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Thrashers, Hawks stare into the great unknown

"Well, this is fun. I think I'll go put out a cigarette butt on my eye."

Hawks radio voice Steve Holman is only kidding. He doesn't smoke. And if watching the latest batch of NBA prospects going through their mind-numbing, eye-glazing drills doesn't drive him to start, nothing will.

All around the practice court at Philips Arena — even from a crow's nest in the far corner — Hawks staffers film the activity. I use the term loosely. A few minutes of non-stop diving and dunking and the invitees fade as fast as a fake tan. And one of these, mind you, is top prospect Eddy Curry Jr., one of the high school kids who figures he's good enough to skip straight to the NBA. He's big all right. Big and winded. This is the guy who might go first in the June 27 draft?

"Eddy," according to his Thornwood High (South Holland, Illinois) coach Kevin Hayhurst, "has a great attitude and is easy to coach. In this day and age of the so-called superstars, lots of times you can't wait for them to graduate and get out of here. Eddy sacrificed a lot of his scoring so the rest of the kids could be more successful. He's just a good kid." That's a load off my mind.

Now I can concentrate on the chances of the more than 150 players who are convinced they are going to take the NBA by storm. Most of them talk about going in the top 10. Otherwise, they insist, they would not have entered the draft. Apparently, no one has pointed out to them that only 57 players will be chosen on draft night. And a good half of those will wash out before opening night of the 2001-02 season.

Size? Great. A shot? Great. Some fool team, terrified of passing on the next Michael Jordan or, more to the point, the next Kobe Bryant, will gloss over any lack of grit, lack of commitment, lack of work ethic, lack of character, in the name of making the bold move. What could be wrong with an 18-year-old taking guaranteed millions and a seat at the end of the bench? You'd do it, wouldn't you?

Viewing the practice-court proceedings, Hawks GM Pete Babcock is noncommittal. Or maybe he's stunned. It's hard to tell. Only Shane Battier has knocked socks off in these auditions. Duke players have bombed in the pros — with the possible exception of Grant Hill, and I'm not all that sure about him — but if Battier follows that Blue Devil tradition, no Duke player should ever be drafted again. Ever.

Meanwhile, in the NHL, overpaying unproven teenagers versus an over-the-hill-at-22 senior is not a problem. Thrashers GM Don Waddell is preparing for so many rounds of drafting that the NHL needs this entire weekend — June 23 and 24 — to divvy up the candidates.

Don't bother memorizing their names, you won't be seeing them for years. Hockey sends its young back to their college teams or the junior teams whence they came for seasoning. What a concept.

Russian Ilja Kovalchuk — 6-2, 207 pounds and getting bigger by the hour — is the consensus No. 1 pick. So, of course, Waddell is pretending he's going in another direction. Waddell is nothing if not sneaky when it comes to wheeling and dealing. He was not above kidnapping another visiting Russian prospect, spiriting him off to lunch while his agent-appointed interpreter was in the men's room. Waddell pumped the kid for a full 20 minutes before the interpreter caught up.

This year's NHL crop is so deep, the Thrashers could not go wrong with their first choice even if they didn't have the No. 1 pick in the draft. The first dozen picks will be either stars or really good players for a really long time. Waddell's challenge is not deciding which of these players is the best one now; it is projecting who will be the best one five years from now.

That long-term view is a luxury Babcock and the Hawks do not have. Their draft pick had better be producing come November. I look at the drooping bodies gasping and panting in front of me. They are either bony or flabby. This is what we have to look forward to?

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