Another draft all about potential

NEW YORK -- The biggest buzz that shot through Madison Square Garden on draft night came from a player who wasn't even invited to The Theatre's party.

For weeks, speculation swirled that the Portland Trail Blazers were hot and heavy for Lincoln High point guard Sebastian Telfair. But no one from Coney Island to Ellis Island expected Telfair's name to pop up at No. 13 on Thursday night.

In the end, however, that's how the 2004 draft will be remembered. NBA teams made a firm declaration that they're looking for potential stardom over immediate production.

In all, eight high school players went among the draft's first 19 picks. And the selection of Dwight Howard in the top spot by Orlando -- over Connecticut All-American Emeka Okafor -- made it the fourth consecutive year that a non-college player went No. 1.

But Howard's sparkling smile -- accentuated by his braces -- wasn't the night's defining image. Anyone who's seen Howard can agree that there's a Garnett-like potential in his 6-foot-11 frame.

This draft will be remembered for the glut of unproven guards and wings among the eight high schoolers in the first round. Along with Telfair, Shaun Livingston (4th to the Clippers), Josh Smith (17th to the Hawks), J.R. Smith (18th to the Hornets) and Dorell Wright (19th to the Heat) all went in the first 20 picks.

Those players have bodies that would wear down in the Big East, never mind the Eastern Conference. And aside from J.R. Smith, none can shoot the ball particularly well.

But teams care more about the spring in their legs and how their bodies will fill in years from now.

"A lot of times now, if a guy is a senior, league officials look at him like he's an old man," said Stanford's Josh Childress, who left The Farm after his junior year.

Anyone think some NBA head coaches weren't grinding their teeth in war rooms across the country? With the typical life span of a coach just a few fortnights, they'd have to be thrilled that the GMs are getting players who'll contribute in 2007.

In the past, seven-footers and the odd-ball athletic freaks like Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant were the types of players who made the leap from prep to pro. With the foreign trend petering out, as evidenced by just one non-college foreigner picked among the top 20 (Andris Biedrins to Golden State at No. 11), the newest wave is coming from the prep class.

"I guess other teams feel that the high school guys have more potential than the college guys," Josh Smith said. "You can't read other people's minds, but if there has to be a reason, that (potential of the high schoolers) has to be it."

No one should have complained louder about this trend than Jameer Nelson, the plucky Saint Joseph's guard who led the Hawks to a dazzling season and won college player of the year honors. A slip of the tongue by Nelson at the interview podium summed up his night. Nelson said he was glad the team that selected him wanted him. Then, he corrected himself, as Denver had picked him -- and then traded him to Orlando.

Nelson waited nearly two hours for his name to be called by NBA commissioner David Stern, patiently holding his son on his lap as player after player grabbed a hat and popped up on stage.

"There are no negative thoughts in my mind at all," Nelson said after he got picked. "We're all fortunate in this situation. I wish people could get it out of their head that because I'm not drafted at a certain spot that I was supposed to be disappointed. If I was disappointed, I wouldn't be here and talk to you."

Other college guys were a little more blunt, including Nevada guard Kirk Snyder, who ended up at No. 16, behind five high schoolers.

"My heart sunk a little bit," Snyder said after Portland picked Telfair. "But that's the political side of things and that's the business side of things."

The trend of leaning toward the kids may be short lived. This crop of high school kids was regarded as the best in the past 25 years. Next year's crop is devoid of any sure-fire NBA big men and generally is considered weak. Plus, the fact that last years non-LeBron prep-to-pros Travis Outlaw, Ndudi Ebi and Kendrick Perkins made virtually no impact on their teams during their rookie years must resonate at some point.

But their lack of performance obviously didn't impact the draft this year. Now, we can wait and see if youth is wasted on the young.

Pete Thamel covers college basketball for ESPN Magazine. He can be reached at pete.thamel@espn3.com.