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Newest Clipper Talks a Good Game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lamar Odom walked alongside Elgin Baylor and Chris Ford with a bit of a swagger when he entered the Convention Center for his debut as a Clipper Thursday afternoon.

Wearing a blue and red Clipper warmup top, Odom looked nothing like the disturbed and confused young man he was made out to be in the weeks before the draft.

Odom spoke softly but confidently. He said it was his goal to help turn the Clippers into winners and acknowledged that, at 19, he’ll need the guidance of Baylor and Ford to grow into an NBA all-star on and off the court.

Basically, Odom was a hit. In fact, he made one wonder why Chicago, Vancouver and Charlotte passed on supposedly the most talented player in the draft.

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“This was a huge, huge steal,” said Clipper center Michael Olowokandi, last year’s No. 1 overall pick who attended Odom’s press conference. “Those teams that passed on drafting him, I don’t have a clue why they did that. Reports say that he wasn’t decisive but the last time I checked, that wasn’t a personality or character flaw.”

Odom, whose stock dropped when he failed to show for scheduled pre-draft workouts, was on time Thursday and appeared glad to be a Clipper.

With a highlight tape from his one college season at Rhode Island playing continuously on a television nearby, Odom talked about the Clippers becoming winners.

Almost as if naive about the franchise’s losing history in Los Angeles, Odom made it sound as if the Clippers were the best team he could have been drafted by.

With Olowokandi and Maurice Taylor, who is expected to sign a long-term contract extension this summer, already in place at center and power forward, Odom will play small forward, giving the Clippers one of the top young front lines in the league.

“Challenges are important to me,” he said. “Life is a challenge and when you face your challenge and you beat it, that’s what life’s all about. Hopefully, I can help this team get into the postseason. Maybe we have to just start by winning 50 or 60 games. Who knows? I’m just here to help this team any way I can. . . . I’m willing to do whatever needs to be done.”

As the fourth overall pick, Odom is expected to get a three-year contract worth about $7.5 million with a fourth-year option at $3.5 million because of the slotted salary structure in the new collective bargaining agreement. He cannot sign until after Aug. 1 but plans to play with the Clippers’ summer league team starting next week.

“I can’t wait to get really settled into the city so I can be in the gym every day, to be around the guys and everyone in the organization,” Odom said. “My goal is to be rookie of the year and I know the only way I can do that is to out-work everybody. . . . This is a great opportunity, where I can just live my life and just play basketball.”

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The Clippers have to address other issues to make sure Odom has help. Baylor said that he made several calls to representatives of free-agent guards Thursday morning and hopes to get commitments soon.

“We want to aggressively pursue the free-agent market,” Baylor said. “We have some room under the [salary] cap and we’re going to do everything to make this team better.

“We’re really trying to put a competitive team out there on the floor. You look at our front line. With Olowokandi, [Tyrone] Nesby and Odom, and then Taylor, as far as talent is concerned, we’re as talented as anyone. We’re young but we have talent.”

Starting with their free-agent guards, Eric Piatkowski and Sherman Douglas, the Clippers have to determine which players they will seek to sign. Among the top guards available are Penny Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Terrell Brandon.

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“We just have to improve ourselves in the backcourt,” Baylor said. “We have to get stronger, get better. That’s not taking away from the guys we have under contract. . . . But, we’re always trying to get better and we’re stronger in the front court than in the backcourt.”

Odom is excited to be with a team that considers him so versatile because he’s not even sure how he’ll emerge at the NBA level. That’s why he unsuccessfully tried to go back to school just weeks ago and why he was still unsure days before the draft.

“Any time you are a 19-year-old man and you know that your life was going to change dramatically in a 48- to 24-hour span just like that . . . " Odom said. “Of course you’re going to be a little nervous . . . maybe a little scared.”


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