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Draft is all about potential

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If Jazz owner Larry H. Miller had his way, the NBA's rookie age minimum would be 22.

Not gonna happen. Even Miller realizes that.

"At least 20," he said. "I think 20 is realistic."

That's probably not going to happen, either. At least not if the NBA Players Association has its way.

But there could be some sort of compromise — say, no 18-year-olds are eligible to be drafted, or all draftees are required to be at least a year removed from high school graduation.

Until then, Miller sees two things happening.

One: "I think we're really headed for problems," he said. "I don't think these kids can get ready, emotionally, for what the NBA is going to throw at them."

Two: "You have to go . . . with what's available," Miller said. "We can't be the lone boys in the wilderness."

That's right: As long as they are available, and as long as everyone else is doing it, too, the Jazz will continue to consider drafting kids who never so much as set foot on a college campus.

No matter what they think of the practice.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is this reality: There is a dearth of college seniors from whom to select.

Both assertions hold true Thursday, when Utah just may use one of its three first-round selections on a virtual child.

A whopping eight Americans who never attended college should go in the first round: Atlanta power forward Dwight Howard, either No. 1 overall to Orlando or No. 2 to Charlotte; a couple of point guards, likely lottery pick Shaun Livingston of Peoria, Ill., and Brooklyn high school legend Sebastian Telfair, who already has a multimillion-dollar shoe contract; two shooting guards, Dorell Wright, a Californian who prepped in Connecticut, and New Jersey native J.R. Smith; small forward Josh Smith, a Georgia native who played his senior season for Virginia hoops power Oak Hill Academy; and two more big men, Mississippi's Al Jefferson and Californian Robert Smith.

Spurned along the way are the schools to whom these kids originally committed, including Duke (Livingston), Louisville (Telfair), DePaul (Wright), Indiana (Josh Smith), Arkansas (Jefferson) and USC (Robert Smith).

Figuring Howard and Livingston both are long gone by the time they pick first at No. 14, the Jazz have been keeping close tabs on the rest.

Utah also chooses at No. 16 and No. 21, meaning Jazz basketball operations senior vice president Kevin O'Connor might be willing to take a chance on one of the youngsters — even if his last experiment down that route didn't completely pan out.

Asked if selecting ex-Jazz shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson 23rd in the 2000 draft was a success or failure, O'Connor said, "I'd say something in between."

The Jazz traded Stevenson, who jumped straight to the NBA from his Fresno, Calif., area high school, for Orlando shooting guard Gordan Giricek last February.

"We'd hoped that he'd grow up the line," O'Connor said of Stevenson, never more than an occasional starter in Utah.

The Jazz really didn't miss on anyone big by taking Stevenson, considering the rest of the first round went Dalibor Bagaric, Jake Tsaskalidis, Mamadou N'Diaye, Primoz Brezec, Erick Barkley and Mark Madsen.

And Utah did, O'Connor points out, salvage something from Stevenson: "If you . . . can say that the 23rd pick in the draft turns into Gordan Giricek, I think you'd be pretty happy with it."

O'Connor, a proponent of the concept of no 18-year-olds in the draft, readily admits high school kids have drawbacks.

"They've been always able to physically overpower somebody and haven't learned how to play," he said. "I think that's the biggest part of it — they've got to learn how to play basketball. Because (now) they're playing against people with the same physical attributes they have."

Still, he'd chance it again.

In a heartbeat.

There also, though, is a place in O'Connor's heart for NBA-ready college players.

"I think everybody would like to see the year (1997) that you had Tim Duncan, Keith Van Horn . . . ," he said. " . . . At least you'd see a little more productivity from the players and at least know what they can do a lot more than now."

As it stands, only three college seniors are expected to go in Thursday's first round: UConn power forward Emeka Okafor, who should go No. 1 or No. 2; BYU big man Rafael Araujo, whom the Jazz are considering at 14 or 16; and St. Joe's point guard Jameer Nelson. A fourth, perhaps Oklahoma State guard Tony Allen, could slip in.

Staying in school, it seems, has its risks.

Nelson could have come out last year but remained and improved his stock drastically.

"Hopefully these guys in the NBA will notice that — that I'm a little more mature than I was a year ago," he said. "Really, it helped me out with basketball, too."

Duke point guard Chris Duhon is the coin's tail side.

He could have come out after his sophomore season and would have been taken in the first round. Translation: guaranteed millions. Instead, he stayed to work on his degree. Now, he'll be fortunate to go in the second round — and could wind up a working stiff like most everyone else.

Still, Duhon — who, like Nelson, has worked out for the Jazz — has no regrets.

"A lot of people were coming up to me and telling me what could happen if I went, but my whole thing was getting a college education," he said. "I'm the first ever in my family, and that was a goal of mine. So that was something that I really locked in on.

"College is a great experience," Duhon added. "You always hear that college is the best time of your life, and it was for me."

Duhon thinks everyone should go.

"It gives you an opportunity to grow as a person and become a man," he said. "I think coming from high school and jumping into a man's world is kind of tough. There's a lot of adjustments.

"Just to be able to be on your own, make decisions on your own, live on your own — I think it gives you an advantage, to grow up as a man and a person and learn how to handle certain adversities."

Yet he understands why NBA teams will take someone who hasn't been to college.

"A lot of teams are looking for potential for down the road. Everybody wants to get that LeBron James," Duhon said. "No one wants to miss out on getting a LeBron or a Kevin Garnett or a Kobe (Bryant). So you have to take those risks. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don't. But you don't want to be that team that missed out."

O'Connor knows the feeling.

So until NBA owners and the players union agree on an age limit, he will keep an open mind to the risk.

"From now on, we're just gonna have to accept this," O'Connor said, "you've got to understand that you're drafting on potential. You're not drafting on impact."

Miller understands. But he still thinks change of some sort is overdue.

"Sadly," the Jazz owner said, "what it's going to take is some of these kids coming in and having bad experiences."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com