Every year, in the weeks leading to the college entry draft, the NBA holds three invitation-only camps for "non-lottery" players the clubs feel have a chance to make the pros.
The first camp is held in Portsmouth, Va., in mid-April, the second in Phoenix in May and the third in Chicago during the first week of June.
These are not the superstars, the All-Americans, the players of the year, nor conference or NCAA MVPs. Yet, out on the floor among the hundreds of young men in squeaking sneakers, there is talent. Hidden talent.
"In a lot of ways, these pre-draft camps make or break careers," said Tony DiLeo, assistant coach and director of scouting for the Philadelphia 76ers. "It is here that the clubs get to see some of the fringe players playing in NBA rules.
"The key to the pre-draft camps is that players are asked to perform outside their regular environment, against talent just as good and just as hungry. Some rise to the occasion, some don't."
Which unknown players have surfaced as possible draft material this year?
Sherell Ford (6 feet 7, 220). Playing at little-known Illinois-Chicago, Ford showed the ability to play both inside and outside. Essentially an inside player in college, Fordconsistently made the long-range shot and was named the MVP of the Phoenix camp. He could be the best small forward in the draft.
"Sherell may come out as the best of the fairly unknown players," said Chuck Douglas, head scout and assistant general manager for the Washington Bullets. "He's probably not a household name, but he was one of the top five scorers in the country, and he showed a lot of that at the camps."
Theo Ratliff (6-10, 215). The Wyoming center was hardly known before the opening camp in Portsmouth but quickly showed that he can develop into an inside presence in the NBA.
"Ratliff was clearly one of the guys who helped himself by playing (in the camps)," DiLeo said. "He really came on and finished up as one of the better players in the camps. He can be a shot-blocker in the NBA."
Ratliff had 425 blocks in college, second only to Alonzo Morning's NCAA-record 453 blocks.
Kurt Thomas (6-9, 235). As a senior at Texas Christian, Thomas became one of only three players to lead the NCAA in scoring and rebounding in the same year. Xavier McDaniel and Hank Gathers were the others. His performances at the camps have led to talk that he might be chosen as high as the 10th pick.
"I just wanted to go to Phoenix and play well, and play well for all the teams that want to bring me in," Thomas told the Associated Press last week. "I think I can add a person who comes in and rebounds, runs the floor pretty well, a big guy who can step out and shoot from outside."
Travis Best (6-0, 190). Two years ago, Best looked like a perfect lottery pick but lost ground to other ACC point guards. Best averaged 20.2 points and five assists in his senior year at Georgia Tech.
"I think at first there were a lot of questions about Best, and he was shaky in Phoenix," DiLeo said. "But he really turned things around in the Chicago camp and may have played himself back into the first round."
Anthony Pelle (7-foot, 260). Pelle would have benefited from the obvious scrutiny Jerry Tarkanian brings to the Fresno State program. But after averaging 10.8 points and 10 rebounds in his senior year, the transfer from Villanova created his own publicity with strong performances in the Phoenix and Chicago camps.
"Because of his body, Pelle was certainly someone a lot of the scouts wanted to look at," Douglas said. "He did quite well for himself."
Pelle was named to the all-tournament team at the Portsmouth Invitational when he averaged 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game.
For these players there is precedent. The NBA is full of stars _ Dan Majerle, Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Chris Mills are a few _ whose stock rose thanks to the camps. But among camp success stories, those of Chicago Bulls all-star Scottie Pippen and Golden State's Tim Hardaway are the most memorable.
Pippen, coming from little-known NAIA Central Arkansas, dominated all three camps in 1987 and was chosen fifth overall by the Seattle SuperSonics, who traded his rights to Chicago. Hardaway, who played at Texas-El Paso, was memorable in his 1989 camp performances, which, given their open-court nature, were suited to his one-on-one game. Golden State drafted him in the first round.
"I think Pippen is the ultimate example of how critical these camps can be," said Dan Cole, assistant director of basketball operations and scout for the Milwaukee Bucks. "Scottie was so dominant. It's unlikely today, with scouting and television being so involved, that a player the quality of Pippen will show up at the camps. His case was unique because he went to a really small school. But you never know."
The camps are not only for the unknown, but also for players who were once heralded but who may have slipped because of poor senior years or injuries.
"A lot of them did not finish their senior year the way they wanted," Cole said. "The camps put them back in the fray." Among the recognizable names given new hope this year are Wisconsin's Michael Finley, Michigan's Jimmy King, Alabama's Jason Caffey, Old Dominion's Pete Sessoms and Connecticut's Donny Marshall.
"Finley was one of the players that hurt himself in his senior year," Douglas said. "He struggled with his perimeter shot and needed to show something better in the camp. I think he still has a lot of work to be done on his stroke, but he was a much-improved shooter during the workouts."