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Brad Rock: Jazz will draft best player available — seriously!

SALT LAKE CITY — Last year, the Jazz invited everyone and their cousin to pre-draft workouts. A hundred players showed up. But just 1 percent of them hit the jackpot.

Thursday in New York, the NBA draft will resume, with the Jazz hoping their luck/karma/genius continues. Barring a trade — never out of the question — they're picking in the bottom one-third of the first round (21). That doesn't discourage them in the slightest. They actually seem to enjoy the hunt.

There are good reasons for their optimism. For one, last year they acquired Donovan Mitchell, the No. 13 pick, via a draft-day trade. Now he's flirting with being named Rookie of the Year on Monday.

Another reason the Jazz are smiling is that this year's mid- to late-draft talent pool is believed to be better than most years. Give the Jazz a high pick and they're just OK. They took Deron Williams and Enes Kanter at No. 3 and, though both are good players, neither will reach the Hall of Fame. But give the Jazz a non-lottery pick and it gets interesting. Rudy Gobert was a No. 27 pick, via the Denver Nuggets. Paul Millsap was a No. 47 selection, Bryon Russell No. 45.

But an unexpected gift for the Jazz in this era of basketball versatility is that they can now tell the truth. For decades, they insisted they would take "the best player available" in the draft. Nowadays that's far more likely to be accurate. Teams are no longer bound by traditional positional selections, i.e. forwards, centers and guards; most clubs draft on talent and potential, then fashion their lineups from there.

Drafting is "slightly easier" according to former Jazz assistant and current ESPN 700 NBA Insider Gordon Chiesa. Having spent much of his career scouting and evaluating talent, Chiesa says the 2018 draft's depth, and the flexibility of the current NBA game, frees teams to select players who can simply play, regardless of position.

"The position is called either 'on the court' or 'off the court,'" Chiesa says.

There is talent to be mined, he says, but projecting when that will blend with refinement and experience is the trick. That process, in most cases, takes a few years.

"Mitchell," he says, "is the exception."

Chiesa says if the 2017 draft were redone today, Mitchell would be No. 1 or 2, along with Boston's Jayson Tatum.

Years ago, player roles were easily and clearly defined. The biggest player was the center, the next-biggest the power forward, etc. But eventually the parallels between size and position began to fade. Dirk Nowitzki, a 7-foot German, shocked the NBA with his outside shooting. The Jazz started diversifying with multi-faceted Andrei Kirilenko and long-shooting center Mehmet Okur.

The sea change actually began across the sea. Current Houston coach Mike D'Antoni arrived from Italy and brought Euro-ball with him. Spacing and perimeter shooting became paramount. When players aren't open for outside shots, that usually means someone will be open cutting to the paint.

To thrive, it takes versatility on both offense and defense, and the Jazz have never had so much. Half their players from last season could play more than one position. So drafting multi-positional and/or long, versatile players such as USC's De'Anthony Melton (6-foot-3 with 6-8 wingspan), explosive Villanova combo guard Donte DiVincenzo, Michigan stretch big Mo Wagner, Creighton's Khyri Thomas (6-3 with 6-10 wingspan), athletic Texas Tech wing Zhaire Smith, or UCLA's Aaron Holiday (a 6-1 player who has a 6-foot-6 wingspan) wouldn't be, um, a reach.

Meanwhile, something else has changed since the old days: It's now the players who decide what happens.

Avert your eyes, Jerry Sloan.

"Whatever the players think, we have to adjust," Chiesa says.

Whomever the Jazz pick on Thursday, the selection will favor versatility over visibility. They'll take a hard look at hybrid players who can play both ends of the court and multiple positions. In that sense, the draft truly has become easier. It's not about filling spots. It's about finding space.