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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 25, 2009

NBA: Intrigue in draft starts at No. 2 with Memphis

AP Basketball Writer

NEW YORK Ricky Rubio never worked out for the Grizzlies. Hasheem Thabeet canceled his last workout for the beleaguered team.

Doesn't anybody want to play in Memphis?

"That's like my second home the city is a great place to play. I had a lot of fun down there," said guard Tyreke Evans, who played one season for the University of Memphis.

The intrigue in Thursday's draft begins with the Grizzlies, who own the No. 2 pick. The Los Angeles Clippers choose first and are all but certain to pick Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin, the college player of the year.

Thabeet, the defensive dynamo from Connecticut, and Rubio, the promising point guard from Spain, are probably the best of the rest in what's considered a weaker draft than in recent years. Both come with questions, and the Grizzlies aren't prepared to provide any answers yet.

"We don't have to take the test until Thursday evening," Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said. "All the options are out there. Not just drafting, but moving back, trading for the right veteran. Everything is still on the table."

That's probably because two of the highest-rated players have shown signs they aren't interested in Memphis.

Thabeet met twice with the Grizzlies before calling off a scheduled workout Sunday, citing a shoulder injury. He said Wednesday he also had a visa issue that required him to be in New York.

Rubio refused to even perform for Memphis, saying Wednesday he wasn't sure he'd get minutes playing behind O.J. Mayo. However, perhaps he's also aware that countrymen Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro weren't always happy in the city.

If Memphis does decide to deal, Minnesota could be a willing partner. The Timberwolves have four picks in the first round, including the fifth and sixth selections though they've said they won't swap Nos. 5 and 6 to move up.

Whoever makes the call at No. 2 likely chooses between Thabeet and Rubio.

The 7-foot-3 Thabeet was the co-Big East player of the year and was the league's top defensive player, but still struggles to consistently catch the ball and shoot it. He knows people criticize his offensive skills and has been working to improve them, but says none of the teams that he's talked to made them an issue.

"They say if we draft you, we want you to come over and just control the game," Thabeet said. "If you're going to be our guy, we want you to come over, even if you don't score, we want you to be able to control the game."

He did that just fine at Connecticut, averaging 10.8 rebounds and 4.2 blocked shots last season. Yet the native of Tanzania, who switched from soccer to basketball only seven years ago, is aware the NBA makes it tougher to protect the rim than the NCAA, because the defensive 3-second rule forces defenders to leave the paint if they aren't guarding someone.

Rubio faces similar doubts about his offensive skills because of an unreliable outside shot, but the questions about the 18-year-old Spaniard go beyond his play on the court.

Rubio has to pay a multimillion dollar buyout to his Spanish club, DKV Joventut Badalona, to get out of his contract. And while his lawyers are working on a deal with the team and he expects an amicable parting, he said there's a chance he would stay in Europe if he isn't drafted high enough to earn a salary that would cover a significant chunk of his debt.

And he hasn't persuaded teams to spend a high pick on him in recent weeks. He worked out only for Sacramento, which has the No. 4 selection, but didn't feel it properly showcased his skills because his strength is in the fullcourt game.

Yet Rubio, who played for the Spanish team that lost to the United States in last summer's Olympic gold-medal game, thinks he's still the best in a deep pool of point guards.

"I have the Olympic games experience," he said. "For me, the difference from the other point guards is that I play against the professional guys, not the young players."

Though he refused to work out for the Grizzlies and said his mother is worried about Minnesota taking him because she dislikes cold weather, Rubio insisted he hasn't ruled out playing for anyone.

"I want to play here, it's my dream," he said. "It's the NBA. For me all the teams are OK."

Griffin knows where he is going, with the Clippers making their intentions clear right after winning last month's draft lottery. Despite heading to a longtime loser, he said he won't pressure himself beyond putting up the double-doubles he made routine at Oklahoma.

"To be honest, I don't care about the history. I wasn't part of it," Griffin said. "I'm not going to have to go do anything I can't do."

Nor, Thabeet believes, will he. The No. 2 spot in the draft, where eventual rookie of the year Kevin Durant was taken just two years ago, seems too high for someone who admits it will be an adjustment to play against opponents who are so much more experienced.

But he improved every year in Storrs, going from 6.2 points per game as a freshman to 13.6 as a junior, and says he'll keep getting better as a pro.

"They know what kind of work ethic I have," Thabeet said. "All the teams I talked to, they don't question my offense at all."