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Best available or need? Why not both?

by Conrad Brunner || Caught in the Web Archive

June 23, 2011

The age-old debate when it comes to this or any draft is whether to select best player available or one that best fills a need.

To Larry Bird, the answer is simple as he heads into his fourth NBA Draft tonight as the man in charge of the Pacers' basketball operations.

"Best player available," Bird said. "The position really don't matter."

That approach has been evident, and productive, in the past two years. In 2010, despite an abundance of veteran wing players on the roster, Bird took another when he selected Paul George with the No. 10 pick. And despite the presence of all those others, George finished the season as the starter at shooting guard.

In 2009, despite a glaring need at point guard and a number of prospects at that position still on the board, Bird went with power forward Tyler Hansbrough at No. 13. Though Hansbrough's rookie season was a washout due to vertigo, like George he finished last season in the starting lineup.

And Bird managed to acquire one of the point guards he passed up, No. 21 pick Darren Collison, in a trade that sent veteran power forward Troy Murphy to New Jersey, thus clearing the path for Hansbrough.

See how it all works out?

With a roster well-stocked with young talent -- all five starters are under contract and the oldest is Danny Granger at 28 -- the Pacers can approach tonight's draft from a genuine position of strength. Perhaps more than any other team, they could be in a position to roll the dice on talent, knowing the player could be a few years away from contributing, rather than feeling pressured to plug a hole with a rookie.

"We've looked at it both ways, frankly," said General Manager David Morway. "We want to find the best player for us. And if we think that is a guy that's not ready yet but has a lot of upside, then we do have more freedom to look at a guy like that right now with some of the young players we have on this team and the roster flexibility we're going to have to fill some of the other roster spots."

When the 15th pick rolls around tonight, the Pacers will have several options.

  • If they want to add scoring, the might be able to choose from prolific collegians Jimmer Fredette (BYU), Alec Burks (Colorado), Marshon Brooks (Providence) or Klay Thompson (Washington State).
  • If they want to add depth to a frontcourt that could be thinned by free agency, they could go with Markieff Morris (Kansas), Tristan Thompson (Texas) or Nikola Vucevic (USC).
  • If they want to take a flyer on a talented international prospect that won't be able to come to the NBA for at least one season because of contract commitments, they could pick Jonas Valanciunas, a gifted 19-year-old with top-five talent whose $3 million buyout could deter lottery teams seeking immediate help.
  • Or, they could simply put out the net and snag a player unexpectedly tumbling down the draft board, as they did with Danny Granger in 2005. This year's top candidate to drop could be Connecticut point guard Kemba Walker, who in some scenarios could slip out of the lottery.

Of course, there is also the possibility of a trade or two. Because of their abundant salary cap space and aforementioned young assets, the Pacers are in a position of strength when it comes to deal-making.

"Moving up four spots or five spots, I don't think it's going to help us at all," Bird said. "Moving down, if we got the right player, but I like where we're at. Obviously, you always like to be in the top five but I just know we're going to get a good player. It's right there."

DON'T SLEEP ON THE SECOND ROUND: Bird's regime has a strong record of finding gems deep in the draft. The Pacers grabbed A.J. Price at No. 52 in 2009 and Lance Stephenson at No. 40 in 2010. Price finished last season as the backup point guard. Though Stephenson played little, Bird has high hopes for the New Yorker, calling him "our best player" in a recent press conference.

It's clear the Pacers place nearly as much emphasis researching second-round prospects as first-rounders. Of the 48 players they brought in for pre-draft workouts, the vast majority projected either as second-rounders or undrafted free agents.

"We've put a tremendous amount of effort over the last three years looking at the second round simply because we had to rebuild this entire roster and we needed to find talent, we needed to find players and there are very good players in the second round," said Morway. "And particularly in the last couple of years, Larry and I have felt we would be able to get some good players. This year we feel the same way. It's hard to tell how the draft is going to play out because everybody sees the players differently but we're hopeful there will be a player there in the second round that will bring a skill set to our team that we're looking to fill."

PLENTY OF LOCAL FLAVOR: Though the Pacers worked out Purdue's JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, Butler's Matt Howard, Indiana State's Jake Kelly and former Brebeuf prep standout Andrew Warren (Bradley), none are first-round possibilities. The second round could be a different story.

"I like 'em all," Bird said. "You want them kids to do well and you want to see them play in the league. We're not interested in them at 15 but I think all of them will probably be drafted. At 42 there's a couple of 'em we'd probably take a look at. I wish them the best. They're all great kids and we had all of them but one in here and they all performed well."

The Pacers did not work out Butler guard Shelvin Mack, like Johnson on the bubble as a first-round prospect. They also did not bring in Tyler Hansbrough's brother Ben, the Big East Player of the Year from Notre Dame who projects as a second-round prospect. Moore is projected as a mid-to-late second-rounder, while Kelly, Howard and Warren are not projected as picks by the major mock drafts.