the lottery now beckons.
"Wow, he's really turned some perceptions around," the scout said of Cousins. "He's not a hover-craft like Favors, but he's got an NBA body. He didn't like to bang that much and used to drift to the perimeter a lot, but that's changing. He has really nice hands and good feet ... probably playing more physically after working with guys like (teammate) Patrick Patterson in practice.
If his consistency continues to rise, he'll go pretty high.
"His stamina was in question, but even though he's only gettin' about 20 minutes a game, he's still puttin' up 16 points and about 10 rebounds. He seems like much less of a risk than some guys who went straight from high school and have developed into pretty good NBA players."
Hassan Whiteside, center, Marshall
OK, so the 6-11, 225-pound freshman may be on the lottery fringe right now, but he's barged onto the radar screen without the usual fanfare and is athletic enough to keep scouts on edge. He's averaging 13 points, almost 10 rebounds and a crazy 5.5 blocks per game for the Thundering Herd. With NBA teams historically willing to take chances on big guys -- especially those who can elevate and run -- Whiteside, who's 20 years old, could be much in demand (if he commits) come June.
"Boy, a lot of people are watching this guy closely," the scout said. "He had 18 (points) and 6 (rebounds) against a very good West Virginia team recently. Not much of a repertoire in the post, but you'd get him for defense and rebounding and hope the work ethic is there for him to become a decent option. Seems like a hard worker. This is a run-jump league and this is a guy who could really move up the charts as the weeks roll on."