NBA, NHL to draft former, future Gophers

Dan Miller

Unlike a year ago, the 2004 National Basketball Association draft doesn’t have a player being praised as the “next Michael Jordan.” But it does have a bunch of teenagers who think they are.

There are 31 players who have declared early entry into Thursday’s NBA draft. Most of those players haven’t graduated college, and 11 are still in high school.

Minnesota’s leading scorer and Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Kris Humphries, is on that list.

His decision to forgo the remainder of his college career follows in the footsteps of two other recent Minnesota post players.

Joel Przybilla declared himself eligible for the 2000 NBA draft in his sophomore season. Przybilla is now with the Atlanta Hawks, where he only played in 17 games this season. He averages 15 out of 48 minutes per game in his career.

Rick Rickert entered the 2002 NBA draft after his sophomore season. Rickert was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the late second round of the NBA draft last season and did not make the team.

He played basketball in Europe last season and is now working out. He will most likely try out for the team’s summer league.

Humphries’ fate will likely be different.

The Gophers assistant coach and top recruiter, Bill Walker, said Humphries started preparing to enter the NBA draft a long time ago.

“He hasn’t been just thinking and dreaming about it,” Walker said. “He’s been preparing for it.”

Former local NBA players like Trent Tucker and Chris Carr have worked out and tutored Humphries, preparing him for not just the style of the game, but the color of the business.

“He has the NBA street smarts,” Walker said. “He is a student of the game and a student of the process.”

Walker, who has been with the Gophers for five years, wouldn’t say Humphries is more prepared than the two former Gophers who have struggled in the professional scene.

He did say Humphries was preparing for professional basketball before he arrived at Minnesota and continues to learn from experts.

“He’s surrounding himself with guys that have been (in the NBA),” Walker said.

By most accounts, Humphries is expected to be selected in the middle of the first round. The 6-foot-9-inch, 236-pound forward is noted by draft scouts for possessing the size and strength to be effective in the NBA.

But Rickert was also told by some that he would be a mid-to-early first-round pick. Even with all Humphries’ planning and preparing, history whispers the warning to not count on predictions.

Continued – By Kent Erdahl [email protected]

For the record, this year’s National Hockey League draft will not be a factor for Minnesota players.

That’s because all of the players projected to be drafted by NHL teams have yet to join the team – making it impossible for the coaching staff to comment.

In fact, of the future Gophers that are projected to be taken, the highest-ranked player just completed his junior year of high school.

Blake Wheeler, a 6-foot-4-inch forward from Breck High School, verbally committed to play for Minnesota this spring despite having a year of school left.

Wheeler is currently ranked the 17th-best North American player eligible for the draft by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service, which should make him first- or second-round pick. (There are separate rankings for international players and goalies.)

The other three possible draft picks will all be incoming freshmen in the fall.

Kris Chucko, a 6-foot-2-inch forward from Burnaby, British Columbia, is ranked 29th on the NHL’s list.

Alex Goligoski, a 6-foot defenseman from Grand Rapids, Minn., is ranked 143rd.

Tom Pohl, the 6-foot-1-inch brother of former Gopher Johnny Pohl, is from Red Wing, Minn. Tom Pohl is ranked 193rd.

Although he could not comment on the players, Minnesota coach Don Lucia said the draft can’t always serve as the best indicator of future talent.

“It shows that players have some potential for after college,” Lucia said. “But it’s funny how some of your best players can go undrafted.”

Despite sometimes holding true, Minnesota’s recent standouts have been drafted early, which Lucia admitted, can present a problem.

“You don’t know when the teams (that drafted a player) are going to come calling,” Lucia said. “It’s a game you play every year and you never know what will happen. You just have to talk with the players and prepare the best that you can.”

The waiting game has been especially evident in this off season. Keith Ballard departed in his junior season to the Phoenix Coyotes and Thomas Vanek, a former pick of the Buffalo Sabres, may leave the Gophers after his sophomore season.

“Ballard had to go,” Lucia said. “He played well at the World Championships and was offered a great contract.”

Lucia added that Vanek is still slated to come back, but he admitted his status could change at any time prior to the start of the season.

If that happens, the Gophers’ newest draft picks will be expected to live up to their potential sooner rather than later.