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Lakers’ Position on No. 23: Better Late Than Never

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Phil Jackson and No. 23--yes, the Lakers probably will take their chances with that combination.

Though they have explored several trade possibilities, you didn’t have to be Hedda Hopper to detect that the Laker rumor mill calmed down Tuesday as teams jockeyed into and out of position for tonight’s NBA draft and the Lakers, for the moment, apparently fell out of most immediate trade scenarios.

In the first draft of the Jackson coaching era, the Lakers hold pick No. 23--gee, didn’t that used to be the jersey number of some famous Chicago Bull a while back?

Unless a so-far-unforeseen path opens up that would allow them to jump way up to grab UCLA’s Baron Davis, Mississippi high school big man Jonathan Bender or (not so high up) a player such as St. John’s swingman Ron Artest, they apparently will not trade up, trade down or trade away anything.

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At least for now. There are plenty of other possibilities--Trade Glen Rice? Acquire a veteran power forward? Sign former Bull Jud Buechler?--but not, it seems, involving the draft.

“We’ve had little or no conversation after Sunday with people,” Executive Vice President Jerry West said Tuesday afternoon. "[A trade is] highly unlikely. We have absolutely nothing going on with anyone.”

Though he said he didn’t foresee landing an instant impact player, or even a starter, so deep in this fairly shallow draft, West is known for landing gems late in the first round that other teams bypass.

The Lakers, for instance, plucked A.C. Green with the 23rd pick in 1985, Vlade Divac with No. 26 in 1989 and Elden Campbell with No. 27 in 1990.

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The Lakers also hold the first pick of the second round, No. 30 overall, acquired from Vancouver as part of the 1996 Anthony Peeler deal.

“We always think we’re going to get somebody we like, no matter where we draft,” West said. “We’ve done pretty good late in the draft, players who had roles with us.

“Hopefully, we’ll find somebody that other people pass on and he’ll be able to contribute this year, next year, whenever.”

Among players potentially available at No. 23, the Lakers took close looks at Minnesota swingman Quincy Lewis, Duke guard Trajan Langdon and Old Dominion power forward Cal Bowdler.

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General Manager Mitch Kupchak said that, though this draft’s talent pool has been criticized, as the day has approached, it has become clearer that some of the younger players might have some impact.

“I don’t know how many times you may hear people say, ‘It’s a weak draft,’ [but] I think we’ll always want to be in it,” Kupchak said Tuesday. “And as we get closer to the draft, you hear it less.

“It’s the same thing you’ve heard previously, ‘It’s a weak, depleted senior class.’ But with the 20 underclassmen declaring and when you look closely at them, hey, it becomes a pretty good draft.”

West acknowledged that he explored moving up as high as Vancouver’s No. 2 overall pick to acquire Davis--or, according to other sources, Bender--but, when that possibility vanished, he said he didn’t have much interest in moving into the 10-20 area.

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“We’d probably get the same player at 23 as we would in the teens, so why pay more money?” West said, referring to the first-round rookie pay scale.

For the second day in a row since setting up office at the Great Western Forum, Jackson declined interview requests.

With the arrival of Jackson and his triangle offense based on recognizing defensive sets and making quick reads, West and Kupchak agree that the Lakers are looking for players to fit the system.

“I think it does change a little bit,” West said, pointing out specifically that, among guards, Jackson has little use for specialized point guards and shooting guards.

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“He just wants guards,” West said. “Guards that are well-rounded, versatile--he likes guards with size.

“He likes players to be instinctive, who can read defenses. I think in his offense, that’s vitally important. He doesn’t seem to mind playing those kinds of guys. . . .

“In Chicago, he had all those graybeards, and they played pretty well for a long time.”

Said Kupchak of the front-office’s discussions with Jackson since his return to L.A. on Saturday night: “At the end of the day, we’ll probably still pick the best NBA player, but we have spent three or four days in a row with him now.

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“And to do what he wants to do, No. 1, all your players have to be NBA-caliber players. Do you look for a different type of player? It’s no different whether under Kurt [Rambis] or Del [Harris] or [Mike] Dunleavy or whoever it may be. Each coach is different.”

In other news, Laker swingman Rick Fox became an unrestricted free agent Monday when he did not exercise his option to extend the one-year contract he signed in January.

Fox, though, is a strong candidate to return to the Lakers because the team has “early-Bird” rights with him, and can pay him more than any team that isn’t under the salary cap.

“We’ve always liked Rick Fox,” Kupchak said. “At this time, he figures in our plans, yes.”

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The Lakers have until Friday to exercise the $7-million option they hold on Rice, and while the team considers trade options, it has not officially exercised the clause.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Laker Picks in ‘90s

Players selected and the number pick overall in parenthesis:

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* 1990: Elden Campbell, Clemson (27); Tony Smith, Marquette (51)

* 1991: Anthony Jones, Oral Roberts (52)

* 1992: Anthony Peeler, Missouri (15); Duane Cooper, USC (36)

* 1993: George Lynch, North Carolina, (12); Nick Van Exel, Cincinnati (37)

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* 1994: Eddie Jones, Temple, (10)

* 1995: Frankie King, W. Carolina (37)

* 1996: Derek Fisher, Ark.-Little Rock (24)

* 1997: DeJuan Wheat, Louisville (52); Paul Rogers, Gonzaga (54)

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* 1998: Sam Jacobson, Minnesota (26); Ruben Patterson, Cincinnati (31); Toby Bailey, UCLA (45)


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