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JOHNSON WILL BE TOP PICK, PAPER SAYS

The Charlotte Hornets intend to choose Larry Johnson of Nevada-Las Vegas with their No. 1 NBA draft pick, a newspaper reported today.

The Hornets have eliminated Syracuse forward Billy Owens, a team source told The Charlotte Observer. Barring a dramatic and unexpected reversal toward Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo, the team will take Johnson, a burly 6-7 forward, with the pick, the source said.Hornets vice president Allan Bristow would acknowledge only that team management has eliminated one of the two forwards under consideration and has one player in mind. He said he plans not to reveal the Hornets' decision until draft night.

"I know who we'd pick right now if we drafted today," Bristow said. "I don't want to eliminate Dikembe. It could be the weekend before we do."

Asked to describe Johnson's assets, Bristow said, "rebounding, leadership, toughness, scoring. And he wins." Bristow said he has seen Johnson play in person 11 times over the past two years, plus every game of his senior season on videotape.

Clearly, Johnson is confident he will be picked at the top of Wednesday's draft. He canceled an interview with Sacramento this week, saying he knew he would be gone before the Kings' No. 3 overall pick.

Bristow said he wants to sign their No. 1 pick to a five-year contract, which would be the longest in the franchise's four-year existence. Last year's No. 1 pick, Derrick Coleman, got about $3 million per season from the New Jersey Nets.

"That's 25 percent of your (salary) cap over the next five years," Bristow said. "If this guy doesn't turn out, it could really set us back. Look at Ellison."

Pervis Ellison, the No. 1 pick in 1989, lasted one season with the Kings before being traded to Washington.

The Hornets have turned their focus this week to their second-round pick, 28th overall. Of the five players they have worked out so far for that spot, director of scouting Dave Twardzik appears most impressed with Minnesota guard Kevin Lynch and Arizona State center Isaac Austin.