Weak draft means tons of unknowns

After a negotiating session with NBA players ended at around 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon, David Stern’s day was only beginning.

He still had a meeting at the league’s offices on the NBA’s latest effort to get Sacramento a new arena. Then he had to run to a dinner for the league’s China operations. Once that ended, he still had his draft homework — learning the pronunciations of the names of international players who will be taken in Thursday’s first round.

“That’s coming along,” Stern said, heading out of a Manhattan hotel after the latest round of labor talks. “I’m not quite there yet with all of them.”

Not that the commissioner definitely needs to memorize any names of the foreign-born players. There is not a Dirk Nowitzki among them. In fact, few might even stick. But that’s about par for the course for this particular draft.

To call it weak is being nice. There is no franchise talent, no LeBron James who can solve the Cavaliers’ No. 1 shortcoming — the lack of a superstar who can get them 50 wins in a season just by walking on the court.

There aren’t many sure things in this draft, just a lot of unknowns. That’s too bad, because the NBA is on a high right now after a sensational Finals that set TV ratings records. Imagine if James or Derrick Rose or Dwight Howard were heading this draft class.

But the NBA isn’t so lucky. It’s really an unusual draft, right down to the place where it will happen. When Kyrie Irving hears his name called by Cleveland as the No. 1 pick, he’ll feel right at home, because he’ll be only 15 minutes from his home in West Orange, N.J. With the draft in Newark at the Prudential Center, and not in its usual locale, Madison Square Garden, it only adds to what will be a very different feel for the night.

More than a few GMs and team presidents are predicting a slow trade night, due to the fact that the majority of teams are leery of making moves and possibly taking on big contracts when they have no idea what the next collective bargaining agreement will look like. A July 1 lockout could mean upheaval and a lowering of the cap, so why would anyone gamble on absorbing long-term deals?

The prospect of a lockout has overshadowed the draft to a large degree. When the top players in the draft class met with the media Wednesday in a Manhattan hotel ballroom, they had to field questions pertaining to what they’ll be doing without basketball in their rookie seasons.

“I don’t even want to think about it,” Irving said.

But then he did think about life without basketball for at least part of 2011-12, because he knows it could be right around the corner, as the current CBA expires June 30. If the lockout cuts into the season, he will return to Duke to continue his education. He’s drawn up a five-year plan to get his degree in African-American studies. So, if there is as much free time as is being anticipated, he’ll at least be able to complete his freshman year academically.

“Nobody wants to talk about it, but what I’ve been hearing is to save my money,” said Derrick Williams, the Arizona forward who is projected to go to Minnesota at No. 2.

Williams has been briefed on the dos and don’ts of a lockout season by the Lakers’ Luke Walton, another Arizona product.

“What Luke told me was, don’t buy expensive things,” he said. “So I won’t. And if there is a lockout, I’ll go back to Tucson and take some classes to work on my degree. I promised my mom I’d do that. Take some courses and work out.”

Irving and Williams are the best of what is seen as a suspect class. How suspect? At the outset, it looks like this one could have the least amount of talent since 2002. Yao Ming went No. 1 that season, and although he had an All-NBA career going for his first five seasons, it’s been ruined by injury over the past two.

The No. 2 pick, Jay Williams, never got his career going after he suffered career-ending injuries in a motor-scooter crash. The next six players taken in that draft were Mike Dunleavy, Drew Gooden, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner, Nene Hilario and Chris Wilcox — a few starters, a couple of busts, but not an All-Star among ’em.

The best player taken went after Wilcox, at No. 9: Amar’e Stoudemire, the only player to receive All-NBA honors this season taken among the 30 first-rounders in ’02.

This draft class has the makings of a 2002 repeat. Irving played all of 11 games at Duke, but still will be taken No. 1 despite his skimpy résumé. Then there is Williams, who is seen as a nice player, but certainly not a player the T-Wolves can build around.

“There are very high expectations for the No. 1 pick,” Williams said. “Cleveland is in need of a great player. So, there’s a lot of pressure if you are taken No. 1. People are expecting to see another LeBron James.”

Just in case that player is Williams, a virtual long-shot at this point, he issued a disclaimer for all Cavaliers fans.

“I don’t want to be labeled the next LeBron James,” he said. “He’s going down as one of the best players to ever play the game. I’m not trying to be like LeBron. I’m just going to be myself.”

Although several teams have called Minnesota to trade for the No. 2, ostensibly to get Williams — the Lakers offered Lamar Odom — nobody is pounding down team president David Kahn’s door to get the second player in the draft.

Indiana president Larry Bird called, but wasn’t interested in giving up center Roy Hibbert. The big men in this draft are projects. There are a lot of shooting guards, but nobody is saying they’re going to be long-time starters in the NBA, let alone All-Star-caliber players.

“The draft is a good draft, not a great draft,” Bird said. “If there was somebody at two that we were really targeting that I think would make us a lot better, yeah, you’d have to do it. But I believe in Roy.”

But it’s very difficult to believe in anyone who will be taken after Williams. Some GMs think Brandon Knight will be a very good player, so they’ve got him projected to go No. 3 to Utah. But after that, it’s a total crapshoot.

If Cleveland holds on to No. 4, it might end up with Enes Kanter of Turkey, who could end up the best of the international players. But he’s no sure thing. The best foreigner might be Jonas Valanciunas, a 6-foot-11 Lithuanian, but he’s this draft’s Ricky Rubio. He’s expected to remain in Europe for another year or two before he comes to the NBA.

What it all means is that anything can happen from No. 4 on down.

“In the past you’ve heard ‘That pick will be our franchise player,’” Williams said. “A lot of this draft is adding pieces. I don’t think it’s terrible. I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s a terrible draft class if we haven’t even played yet. Now, if we don’t produce after two or three years, then it’s fair to say that.”

But we’ll see how it all plays out, starting with the lockout.