You can see it in the breathtaking rebounding and postup prowess of wondrously skilled medium-sized players like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce. It is evident in the crisp passing and deft perimeter shooting of tall, agile athletes like Chris Webber, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. It is also apparent in the rugged defense and explosive power of smaller men like Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd and Andre Miller.

It, in a word, is versatility. It’s become the buzzword of the modern NBA, and it is on the lips of every NBA executive charged with the responsibility of improving his team.

As attractive as Yao Ming's 7-5 frame is to many teams, he will still have to make several adjustments to the NBA game.
Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images
“Versatility is the name of the game now,” said Bryan Colangelo, President and General Manager of the Phoenix Suns. “It’s nice to have a pure player who plays one position, but pure players are somewhat cornered. There has been an evolution in our game toward the versatile, multi-position athlete.”

“Versatility is more important, especially with the way the rules have changed,” agreed Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Billy King. “It’s getting away from the power game to a more athletic game where guys play numerous positions.”

The NBA’s venerable Director of Scouting, Marty Blake, has seen all kinds of trends when it comes to what teams look for in the NBA Draft. He notes that you can find good players in every draft, but that recent drafts, flush with unrefined, underdeveloped yet talented younger players, can only be evaluated several years down the road.

“You have to go into the draft with the idea of developing talent,” said Blake, who has been involved in the draft for nearly 50 years. “Even the stars among the young players are going to take two to three years to develop. We are in a battle against what I call the instant gratification syndrome. But there are no quick fixes today.”

The other trend in the NBA Draft has been the influx of players from outside the United States. Certainly Yao Ming of China, the 7-5 center of the Shanghai Sharks, will be the latest of these players to find himself selected early in the evening on June 26 at New York’s Theater at Madison Square Garden. Yao and a bevy of talented Europeans wish to follow the success of 2002 got milk? NBA Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol of Spain, Andrei Kirilenko (Russia) of the Utah Jazz who joined Gasol on the got milk? NBA All-Rookie Team, and Zeljko Rebraca (Yugoslavia) of the Detroit Pistons and Vladimir Radmanovic (Yugoslavia) of the Seattle SuperSonics who were each named to the Second Team.

It was clear when talking to NBA draft-day decision-makers one month before the draft that they are looking for multi-skilled, multi-positional athletes to add to their teams. Here are some of their comments on 10 players who were receiving the most attention.

Yao Ming, 7-5, 296, Shanghai Sharks (China)—Projected Position: Center/Forward

Yao will face enormous expectations, which is not altogether fair considering the numerous adjustments he will have to make to the NBA style of play. While the league is evolving to accept a quicker, more athletic type of player, Yao will have some matchup problems going against more muscular frontcourt types. However, his height and perimeter abilities will give opponents headaches. Those with NBA memories that extend back to the mid-1990s will recall how easily 7-7 Gheorghe Muresan of the Washington Bullets was able to set up 10 feet from the basket, turn and shoot a simple jump shot without any worries about a defender blocking his shot. Muresan, not nearly as athletic or mobile as Yao, shot about 58 percent from the field over a three-year stretch and averaged from 10 to 14 points.

“I think he will be a force eventually, but he will take time to develop,” said Indiana Pacers President Donnie Walsh. “He does remind me of [longtime Pacers center] Rik Smits. He is bigger and probably more skilled than Rik was when he came into the league.”

“The things that impress you are that he has very solid post moves and a soft touch around the basket,” said Miami Heat President and General Manager of Basketball Operations Randy Pfund.

Jay Williams, 6-2, 195, Duke—Projected Position: Point Guard

It’s curious to think that the player most observers point to as the top point guard prospect in the nation for two years running didn’t play that position during his last season in college. Williams, operating off the ball at the shooting guard spot as a junior, received consensus National College Player of the Year honors, and his ability to play both guards spots makes him even more coveted by NBA teams. Williams averaged 21.3 points and 5.3 assists this past season.

“The first thing I would say is winner,” said Washington Wizards Director of Scouting Chuck Douglas. “He is more of a scoring point guard, but he will find open teammates. He can score the ball in streaks and carry a team for periods of time. He is a guy who is ultra-competitive, keeps coming at you, and you better be ready to play when you are facing him. He is capable of distributing to his teammates while playing his own game at a high level.”

Drew Gooden, 6-10, 230, Kansas—Projected Position: Power Forward

Every GM spoken remarked on how Gooden established a pattern of continued improvement during his three seasons at Kansas. Despite not having much bulk, Gooden finished fourth in the nation in rebounding (11.4 rpg) and averaged 19.8 points. He has added a perimeter touch to his fluid postup game, and his elevation and quickness around the basket were unmatched at the college level.

“He is a complete player who with continued development should be a very effective NBA player,” said Colangelo. “He has the ability to take the ball to the hole or knock down an outside shot. And he rebounds the ball so well.”

Caron Butler, 6-7, 235, Connecticut—Projected Position: Small Forward

In two short college seasons, Butler demonstrated very clearly that he would be a high draft pick. His NBA-ready physique and explosive elevation off the floor stamp him as an attractive draft pick for a team hoping to get an impact player right away. Butler averaged 20.3 points and 7.5 rebounds, and saw his confidence and draft status rise with a remarkable performance in the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 26.5 points in four NCAA Tournament games, including a tour de force 32-point, seven-rebound, four-assist game against eventual NCAA champion Maryland in the Elite Eight.

“People use Paul Pierce and Glen Robinson as a kind of comparison for him,” said Pfund. “He is a multi-skilled, talented player who has three-point range. He doesn’t have any real weakness in his game that should limit him from coming in and making an impact right away with a team. He is also an excellent offensive rebounder.”

Mike Dunleavy, 6-9, 221, Duke—Projected Position: Small Forward

The allure of Dunleavy is his prescient feel for the game, an intangible that NBA teams value as highly as the ability to run fast or jump high. Dunleavy seems to always know the correct time to shoot, to pass and to settle down or speed up the tempo of a game. He is an excellent perimeter shooter who is also a clever dribbler and passer, evoking some memories of a young Toni Kukoc. Dunleavy, who grew two inches and gained at least 30 pounds while at Duke, averaged 17.3 points and 7.2 rebounds playing with All-Americans Jay Williams and Carlos Boozer.

“He is a great all-around player and he has great size for a guy who has that kind of skill,” said Walsh. “He obviously has some physical growth to go. His position will be determined by who he has to guard.”

Dajuan Wagner, 6-3, 200, Memphis—Projected Position: Shooting Guard

In his one season at Louisville, Wagner accomplished a monumental task: He proved to critics that he was more than an explosive scorer. While he set a school record for field goal attempts (18 per game), he also averaged 3.6 assists and proved to be not only willing but skilled at passing the ball. Wagner has been compared to Allen Iverson for his ability to create space between himself and defenders with quickness and deception, but Wagner has the added advantage of a bigger frame that should be able to withstand the pounding opposing defenses will administer. He averaged 21.1 points and led Memphis to the NIT title.

“He is an explosive scorer who can get his own shot and shoot with range,” Douglas said. “He is a tough guy to shut down individually. He needs to learn the nuances of the point guard position and incorporate that within his scoring ability. During the course of the year, he improved in some of those areas and was making progress throughout the season. It looks like he will be able to play some at the point guard position.”

Chris Wilcox, 6-10, 221, Maryland—Projected Position: Power Forward

No collegiate player experienced a greater rise in fortunes than Wilcox, who went from a frontcourt reserve as a freshman to an explosive, highlight-reel force as a sophomore. Playing with fellow draft prospects Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, Wilcox managed to have a major impact on games where almost no set plays were called for him. He helped Maryland tremendously by converting offensive rebounds into points and always seemed to soar for an important defensive rebound when one was needed most. Everyone involved in basketball, Wilcox himself included, understands that he has much work ahead to capitalize on his athletic talent. But his work ethic and demonstrated passion for the game bode well for the future.

“He is an explosive big man and a powerful inside player,” said Pfund. “He is still raw. He’s got some refining to do of his game, but as you saw in the NCAA Tournament, he has a great jump hook in the middle of the lane. He needs to develop a little more of a perimeter game. Right now, he has raw power around the basket and will rebound.”

Curtis Borchardt, 7-0, 240, Stanford—Projected Position: Center

After two tantalizing seasons where foot injuries slowed his development, it all came together for Borchardt as a junior this year. He averaged 16.9 points, 11.4 rebounds (third in the nation) and 2.9 blocks (17th in nation) and generally performed like that treasured but rarely seen diamond: a skilled, shotblocking center.

“In Jake Tsakalidis, we drafted one of the last, big, banging type centers,” said Colangelo. “You just don’t see many of these guys coming down the pipe anymore. Borchardt is a skilled, legitimate seven-footer who can play the game. He is also a high character guy, which works in his favor.”

“Nene” Hilario, 6-11, 260, Vasco da Gama (Brazil)-Projected: Power Forward

Occasionally you can trace the arrival of a young basketball player in the consciousness of GMs, pinpoint the exact moment when a player revealed himself to be a future NBA player. For Dirk Nowitzki, his days as a little-known second division player in Germany ended when he scored 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit Game in San Antonio. The man they call “Nene,” also known as Maybyner Rodney Hilario, announced his presence and his future with an athletic performance against the USA team at the 2001 Goodwill Games in Australia. Hilario’s numbers were modest: eight points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots in 18 minutes, but he did not look out of place going against young NBA stars like Jermaine O’Neal and Kenyon Martin.

“Physically and athletically, he has a rare physique,” said Pfund. “He has the build and athleticism of a power forward. He has shown well in some of the international tournaments and he is very intriguing.”

Nikoloz Tskitishvili, 7-0, 225, Benetton Treviso (Italy)—Projected: Power Forward

When NBA general managers fly across the ocean to watch you practice, you can be assured that you have arrived on the league’s radar screen. That’s just what happened this year with this tall native of the Republic of Georgia, who plays only about 13 minutes per game for veteran-laden Benetton Treviso, coached by former NBA player and head coach Mike D’Antoni. But D’Antoni would be the first one to tell you, Tskitishvili’s modest playing time and stats belie his enormous potential.

“He started playing basketball at about 15 and was a classic ballet dancer until then,” D’Antoni said. “He grew so tall that he couldn’t find partners, so he got out of dancing and into basketball.”

“He’s seven feet and has incredible foot speed and agility for that size,” D’Antoni said. “He has a great shot, can put the ball on the floor, he can run the break, and has good timing on his passes. He plays very hard. He is very active in getting loose balls and always seems to find a way to get open. Of course, he is only 19 and has a very slender body, weighing about 225 right now. I would think two or three years from now he is going to be a very, very good player.”