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Clippers Move to Fill Big Void

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Times Staff Writer

In the end, the Clippers took the safe route Thursday in the NBA draft. Facing the strong possibility of losing center Michael Olowokandi to free agency next month, they selected Chris Kaman from Central Michigan with the sixth overall pick.

They also took Sofoklis Schortsanitis, a raw and untested 18-year-old forward/center from Greece, with the 34th pick. Called “Baby Shaq” because of his 6-foot-8 3/4, 285-pound frame, Schortsanitis will play another season in Europe before the Clippers decide whether to bring him to Los Angeles.

Kaman was their prized pick Thursday, a player who could help them fill a large void in the middle next season.

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“He’s by far the best low-post center in this draft,” General Manager Elgin Baylor said of the 6-11 1/2 Kaman, who averaged 22.4 points on 62.2% shooting and was the Mid-American Conference player of the year as a junior last season.

Or as Barry Hecker, the team’s director of player personnel, said, “Centers are hard to find. It’s a very difficult position. In this draft, he’s the only center if you stop and think about it. That’s the man right there -- Chris Kaman.”

And if the unthinkable should happen and Olowokandi re-signs with the Clippers -- rather than secure a fat new deal with the Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat or, more likely, the San Antonio Spurs?

“It puts us in good shape, having two 7-foot centers,” Baylor said. “One gets hurt or one gets in foul trouble, we’re in great shape.... He’s a player we liked. He’s a player everybody liked. We have duplicates and even triplicates at other positions. We didn’t have that at the center position.”

Baylor also said he did not take Kaman because he expects Olowokandi to sign elsewhere when he’s eligible to do so July 16.

“That had nothing to do with it,” he said. “[Kaman] has the potential to be a good center in the league. It might not happen right away. It might take a little time. But when you get the opportunity to get a 7-footer with talent and skills, you have to go for it.... We had three or four people in mind that we really liked. I don’t know who’s going to start because it’s not up to me. I try to get the best players I can bring in.”

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Which led to the obvious question: Who will coach the Clippers next season?

Baylor would not offer an update on the team’s coaching search.

Despite Baylor’s comments to the contrary, finding a replacement for Olowokandi was believed to be a top priority Thursday.

“I kind of knew ahead of time,” Kaman said of his selection. “I worked out for the Clippers twice. I worked out for Miami twice and for New York twice, so I knew those were the teams that like me.”

After the Heat selected Marquette guard Dwyane Wade fifth overall, Kaman said, “There wasn’t an element of surprise.”

The Clippers like Kaman’s proficiency in the low post, especially his deft shooting touch with either hand. They believe he needs to increase his upper-body strength and improve his defensive play, however.

Kaman, listed at 255 pounds, has been working out with Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s former personal trainer, and former Bull center Will Perdue in Chicago. Clippers Elton Brand and Corey Maggette also have been working out with Kaman and Grover during the off-season.

After taking a family vacation to Hawaii, Kaman hopes to resume his workouts and perhaps play for the Clippers’ summer league team at Long Beach State. Baylor said he hoped Kaman would not play in the summer league, but concentrate on his workouts with Grover.

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“I don’t think it’s necessary for him to play in the summer league,” Baylor said. “It’s more important that he continues working on his strength and conditioning. He might want to play in the summer league, but I don’t think it’s necessary. He’ll get his chance in training camp.”

It’s guesswork at this point, but the Clippers might have a far different look when Kaman joins them for the start of training camp in October. Olowokandi and guard Eric Piatkowski are the team’s top unrestricted free agents, but there are four others eligible to become restricted free agents Tuesday.

Teams can begin negotiations with free agents Tuesday but cannot complete new deals until July 16.

The Clippers have the right to match any outside offers for Brand, Maggette, Andre Miller and Lamar Odom, but it’s uncertain whether they will keep all four. Donald Sterling, the team’s owner, is particularly fond of Brand and Odom.

The Nuggets are believed to be interested in Maggette.

Miller’s status is less certain, with Baylor dissatisfied by the point guard’s inability to be the floor leader the team expected him to be after trading Darius Miles to get him from Cleveland last summer. The Utah Jazz, seeking a replacement for the retired John Stockton, could have a strong interest in Miller.

One thing is certain: The Clippers won’t be active in signing outside free agents, Baylor said.

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