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Utah Jazz: It's time for Jazz to pull some more second-round magic out of their hat

When it comes to the NBA Draft, everybody likes to talk incessantly about lottery picks — those coveted, early first-round selections who are deemed to be potential difference-makers for a franchise.

Theoretically, they're supposed to belong to the league's lousy, non-playoff teams from the previous season.

Of course, over the years, we've seen several of the league's top teams, via some shrewd trades combined with blind luck, wind up with lottery picks, too.

Like this year's Boston Celtics, who boasted the best record in the Eastern Conference and reached the conference finals this season, yet still wound up with the No. 1 pick in Thursday night's annual draft, thanks to some slick front-office wheeling and dealing with the New Jersey Nets in 2013, combined with a little good fortune in the recent NBA Draft lottery.

Boston traded that top pick away to the Philadelphia 76ers last weekend, showing us once again that, when it comes to draft night, there's really no such thing as a sure thing.

But what does seem like a sure thing is that, every dozen years or so, the Utah Jazz have displayed a knack for finding a second-round draft pick that winds up being a definite difference-maker for the franchise.

And that possibility could turn out to be huge this year for a Utah team that, with a pair of second-round picks (Nos. 42 and 55 overall), might be able to bolster a lineup which already appears on the verge of great things — if they can keep the pending free agency of Gordon Hayward, George Hill and other players from potentially destroying what they've begun to build.

Utah's propensity to pull some late-draft magic out of its hat actually started back in 1982, when an unheralded center named Mark Eaton was selected by the Jazz, but not until the fourth round of that year's NBA Draft.

Utah's then-head coach, Frank Layden, must've seen something in the 7-foot-4 Eaton that others didn't. After all, Eaton had played sparingly in his two seasons at UCLA, averaging just 1.8 points per game while playing less than seven minutes per game in a reserve role.

Well, all the big fella did was come to Utah and flourish, becoming an awesome rebounder and an intimidating, shot-blocking force inside who was twice named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. He led the league in blocks four times over a five-year span from 1884-88, was named to the All-Defensive Team five times and was an NBA All-Star in 1989.

Eaton still holds NBA records for most blocks in a season (456) and average blocked shots per game (3.50) for a career.

Then, 11 years after selecting Eaton, the Jazz found another player in the 1993 draft, Long Beach State's Bryon Russell, who turned out to play a big role on their most successful seasons ever.

Russell, the 45th overall pick that year, became an integral part of Utah's only two teams that reached the NBA Finals.

The 6-foot-7 small forward played in 628 regular-season games over nine seasons with the Jazz, averaging 11.3 points per game over his last six seasons in Utah. Known as a superb defensive player, he also played in 96 playoff games for the Jazz.

He's the guy whose in-bounds pass to John Stockton resulted in the "Shot Heard 'Round the NBA," which vaulted the Jazz past the Houston Rockets and into their first Finals appearance in 1997.

Unfortunately, Russell is probably best remembered for being the guy whom Michael Jordan pushed off against — according to Russell and countless Utah fans who watched the game — before hitting the game-winning shot in the closing seconds of Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, giving the Chicago Bulls their sixth (and last) NBA championship.

Then, 13 years after drafting Russell, the Jazz came up with another brilliant second-round steal when they selected 6-foot-8 forward Paul Millsap with the 47th pick in the 2006 NBA Draft.

Millsap, who was a three-time NCAA rebounding champion at Louisiana Tech, spent seven seasons in a Jazz uniform, was supposedly an "undersized" power forward. But all he did was average 12 points and seven rebounds per game in Utah, even though he wasn't a full-time starter until his last three seasons here.

He then moved on to play for the Atlanta Hawks, and all he's done since leaving Salt Lake City is become a four-time Eastern Conference All-Star selection. He's averaged between 16.7 and 18.1 points per game in his four seasons in Atlanta, along with between 7.7 and 9 rebounds a game.

Millsap's expected to opt out of his current contract this month and become an unrestricted free agent who'll likely land a monstrous deal in the neighborhood of $30 million a year.

Not bad for an "undersized" second-round draft pick, huh?

The Jazz have had some other solid second-round picks over the years — C.J. Miles, Jarron Collins, Jeremy Evans, Shandon Anderson — but no one in the same class as Eaton, Russell and Millsap.

Since Millsap's selection in '06, most of Utah's second-rounders have been highly forgettable — Herbert Hill, Ante Tomic, Tadija Dragicevic, Goran Suton, Kevin Murphy, Erick Green, Jarnell Stokes, Olivier Hanlan, Dani Diez, Isaiah Whitehead and Tyrone Wallace.

Then again, other than Hayward, most of their first-round picks over the last decade — Morris Almond, Kosta Koufos, Eric Maynor, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks, Trey Burke, Gorgui Dieng, Taurean Prince — haven't exactly set the league on fire, either, and are no longer with the ballclub.

The jury's still out on fellow first-rounders Dante Exum, Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles, who are still with the team.

Indeed, finding that valuable diamond in the rough can be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack — in the dark of night, or with your eyes closed.

It's mighty darned difficult.