It's Better Late Than Never for Several Local Draftees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeff Trepagnier is heading to Cleveland. Earl Watson is bound for Seattle.

For everybody else, it's New Jersey or bust.

At least that's the way it seemed Wednesday in the NBA draft as three players with Southern California ties--Stanford's Jason Collins, Pepperdine's Brandon Armstrong and USC's Brian Scalabrine--wound up with the Nets.

Collins, the former North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake High star, was selected 18th by Houston, then shuttled to New Jersey as part of a three-player trade that included Rocket picks Richard Jefferson (13th) and Armstrong (23rd).

"I kind of knew about the trade before I was drafted, so I'd already boned up on things," said Collins, whose twin, Jarron, went 53rd to Utah. "I basically knew what was coming. It's been a dream of mine to play in the NBA, and getting drafted is special. I'm enjoying the moment, but it is a little surreal."

A few other players from Los Angeles had to wait until the second round to experience that feeling. Guard Gilbert Arenas, an Arizona sophomore who played at Van Nuys Grant High, was taken 31st by Golden State, followed by Scalabrine (35th by New Jersey), USC's Trepagnier (36th by Cleveland), and UCLA's Watson (40th by Seattle).

"It's a big relief," Watson said. "You know the players, you know the team, and you know where you're going to be living the next few years."

He said he was particularly excited about learning under SuperSonic point guard Gary Payton, although he has been rumored to be on his way out of Seattle.

"I tried to emulate him in college," Watson said. "He's a hawk on the ball. He gets steal after steal, and he knows how to lock down players. I'm going to face him every day in practice, and he's going to get me ready for the pros."

Watson had hoped to be drafted earlier, but Armstrong was thrilled about the way his own draft night unfolded. He was glued to the telecast along with 25 family members and friends at his grandmother's house in Vallejo.

"People were going crazy," he said. "They were hugging me, kissing me. It was real joyful. We tried to listen to what they were saying about me, but I couldn't even see the TV after my name was announced."

Armstrong, a 6-foot-5 guard, had no idea when he would be selected, and sometimes he wondered if he would hear his name read at all. He tried to tune out the skeptics who said he should stay at Pepperdine for his senior season and improve his draft stock.

He didn't let it get to him that almost no one recognized him as he traveled the country, working out for representatives from nine teams, most of whom had only caught glimpses of him on videotape. The Nets never brought him in for a visit.

"It was real tough being the underdog and knowing I wasn't known," he said. "You really have to turn people's heads."

Arenas thought he had turned enough heads during his brief college career to earn a spot in the first round. As a sophomore last season, he averaged a team-high 16.2 points for Arizona, which lost to Duke in the NCAA championship game. He also led the team in steals (65) and three-point-shooting accuracy (41.6%).

As the second pick of the second round, he seemed somewhat disappointed yet undeterred.

"When all is said and done," he said, "I'm going to be one of the top five players in my class."

Scalabrine confessed he doesn't know much about the Nets, but said he has been a lifelong fan of their coach, Byron Scott.

Just as former Laker Scott was in the Showtime days, Scalabrine is confident he can make shots from almost anywhere on the floor.

"I feel like I can shoot just as good as anybody in this draft," he said. "I'm thinking I'm going to be a playmaker not just a shooter, so I feel like I can help by spreading the defense out and knocking down big time jumpers for our team."

Trepagnier, one of the most athletic players in the draft, is eager to end doubts about his shooting or ball-handling.

"For the past couple of months, I've been working really hard on my jumper and my ball-handling skills," he said. "Doing two balls up and down the court, behind the back, spins, stuff like that. I don't question my abilities."

The way Watson sees it, the skeptics have had their say. Now, it's time for him to answer.

"This is like the beginning," he said. "It's like writing a masterpiece. It doesn't matter so much how it starts, you mostly get excited for the conclusion."

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