Hiding out in Utah

Saturday, February 12, 2005

If you live anywhere east of the Rockies, you probably haven't heard of him. If you have, you know him only as the big Aussie with the bad haircut.

If you're in the NBA, though, you know exactly who Andrew Bogut is. You know his height, his weight, the range of his jump shot and what he eats for breakfast every morning.

You also know he's likely to become a big star -- and soon.

That's why, on a night earlier this week just off the glittering Las Vegas Strip, the cream of the NBA front offices gathered to watch an otherwise inconsequential college basketball game between No. 15 Utah and UNLV.

Most prospects attract scouts at this time of year. The NBA draft is only a few months away, and it's a chance to look at players before the madness of March.

But the shaggy-haired Bogut gets their bosses, and he gets them in bunches.

On this night, Jerry West settled into a front row seat courtside at UNLV's campus arena, while Sacramento Kings owner Gavin Maloof wasn't far away. There were team presidents, general managers and assistant general managers scattered everywhere throughout the arena.

Nine other players were on the court, but Bogut was literally the center of attention. That's understandable, because in June the 20-year-old just might be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

If he is, it would cap an unusual climb to the top for a guy who still chafes at the critics who thought he'd never amount to much while growing up Down Under.

"People always doubted me and said I'd never make it to the next level and that I had no talent," Bogut said. "I'm finally here now and they said I'd never make it."

Bogut, of course, hasn't quite made it to the NBA just yet. He hasn't even said whether he'll declare for the draft at the end of Utah's season.

Judging from the crowd of NBA executives following him from game to game, though, there's little doubt his sophomore season in Salt Lake City will be his last.

Even his coach seems resigned to seeing him go.

"He's going to make a lot of money for a lot of years," Utah coach Ray Giacoletti said.

So what makes the NBA drool about the son of Croatian emigrants who first discovered the game at the age of eight while shooting balls at a makeshift rim hanging outside his father's carburetor repair business in Melbourne?

The better question is, what doesn't?

In Australia, he's listed at 213 centimeters, which in basketball terms comes out to an even 7-feet. Bogut scores with either hand, and he rebounds. He's tough, competitive and ran the floor on this night for 40 minutes straight, never missing a step.

Bogut acts like a point guard from the post, dishing the ball to appreciative teammates when he's surrounded by the inevitable double or triple team. The combination has worked so well the Utes have won 15 in a row going into Saturday night's game with Colorado State.

"If there's a better passer for a post player in college I'd like to see him," Giacoletti said.

Even more telling are the intangibles. Bogut seems to have a special feel for the game, and spends much of the game telling teammates where he wants them on the floor.

"He's a post player who makes everybody better, a quality you usually find in your point guard," Giacoletti said. "Plus, he comes to play every game."

The NBA types who follow Bogut from game to game know the numbers. He's averaging about 20 points and 12 rebounds a game, even with other teams designing defenses to try and slow him down.

NBA executives decline to talk about Bogut publicly, fearful of fines from commissioner David Stern for tampering with an underclassman. Privately, though, they rave about his potential to become not only a star but a celebrity in the right city.

Giacoletti figured he had an impact player when he took over from Rick Majerus this year. One of the first things he did was fly to Australia, meet with Bogut and his parents, and see if he could get him to come back for his sophomore year.

"Twenty hours on the plane, 20 hours there and 20 hours back," Giacoletti said.

Giacoletti also traveled to Athens to watch Bogut play for the Australian team in the Olympics. Australia's star was supposed to be guard Shane Heal, but Bogut was the one who made the biggest impression even though his country didn't qualify for the medal round.

In Athens, Bogut gained confidence in his game by playing against Tim Duncan when Australia met the United States. The center also gained three inches in height between college seasons to hit the magic 7-foot mark and may still be growing.

Ask Bogut, and he'll tell you he still needs to get better. He believes his outside shot needs work, he could use more foot speed and he needs to add some weight to his 245 pounds without losing quickness.

Admirable goals all, but for now the NBA executives have seen all they need to see.

They have a goal too: Getting Bogut's signature on a letter declaring himself eligible for the 2005 draft.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

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