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Tuesday, June 27
Unorthodox Nelson prepares to shock again

By Marc Stein
Special to

MINNEAPOLIS -- Twin Cities, take cover. The NBA draft is blowing into town, which typically leads to a full-blown storm of fearsome force.

Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki, clutching the ball here, is playing like an All-Star.
Hurricane Nellie.

Hide the children and foreigners.

For if they are exposed, the Mavericks' Don Nelson is liable to draft them. He is liable to draft anyone, from any age group or country. Australian tennis players. German handball stars. High schoolers from foster homes. Chinese centers with army obligations.

Nelson has tapped all those unorthodox pipelines, and that's just in his first three drafts since coming to Dallas. No one knows quite what to expect in his first talent search alongside try-anything owner Mark Cuban -- and, bad jokes aside, that's really one of the last, best aspects about an event that becomes less significant every year.

What Will Nellie Do? W.W.N.D?

It's a perfect slogan for one of those bracelet-wristband deals, a most fitting trinket to hand out to every fan who walks through the Target Center's doors Wednesday night. With Nelson around, something interesting (re: second-guessable) is bound to happen when the Mavericks pick at No. 12. Something to get people buzzing (re: head-scratching).

Something to distract the audience from the endless procession of faceless project picks that is about to be foisted upon us. Again.

"Nellie likes to be The Mad Scientist," Cuban admitted recently. "Spot him A, B or C and he looks for D, E and F. He looks for a whole new alphabet. That's the type of person I want in any position in any organization."

To wit, Cuban last month signed Nelson to an 11-year contract extension, not long after Nelson said he was through with coaching. Instead, Nelson will spend three more seasons on the Mavericks' bench, then three more as a GM-only, then five as a consultant. The deal dropped jaws all over the league, but if you know Cuban, and Nelson, you realize they are a perfect match. Cuban, in fact, is so open-minded and unpredictable, he makes Nellie seem like the conservative one.

Which can only mean that something freaky is about to take hold of the Tar-zjay.

It's draft time, you see, more than any other time, when Nelson most often does exactly the opposite of what he says. He even tells you so ahead of time, readily starting every draft-related interview with the same disclaimer: "Don't believe anything I tell you."

Because ...

"I do a lot of misinformation," Nelson admits.

Take last June, for example. In his last pre-Cuban draft, Nelson swore repeatedly that the Mavericks had no interest in trading into the first round. They were perfectly happy, Nelson insisted day after day, with Nos. 36 and 40 in Round 2.

Nelson naturally wound up acquiring the guy who was the last pick in the first round. San Antonio selected for him parentless Chicago prep phenom Leon Smith. Nellie then capped the evening by making Chinese soldier Wang Zhi Zhi the first Asian draftee in NBA history.

"I look for good players," Nelson said. "Whether or not they're foreigners, who cares? When the foreigners are good players, I draft them."

In 1997, it was Aussie Chris Anstey, the converted tennis player, at No. 18 (drafted by Portland at Nellie's urging, dealt for Kelvin Cato, who Nellie had taken three picks earlier, and cash). In 1998, at No. 9, it was the German handball castoff, Dirk Nowitzki, who will wind up among the top Nelson choices of all-time -- alongside Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway and Latrell Sprewell. (Again, Dirk was technically drafted by Nelson through Milwaukee, and dealt along with Pat Garrity, taken 10 picks after Dirk, for Tractor Traylor, taken three picks before Dirk. Got all that?)

And now? You'll struggle to find a mock draft anywhere that doesn't link the Mavericks with a non-Yank. Candidates at No. 12 include: Nigeria's Olumide Oyedeji, (Republic of) Georgia's Iakovos Tsakalidis and France's Jerome Moiso. Nelson also wouldn't mind landing Mexico's Eduardo Najera with one of his second-round picks: No. 31, or No. 37 if he can get it from Denver in a pending five-player trade routing Chris Gatling and Popeye Jones to Dallas for Robert Pack, Sean Rooks and Hot Rod Williams.

"My philosophy has always been that if you have a pick at the top, you can't gamble there," said Nelson, undaunted by the heavy criticism he received for Smith's spiral out of control and eventual release.

"(But) the unimportant picks, I gamble with. The ones that don't matter much, I take chances with."

Anstey, Smith, Wang, even Nowitzki ... gambles all. So far, only one is paying off. Of course, one Most Improved Player bid by Nowitzki -- who fell just short of Indiana's Jalen Rose for that award -- has done wunders for re-establishing the credibility that had been eroding since Nelson's golden-boy days in Golden State.

If Nowitzki adds a low-post game, better defense and a few more rebounds to all the tantalizing stuff he already possesses, Nelson will have struck the walk-off homer he has been swinging for.

And if not? If he doesn't make it all the way back to Genius status? Nelson's skin has thickened to the point that he probably doesn't care. As part of the Cuban regime, Nelson happily embraces the freedom to simply look past the consensus and see the game his way.

Most NBA personnel people would probably prefer to breeze right past Wednesday's proceedings and proceed right into free agency. Not Hurricane Nellie, though.

"I think I evaluate the draft a little differently," Nelson said. "I think it's pretty good. It's hard to find ready-made players, but if you want to take a risk, there's those kinds of guys in there."

Nelson. And risk. In the same paragraph.

Don't say you weren't warned, Minneapolis.

Wandering the West

  • Insiders from both teams still expect Nelson's trade with Denver to go through, even though the Nuggets were furious that the details made it into print last week. It's a rare draft-week swap that can be completed before Aug. 1, since none of the players involved have base-year issues. The Mavericks want to bring Gatling and Jones back to Dallas to address their lack of frontcourt depth and rebounding -- especially since neither player (both entering the final year of their respective contracts) will cut into the Mavs' projected mega-millions windfall for the summer of 2001. The Nuggets, meanwhile, see Rooks as an ideal backup to psuedo-center Raef LaFrentz, while Denver boss Dan Issel remains a huge Pack fan (and probably the only one left in the league).

    Hot Rod Williams, incidentally, is only in the aforementioned deal for salary-cap reasons. Like New Jersey's Jayson Williams, he will soon have to retire because of a degenerative disk in his back.

  • In the first big draft-day surprise, the Clippers will not have a coach in place -- as Elgin Baylor had publicly hoped -- by the time David Stern steps to the podium to announce Kenyon Martin as the No. 1 pick to New Jersey. Perhaps the Clips have been too busy sorting through all their draft possibilities, with offers flooding in for their No. 3 selection. There have been repeated rumblings about a swap with Cleveland, in which the Clippers would receive No. 8 and Brevin Knight for No. 3. Doesn't look like that'll happen, though, because Knight -- while potentially the point guard L.A. needs -- is due to earn close to $20 million over the next four seasons. Way, way, way out of the Clippers' budget.

  • It's probably safest, from now on, to simply refer to Shaquille O'Neal as the Big Everything. Except for one thing -- no longer can you call him the Big Broom. Swept out of the playoffs in five of his first six NBA seasons, O'Neal appears poised to do some sweeping of his own, assuming the Lakers can scoop up a better power forward. The playoff sweeps of O'Neal's past: 4-0 to San Antonio in last spring's second round, 4-0 to Utah in the 1998 conference finals, 4-0 to Chicago in the 1996 East finals with Orlando, 4-0 to Houston in the 1995 NBA Finals and 3-0 to Indiana in 1994's first round.

    Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, on O'Neal's standing among the all-time great centers: "It's time to talk about it, but it's my feeling that it has to be for 10-12 years.

    "There has to be a span there. I'd like to see him put in a 12-year career, and win a couple of championships. It will always be debated, but once you've (won a title), you'll be one of the players debated about. Forever."

    Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to

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