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Associated Press
Boston's coach, Red Auerbach (left) puffs his cigar, as he discusses Boston's 105-102 loss to the St. Louis Hawks, with Bob Cousey (center) and Tom Heinsohn (right). The loss ot the Hawks, at Kiel auditorium tonight, tied the National Basketball Championship playoff at three wins for each team. (AP Photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — Christmas could come about six months early for Utah Jazz fans this year, who are anxiously waiting to see what Santa Claus (or Kevin O'Connor) might be bringing them in the 2011 NBA Draft Thursday night.

Utah has the third and 12th picks in this year's highly anticipated draft, which is being hailed as the most important one ever in Jazz franchise history.

And it just might be.

But before fans get all giddy about the prospects of landing a couple of gigantic difference-makers that'll soon turn this team into an instant NBA title contender, let's take a look at the type of player that's been picked at No. 3 over the last four decades.

Of course, whenever you talk about No. 3 draft picks, the conversation starts and ends with Michael Jordan — arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.

Taken by Chicago in 1984 after Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston) and Sam Bowie (Portland), all Jordan did was lead the Bulls to six NBA championships in eight years — and, hey, it might've been 8-for-8, if he hadn't taken a couple of years off to go play minor league baseball.

"Portland took Bowie because they already had Clyde Drexler (at shooting guard) and missed on Michael Jordan," Walt Perrin, Utah's vice president of player personnel, told Deseret News Jazz beat writer Jody Genessy, reminding us all once again of the importance of that well-worn philosophy that teams should always take the proverbial "best player left in the draft."

"Every year there's pressure to pick wherever we are," Perrin said, "because you want to get the right player for the franchise whether you're picking at (No.) 20 or you're picking at 2."

"You've got to figure out the ones that are going to succeed in the pros, because there are going to be guys who succeed," said O'Connor, Utah's general manager and executive director of player personnel, "so it's our responsibility to find them."

As for picking third, Utah has been here before. After all, a No. 3 pick of more recent vintage was Deron Williams, taken by the Jazz in the 2005 draft. D-Will emerged as one of the league's best point guards over the past few years but, with his contract due to expire after the 2011-12 season, Utah traded him to the New Jersey Nets in February. Interestingly, one of the guys the Jazz got in return, Derrick Favors, was the No. 3 pick in last year's draft.

Two other No. 3 picks — Pete Maravich and Dominique Wilkins — have historical ties to Utah, though neither one of them starred in the Beehive State.

Maravich was taken by Atlanta with the third pick of the 1970 draft, and he had a great career with the Hawks and New Orleans Jazz. Though his number hangs from the rafters of EnergySolutions Arena, "Pistol Pete" actually only played a small part of one season in Utah.

Wilkins was Utah's pick at No. 3 pick in 1982, and he, too, had a tremendous career — with the Atlanta Hawks. The Jazz traded away the rights to Wilkins, who did not want to play in Utah, for a pair of players and a pile of money — money that helped the cash-strapped Jazz franchise stay in Utah.

And here's a stunning revelation for you, Jazz fans: Rest assured, there is not a Michael Jordan, Deron Williams, Pete Maravich or Dominique Wilkins in this year's draft.

Beyond those four, there have certainly been several other superb performers who were taken with the third pick in the draft.

We're talking about guys like Carmelo Anthony (2003 by Denver), Pau Gasol (2001 by Atlanta, which traded him to Memphis), Chauncey Billups (1997 by Boston), Grant Hill (1994 by Detroit) and Kevin McHale (1980 by Boston).

Anthony and Gasol are generally recognized as two of the league's best players today; Billups is regarded as one of the game's best floor generals; Hill's all-around skills helped him have a solid career which might've been spectacular if not for injuries, and McHale teamed with Larry Bird and Robert Parrish as Boston's "Big Three" that led the Celtics to three NBA championships in the 1980s.

Baron Davis, Jerry Stackhouse, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Sean Elliott and Buck Williams were all No. 3 draft picks who have each enjoyed a high level of success in the NBA. And, to a lesser extent, so have Ben Gordon, Mike Dunleavy, Raef LaFrentz, Billy Owens, Charles Smith, Chris Jackson (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and Rodney McCray.

Christian Laettner, a No. 3 pick behind Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning in 1992, came into the league with a lot of fanfare a la BYU's Jimmer Fredette this year, but he didn't live up to those lofty expectations. The same could be said of another No. 3 pick, Benoit Benjamin.

And the jury's still out on more recent No. 3 picks like Al Horford, O.J. Mayo, James Harden and Favors, who have each shown glimpses that they could become solid NBA players someday.

And then, there are the clunkers — No. 3 draft choices who washed out, were huge disappointments and generally rank among the biggests busts anyone's seen since Pamela Anderson.

Guys like former Gonzaga star Adam Morrison, who was taken No. 3 by Memphis in 2006 and is now a man looking for a team — four seasons of shooting under 40 percent from the floor will do that to a guy. But, hey, he got a couple of NBA championship rings with the Lakers.

Or Darius Miles, a high school phenom taken by the L.A. Clippers in 2000. He fought with his coach, had injury problems, substance abuse issues and played for four teams in eight years, never living up to his potential.

Or Dennis Hopson, another No. 3 pick (New Jersey, 1987) who lasted just five seasons in the NBA before taking his talents to Spain, France, the Philippines, Turkey, Israel, Venezuela and ... well, you get the picture..

But the biggest bust of all time at No. 3, and one of the biggest in all of NBA Draft history, is Chris Washburn. The former N.C. State big man on campus (who seldom attended class) was drafted by Golden State in 1986. And, after just 72 games over two NBA seasons in which he averaged a whopping 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game, his career went down the drain almost as fast as the cocaine went up his nose. Washburn was banned from the NBA for life in 1989 after failing three drug tests in three years.

So, as you can see, there's no guarantee that the Jazz will get a terrific impact player at No. 3 on Thursday night.

Sure, with Christmas coming six months early for Jazz fans, they could find a great gift in their stockings. Or, as teams sadly found out with Washburn and Morrison, they could wind up with a lump of coal instead.

Email: rhollis@desnews.com