Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Divac ‘protective’ of Kings’ No. 6 pick; will it be Mudiay?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac, left, owner Vivek Ranadive, center, and Dean Oliver, director of analytics talk during a Kings pre-draft workout at their practice facility earlier this month.
Kings general manager Vlade Divac, left, owner Vivek Ranadive, center, and Dean Oliver, director of analytics talk during a Kings pre-draft workout at their practice facility earlier this month.

Vlade Divac walked into the Kings’ front office and onto the hot seat 31/2 months ago with eyes wide open.

True, he didn’t anticipate the imminent departures of general manager Pete D’Alessandro and special adviser Chris Mullin. But the Kings vice president stands 7-foot-1, has broad shoulders, very long limbs, and an eclectic basketball mind.

In other words, he wears big-boy pants. There are no complaints about the fit. This is his team and his first NBA draft, his shrunken supporting cast notwithstanding.

“We have to upgrade our personnel staff and add people in the future, no question,” said Divac, who has the No. 6 selection in Thursday’s annual talent grab bag. “But I’m comfortable with our scouting and preparation. Mike (Bratz) has seen everyone many times. Dean Oliver, Chad Iske and coach George (Karl) have all been working really hard. Our European scout (Marco Baldi) has us covered overseas. And with the international players, well, before I came back to Sacramento from Serbia, I watched most of these kids grow up.”

Though the order continues to shift, most of the more highly regarded mock drafts project Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell and Latvian sensation Kristaps Porzingis as the first four picks. But the event is expected to become far more interesting with the ensuing five selections, with Orlando, Sacramento, Denver, Detroit and Charlotte likely to choose from a group consisting of Willie Cauley-Stein, Mario Hezonja, Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Devin Booker and the increasingly intriguing Emmanuel Mudiay.

The 6-foot-5 Mudiay, a point guard who was recruited to SMU and instead signed a one-year, $1.2 million contract in China, is this summer’s mystery prospect. Though regarded as a tremendous talent coming out of high school in Dallas, the Congo native not only spent the year with the Guandong Southern Tigers, which was hell on scouting travel budgets, he suffered an ankle injury 12 games into the season and was supplanted by NBA journeyman Will Bynum.

The problematic small sample size is at least partially offset by rave reviews from Mudiay’s high school and AAU coaches and, most importantly, from SMU coach Larry Brown. The same Larry Brown who became enamored of young prep star Tyreke Evans when he coached the Philadelphia 76ers, similarly describes Mudiay, 19, as a special talent and a can’t-miss prospect, his shaky perimeter shooting notwithstanding.

Divac has spoken with Brown at length. But while Mudiay has worked out in Los Angeles (Lakers), Philadelphia, Minnesota and New York, and is very much in the conversation at No. 6, he declined to interview with Kings officials at the predraft combine in Chicago and thus far has refused their requests to get into the gym.

It should be noted that rejections are not uncommon. This season’s MVP, Stephen Curry, wanted no part of the Golden State Warriors before the 2009 draft, yet participated in a crowded session at Sleep Train Arena that included Evans and Jonny Flynn. The Kings were hooked on Evans, Minnesota picked point guards Ricky Rubio and Flynn, and the reigning champion Warriors drafted the reluctant Curry (the player they targeted all along) anyway. End of story, start of journey to NBA title.

Divac, who joked that his vision and hearing in recent weeks have been damaged by exhaustive film study and cellphone inquiries, is adhering to a similar approach. If he wants Mudiay, he will take Mudiay, who would add size, length and playmaking alongside Darren Collison and accommodate Karl’s preference for a two-point guard backcourt.

But Divac is not saying he wants Mudiay. Or that he wants Cauley-Stein or Hezonja or Johnson or Winslow. Or that he won’t attempt to trade up. Or that he won’t consider trading down. The rookie executive, it seems, is a quick study; the good ones can keep secrets.

“Ours is a relatively good position because we’ll get a good player,” he said. “We are receiving a ton of calls about trades, but I am very protective about the pick. I don’t want to give it up unless we can get several good pieces. Then I would think about it.”

Pressed for specifics, the affable Serb offered favorable snippets about all the prospects who might be available at No. 6, but he cited his priorities as follows: adding another playmaker and upgrading the power forward position, preferably with a long, athletic shot blocker and rim protector to complement DeMarcus Cousins.

Additionally, he scoffed at rumors suggesting he would consider trading his All-Star center.

“That is not happening,” Divac said forcefully, “but I would love to do something, a smaller move, before the draft. We have a lot of changes to make. The league is much more up-tempo now, and we need more three-point shooting. If we don’t get that in the draft, we’ll be active in free agency and see about making trades later in the offseason.

“We know our coach and the pieces he needs. And I really believe we are going to be a totally different team next season, with different energy. Our goal next year is not only to have a winning season, but a playoff season. This draft is important, but it’s only the beginning.”

NBA draft

  • When: Thursday
  • Where: Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • TV: 4 p.m., ESPN
  • Kings pick: No. 6 in first round
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