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IN MY OPINION

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Pre-draft camp losing its luster

Lack of participation by potential first-round selections a trend that frustrates NBA's talent evaluators

Rick Bonnell
Rick Bonnell covers the Charlotte Bobcats and the NBA for the Charlotte Observer. You can reach him by email.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. In its current direction, the NBA pre-draft camp will soon be as relevant as disco music and lava lamps.

There was a time, back when this thing was in Chicago, when general managers were disappointed if no lottery picks participated in the camp games. Now those same talent evaluators feel fortunate if any first-rounders feel the need to play.

New Bobcats coach Larry Brown summed up the frustration Thursday night when I asked him who he liked here. Larry shrugged, sighed slightly, and said this was the worst field he'd witnessed for the event.

This, from a guy who reminded us a few weeks ago how much he loves the smell of the gym. Brown is typically among the first to show up each day for this camp; he grabs a seat at center court, surrounded by his staff and takes constant notes.

Brown implying an event he devours didn't have much value says plenty.

Most of the coaches, GMs and scouts who attend this thing aren't quite so attentive. Many sit high in the stands, networking more than evaluating. This is equivalent to the Final Four, which college coaches use as a convention of sorts. It's the one time each season every team's basketball operation is in the same building.

That's why I typically cover it; it's a great place to field information about coaching hires, player injuries and general league gossip. Plus, there's a group interview with the projected lottery picks, who are generally excused from anything other than measures and other testing.

But its intended purpose -- one last look before investing a first-round pick -- erodes by the year. Three of the players at the 2007 camp, including the Bobcats' Jared Dudley, went on to be first-round picks. This year, based on what I hear from scouts, it wouldn't be shocking if that number was lower.

You don't see the international players here and there's a large group of domestic first-round maybes, such as N.C. State's J.J. Hickson, who choose not to participate.

Hickson's decision baffles me; if a guy is a marginal first-round pick, then why would he think he has more to lose than gain by not participating? By showing up and playing, North Carolina's Ty Lawson showed scouts he isn't reluctant to compete and his ankle is fine. He answered questions. Hickson passing on this event raises questions.

Not that Hickson's decision is unique; ducking this thing is the norm to a point that most of those playing are second-round picks or undrafted free agents. And that hardly justifies flying in hundreds of talent evaluators for a week of workdays.

I don't know if the NBA can do anything with the players association to compel better attendance, but the effort should be made. Because right now this camp does little more than add to Orlando's tourism economy.

A foul situation

Interesting decision by the NBA last week to acknowledge after the fact that a foul should have been called against Derrick Fisher, for jumping into Brent Barry, at the end of a Lakers-Spurs playoff game.

More interesting was a league spokesman acknowledging that an act that justifies a foul at mid-game might not justify a foul at the end of a tight game. None of that surprises coaches, who anticipate as much. But it reminds me of the perception of NASCAR -- that whatever happens the last lap of a race happens, so long as it makes for a good show.

I'm all for giving referees some latitude to do the right thing; the league has at times made their officials too robotic and guideline-driven. But I can't buy the logic that a foul is a foul until the last two minutes. That's a dangerous precedent in a league full of 250-pound bruisers.

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