THE MECHANICAL screen above the basketball court at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine lifted shortly after 11 a.m. yesterday, allowing media members their first glimpse of the five college players strutting their stuff for 76ers talent evaluators.
"Which one is Lawson?" asked a television cameraman there to get footage of Ty Lawson, the All-America point guard for NCAA champion North Carolina and the biggest name among the first five players auditioning for selection as the Sixers' first-round selection in the June 25 NBA draft, where they'll hold the 17th pick.
"He's the one with the light-blue shoes," someone replied.
But the wearing of that familiar Carolina blue wasn't Lawson's only distinguishing feature. At 5-11, he was the shortest player participating in the drills.
Lawson, however, makes up for his lack of height with breathtaking endline-to-endline speed, which is one reason he was voted the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year ahead of, among others, his UNC teammate, four-time All-America forward Tyler Hansbrough.
"He's real quick and explosive . . . He finishes the best I've seen a point guard finish," LSU guard Garrett Temple said after Lawson, who returned to the lineup after missing the previous three games with a jammed big right toe, scored 21 of his 23 points after intermission to lead North Carolina to a come-from-behind, 84-70 victory over the Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Lawson, who declared for the draft following his junior season, was one of only two players at PCOM yesterday projected as a first-rounder in many of the mock drafts. The other is 6-6 swingman Terrence Williams, of Louisville, whom some have likened to Sixers small forward Andre Iguodala.
The other three players hoping to impress Sixers brass - 6-1 Florida State guard Toney Douglas, 6-4 Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks, and 6-5 Texas-El Paso guard Stefon Jackson, a Germantown resident who prepped at Lutheran Christian Academy - are generally regarded as second-rounders. Not that Courtney Witte, the Sixers' director of player personnel, is influenced by the opinions of anyone outside the organization.
"I don't get too caught up in where players are perceived to go," Witte said.
The Sixers are caught up in the idea of strengthening their backcourt, either with a point guard, a particular area of need if unrestricted free agent Andre Miller does not return, or at shooting guard, where a three-point sharpshooter would be useful.
"We're certainly aware of what we need to improve upon, which is why we'll continue to look at perimeter players," Witte acknowledged. "Right now, with the 17th pick, we're happy with the pool [of players that will possibly be available]. But you're always looking at what you can do."
In other words, it is not out of the question that the Sixers might try to strike a deal to move up in the draft, particularly if there is an early run on point guards and long-range snipers.
The Sixers' strategy might not even hinge much on whether Miller, whom Sixers president and general manager Ed Stefanski has said he wants to re-sign, decides to return. Teams can't negotiate with Miller and his agent, Andy Miller (no relation), until July 1, which might force the Sixers' hand.
For his part, Lawson - who expects to be taken anywhere from the fifth to the 20th pick - said he could be satisfied being an immediate starter with the Sixers or as an apprentice to Miller.
"He'd be a good mentor to help me learn the ropes until, hopefully, someday I can take over," Lawson said of the 10-year veteran.
All players who are part of these traveling meat markets say expedient things at each stop. If Lawson goes to the Sixers, he will want to play sooner rather than later.
"If I come here, I'm coming with a winning attitude," he said. "I like to play at a fast pace, but I can run a halfcourt set, too. Either way, I'm happy."
That's exactly what Stefanski, assistant general manager Tony DiLeo and Witte want to hear from a player who could wind up as the primary playmaker in the Princeton-style offense new coach Eddie Jordan plans to install.
"He's improved each year," Witte said of Lawson. "One of the things that's impressive about him is his increased field-goal percentage. [He shot 51.7 percent for his college career, and 53.2 percent last season.] He's a gamer. He's been well-instructed on what to do and how to do it."
Also raising Lawson's stock are rules changes that eliminated the hip-checking that not so long ago made NBA basketball a form of hand-to-hand combat, and the stardom achieved by such shorter point guards as Orlando's Jameer Nelson, the Saint Joseph's product, and New Orleans' Chris Paul.
"I've been hearing things that I'm injury-prone, I'm too small," Lawson said. "I used to hear that I can't shoot. But whenever anybody said I couldn't do something, I wound up doing it better. I shot 47 percent from the three-point line. I don't know what else I have to prove." *