NBA Shootaround: All-Time Great Draft Moments
So much amazing will be happening tonight, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you look back on some of the unforgettable moments from NBA drafts past.
Derrick Rose, no. 1 overall, Chicago Bulls, 2008
Robert Mays: The real moment had come about a month before, when some Ping-Pong balls had bounced around, and despite having a 98.3 percent chance to not get the no. 1 pick, the Bulls got it anyway. A franchise’s fortunes in the NBA really are that simple. If the Bulls had gotten the no. 2 pick in that draft, they, like every other team in the NBA, would’ve taken Michael Beasley, and whatever resurgence Chicago basketball has enjoyed would never have existed.
Even though it was a foregone conclusion, there was still something about hearing the words, about watching Derrick Rose put on that hat, and about knowing that this was one of those moments that marks the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Anyone who grew up near Chicago and loved basketball knew who Rose was. They watched him (or at least heard about him) in high school, they followed him at Memphis, and they knew exactly what they were getting.
There’s a burden that comes with playing in your hometown, and it’s one that some players (Hey, Dwight!) have no interest in carrying. Rose has done it proudly. The best part of every Bulls game is near the end of those famed pregame introductions, when Rose is the last one on the bench:
“From Chicago, at guard, 6-3, no. 1 … Derrick Rose.” Five years later, and I still can’t hear that without getting chills.
Renaldo Balkman, no. 20 overall, New York Knicks, 2006
netw3rk: Step into the time machine, folks; zap — June 2006, and the New York City Mecca of Basketball Knickerbockers just tied the bow on a pretty damn sweet 23-59 campaign. The Knicks’ roster — assembled by future sexual harasser and GM-ing genius Isiah Thomas — is a radioactive bouillabaisse of ill-fitting parts and bloated contracts. The payroll is in excess of 120 million American fucking dollars. Some names: Jerome James, Eddy Curry, Penny Hardaway, Steve Francis. Coach Larry Brown — fresh off back-to-back Finals appearances with Detroit — saw his efforts to convince point guard Stephon Marbury to do some playing-the-right-way-ing devolve into public sniping from across the back pages of the area tabloids. On June 23, Brown was fired, the whiteboard of destiny handed to Thomas.
June 28, Madison Square Garden, the NBA draft. A fan base in desperate need of cheer, of hope, of someone to put a hand under its chin, lift it up, and growl, “Hang in there, kid,” turns its bloodshot eyes to the NBA draft. The Knicks hold the 20th and the 29th picks; not great position, but diamonds can be found in the high first-round rough. The picks tick by, ambling to the stage in bad suits for a handshake and a team-branded snapback. Anticipation builds. Across the city, radios are turned up, conversations shushed, people turning toward the televisions in a thousand city bars. Inside the Garden, it’s the usual pandemonium of boos, chants, and indiscriminate bellowing.
David Stern: “And with the 20th pick in the 2006 NBA draft, the New York Knicks select … Renaldo Balkman, from the University of South Carolina.”
From across the city — to their radios and televisions — Knicks fans scream “Who the fuck is Renaldo Balkman?” Balkman himself might’ve answered, but he could not be reached for comment ON HIS OWN DRAFT NIGHT. Multiple pundits wonder aloud if Thomas meant to select Rolando Blackman, which would’ve kindaaaa made sense, as most mock drafts had Balkman as a late second-rounder at best. Rajon Rondo is selected with the very next pick. Kyle Lowry is taken three picks later.
Fast-forward, zap — March 2013. Hey, look, there’s Renaldo Balkman choking teammate Arwind Santos during a Philippine Basketball Association game between the Petron Blaze Boosters and the Alaska Aces!
I need a drink.
Manu Ginobili, no. 57 overall, San Antonio Spurs, 1999
Shea Serrano: I don’t remember the day the Spurs drafted Manu Ginobili. I don’t even remember if I watched any of the draft that year. (A guess: I didn’t. It was 1999, which means I was a senior in high school, which means it’s much more likely that I was frosting the tips of my hair.) But I remember hearing about him the next day from a boy at school named J.J. Perrett (who, incidentally had frosted hair tips — San Antonio isn’t that attractive of a place). J.J. spent pretty much the entire day at school shouting about him, because Manu Ginobili is almost* a Mexican,** and San Antonio basically has ALL of the Mexicans.
Ginobili has meant a lot of things to San Antonio. He helped the Spurs win*** three championships (2003, 2005, 2007). He co-starred in the most important series of grocery store–related commercials that have ever been filmed. And he even tamed the city’s bat population. But maybe more important than all of that, maybe even more impressive than being able to swat a goddamn bat**** out of the sky: He has allowed the city’s large Latino population to see a little bit of ourselves in the NBA.
Ginobili looks like (a more attractive version of) us, he sounds like us, and he plays like how we imagine we’d play if we were in the league. He is, to be sure, shoulder to shoulder with the most beloved Spurs of all time. Him getting drafted meant more than sustained basketball success. It meant we were all allowed to ride to greatness with him. J.J. understood that then. Everyone else understands it now.
*Ginobili is Argentine.
**The first legit Mexican-born player in the NBA was Eduardo Najera, who was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 2000 and actually played high school basketball in San Antonio, but fuck you if you think Mexicans are claiming him over Manu. I imagine Najera was as beloved by Dallas’s Latino community as Manu is by San Antonio’s, but I don’t know. Dallas is the butthole of Texas, so I try to avoid going there when at all possible.
***He’s also helped them lose two: 2006, when he and-1 fouled Dirk Nowitzki in the final seconds of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals and allowed him to tie the game, and 2013, when Ginobili thought it’d be a good idea to see how many times he could hand the ball to the Miami Heat before my brain exploded in my skull.
****Dude, can you even imagine having to be NEAR a bat? Have you even SEEN one? They’re disgusting. I got a good look at one at the zoo one time and just threw up all over the place.
Qyntel Woods, no. 21 overall, Portland Trail Blazers, 2002
Danny Chau: I’ve been a draftnik since I was 9, though my first two years as an avid draft follower should’ve scared me out of basketball entirely. In 2001, I thought Eddie Griffin was going to be the next Rasheed Wallace; in 2002, I was all-in on Qyntel Woods being the next Tracy McGrady. Woods has been in exile for more than seven years; Griffin is dead. I’ve had my fair share of successful predictions, but those first two will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The NBA draft is a compilation of fairy tales. The more you believe in a particular story, the more compelling it becomes. There hasn’t been a prospect in my lifetime as a conscious fan who has captured my imagination like Woods. My fascination with him as a player was largely a product of the times. It was 2002. He was just a series of stories and scouting reports then. He’d opted to enter the draft out of junior college — foregoing the chance to play for John Calipari at Memphis — so he wasn’t ever on TV, and there also wasn’t any pixelated video footage for me to sift through. All I had was NBADraft.net’s McGrady comparison, Slam’s claim that he’d be best in class, and a New York Times article that mentioned he had led his high school basketball team to a state title while playing with a knee brace that held a torn ACL together. I bought into his fairy tale, and I was certain it was going to come true.
Last year was the 10th anniversary of the Portland Trail Blazers selecting Woods with the 21st overall pick. He took a nosedive down the draft board after being considered a surefire top-five selection for much of the process. Clad in the Blazers’ black and red, wearing no. 24, he seemed to forecast his own demise in the league — he was 24 in the last NBA season he’d ever play. I think back often and wonder what would’ve happened had he decided to attend Memphis and learn some discipline, what would’ve happened if he wasn’t drafted by the Blazers at the height of the Jail Blazer era, what would’ve happened if the Knicks didn’t let him go in 2006, when he had his best season as an NBA pro. Perhaps we could’ve seen more of this, or this, or, hey, sure, even more of this.
I’m 21 now, and I still keep tabs on him from time to time — hell, he’s even blocked me on Twitter once (we’re cool now). He’s 32 now, jumping from team to team over in Europe, but he’s still playing, thank goodness. He has a legion of adoring fans in Poland, where he was, for a short period, Europe’s answer to LeBron James. I’m still here, wishing he’d have been the NBA’s precursor to LeBron James instead. I’m a bit older now, but no less foolish. There is no fairy tale ending here, but I’ll stick with it until the end.
Andrea Bargnani, no. 1 overall, Toronto Raptors, 2006
Sean Fennessey: This isn’t about Andrea Bargnani, the first and last European player to be drafted first overall. Not really. This is about Bryan Colangelo, son of Jerry, Toronto Raptors’ longtime GM, and a man with a plan. That plan reflected a pan-global view of basketball — a place where players from Spain and Slovenia and Bargnani’s Italy would lead the NBA’s great migration. An Ellis Island in Canada. His was not the only franchise with an aggressive scouting department, but it was certainly a leader. In his second year on the job, Colangelo’s Raptors roster boasted six foreign-born players and also Kris Humphries, who was born on Saturn. Bargnani was meant to be the linchpin, though you can hear the mild dissatisfaction in the crowd on the night of the ’06 draft — it was a foregone conclusion that Colangelo, enamored of the spacing and shooting Bargnani could provide, would select the 7-foot small forward. The only true stud Colangelo passed on in that abominable draft was LaMarcus Aldridge, who went second to Portland (and he’d have been blocked by Chris Bosh, then an emerging star). Adam Morrison and Tyrus Thomas and Shelden Freaking Williams were not the answer. Despite that, you can still feel Colangelo’s straining for utopia in the pick. His grand design wasn’t flawed — only his choices therein. After all, this is a man who once dealt Roy Hibbert (and three other useful players!) for Jermaine O’Neal.
The Raptors were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round in consecutive years after Colangelo took over. They haven’t been back since ’08. Bargnani’s been there the whole time, a constant lolling reminder, flashing skills and then disappearing. He plays no defense and rarely works hard as a rebounder. Offensively, he’s completely regressed in recent seasons, playing just 66 games in two years as his once dynamic 3-point range has withered. Yesterday, Colangelo officially stepped down from an amorphous management position on the business side of the organization, less than a month after stepping down from his role as general manager. New GM Masai Ujiri is cleaning house — in the front office, scouting departments, and likely on the roster. One player who won’t be going anywhere is likely Colangelo’s legacy: the Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, another long, lean, and intriguing (if different) international player. Live by the scouting, die by the scouting.
Rashard Lewis, no. 32 overall, Seattle SuperSonics, 1998
Jonathan Abrams: The draft is an evening tailored for gut-wrenching emotion. It’s reality television at its best: Teams try to deftly outmaneuver one another, franchises are forever altered, and lifetime dreams are fantastically realized or devastatingly crushed.
Rashard Lewis’s free fall in 1998 is perhaps the draft’s primary example of rawness and realness. The audience could almost pinpoint the exact moment when Lewis thought his NBA goal had evaporated. He had declared for the NBA draft out of Houston’s Alief Elsik at a time when high school players had still not entered the draft with much regularity. Lewis’s hometown Houston Rockets passed on him three times in the first round to take Michael Dickerson, Bryce Drew, and Mirsad Türkcan — none of whom provided much of an NBA dent. Lewis, meanwhile, remained in the green room and cameras captured him crying. The Seattle SuperSonics mercifully took Lewis with the third pick of the second round.
“I still think about that day all of the time,” he told the Seattle Times several years ago. “I don’t know why. I’m happy what I’m doing now and where I’m at. I’m happy being in Seattle, but it just something about that draft day.
“You know I was just a kid. I was just 18 years old, excited about being drafted to the NBA. I felt like all of Houston was watching me. My high school was watching me. I think they had a draft party at my coach’s house. I’ll never forget that day, being in the green room with my family and my agent.
“As my name was getting passed, I couldn’t even take it no more and I had to leave and go to the restroom because I didn’t want nobody to see how hurt I was. So I started crying in the restroom while nobody was around.”
Everything, of course, worked out for Lewis. He became a borderline star in Seattle and signed a contract north of $100 million with Orlando. He was arguably Orlando’s second-best player on its 2009 Finals team, and his career even survived a never fully explained doping violation. He was most recently seen pouring beer on a female reporter while celebrating Miami’s latest championship.
His draft slide may have been one of his career’s advantages. I recently talked with Lewis in Miami between Finals games. He said that he realized at the draft how hard he would have to work to succeed in the league. I asked him which contract felt better upon signing: his non-guaranteed rookie deal in Seattle or his $100 million contract in Orlando. His rookie contract, he responded, without hesitation.
Shawn Bradley, no. 2 overall, Philadelphia 76ers, 1993
Ben Detrick: The 1993 NBA draft was notable for two things: the Orlando Magic’s 1-in-66 chance of winning Ping-Pong ball ricochet, and lapping waves of disappointment. The lottery was pockmarked with collegiate stars — remember, this was prior to the invasion of high schoolers and Gauloise-puffing Euros — who struggled as professionals for a cornucopia of reasons. For starters, it boasted Bobby Hurley (car accident), Isaiah Rider (drugs and legal issues), Jamal Mashburn (injuries and illness), Vin Baker (alcoholism), and Calbert Cheaney (not good). There was also hulking Luther Wright, picked 18th overall by the Jazz, who ended up temporarily homeless and had several toes amputated following severe frostbite. Even the success stories — notably Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway, and Allan Houston — ended up shy of fairy tale yarns.
But let’s talk about Shawn Bradley.
In retrospect, using the second overall pick on a 7-foot-6 haricot vert who played a single season of college ball before embarking on two years of missionary work was a bold salvo in the spirit of upside. Also in retrospect, Bradley had a reasonably long career as a shot-blocker. If we had the Goldsberry-esque cartography for those days, maybe we would have learned that he had a devastating impact on opponents’ field goal percentage around the rack. Maybe. Rudy Gobert, we see you.
On the other hand, I was a young Sixers fan who idolized Charles Barkley (despite his anti–role model protestations). So the reality that some willowy goof had become the new face of the franchise ballooned into an identity crisis. My team was no longer represented by a snarling ass-kicker — or even a shoddy replicant in Clarence Weatherspoon — but a sideshow freak who barnstormed the country getting posterized by local cagers. No amount of Triple Fat Goose puffer jackets or knowledge of Black Moon stanzas could save me at the cafeteria table. It was an era of humiliation that only the arrival of Allen Iverson, the greatest basketball player who ever lived, could dispel.
The Worst European Busts of the Post-Dirk Era
Brett Koremenos: In the early 2000s the NBA had a bad case of Euro-fever. Dirk Nowitzki had taken the league by storm, and everyone wanted a sweet-shooting German of their own. I was no exception. If you could shoot, pass, and had a lot of consonants in your name, my 18-year-old self was convinced you were a future star. And had I been an actual NBA GM from 2002 to 2006, I would have been fired several times over for swinging and missing on several European players who failed to amount to much of anything during their time in the league, including this group, my top 5 draft whiffs during that forgettable, Euro-obsessed era of my NBA fandom.
1. Jiri Welsch, no. 16 overall, Philadelphia 76ers, 2002
I couldn’t tell you how convinced I was that Welsch was going to be a super-skilled playmaker and shooter in the NBA for years to come. I made so many fake draft-day trades that year to get him on my hometown Bucks that I think I may have actually passed out from exhaustion. But after six teams in six years, including his last one in Milwaukee, I had to admit that Welsch just wasn’t the star I had him pegged to be. But hey, at least he put Kenny Smith in his place.
2. Nikoloz Tskitishvili, no. 5 overall, Denver Nuggets, 2002
Oh yeah. I drank the Kool-Aid on this one, too. Skita dominated every workout against imaginary defenders, and ESPN.com’s own scouting report even mentions how he made 10 3s in a row at one point! You can imagine the horror, then, that my fellow Skitmanics felt as his rookie season made Austin Rivers’s performance this year seem like the second coming of Jordan.
3. Szymon Szewczyk, no. 35 overall, Milwaukee Bucks, 2003
The Polish Dirk Nowitzki? Yes, please. If we’re being totally honest, no draft pick in my time as a Bucks fan (which ended in about 2009 after I worked for the team) got me as excited as Szewczyk. Manu Ginobili had just burst onto the scene from second-round obscurity in San Antonio and I was convinced, CONVINCED I SAY, that this dude was going to lead the Bucks to the promised land. Sadly, the closest he got to a Milwaukee jersey was this:
4. Pavel Podkolzin, no. 21 overall, Utah Jazz, 2004
A giant 7-foot-5 guy who couldn’t stop growing sounds like something the Russians would engineer in a lab and send to the NBA. I figured Podkolzin was essentially going to end up being some type of basketball Terminator or the first NBA player kicked out of the league because he was genetically modified. In the end, he played about 20 minutes in the NBA. Whoops.
netw3rk: Some cool facts about Pavel: He was going to enter the 2003 NBA draft, but withdrew after he was diagnosed with acromegaly — a tumor on the pituitary gland that causes the gland to secrete too much growth hormone, resulting in the stricken growing to tremendous sizes. He reentered the draft in 2004 still pituitary-ing, reaching as high as no. 5 in some mock drafts. He was drafted by Utah at 21, and promptly snapped up by Shark Tank Mark Cuban for the Mavs’ 2005 first-round pick. Pavel flew to the States, where our fine medical system went all House M.D. on his ass, and Pavel began his NBA career, at which point it started to become clear that what he really needed was a tumor unnaturally stimulating his BasketballTalenty gland. Reporter Sam Smith declared him a stiff. In response, Mark Cuban loosened the valve on his spleen and railed against the sad state of modern sports reporting, labeling Smith a “Sports Gossip Columnist” and declaring that if Smith could prove that he had seen Podkolzin play, Cuban would give $10,000 to the charity of Smith’s choice. Which, OK, Cubes has a point, anonymously sourced reporting is definitely a thing. Unfortunately, Pavel being a stiff was also a thing.
Pavel played in five games his rookie season. His stats: 0.2 points and 0.4 rebounds per game, nothing-point-zero field goal percentage. Then he developed a stress fracture in his foot because: huge person. His second season, he played in one game. Then he got bought out. And so ended the NBA story of the Russian Giant.
5. Zarko Cabarkapa, no. 17 overall, Phoenix Suns, 2003
Koremenos: A super-skilled dude with an awesome name who was athletic and philosophically opposed to defense, playing hard, and physical contact was basically worthy of the no. 1 pick in my book. I’m still trying to figure out what bad breaks cost him his shot at being the G.O.A.T. But at least he dunked on Richard Jefferson.
The Five Stages of Steve Francis Going to Vancouver
“With the second pick in the 1999 NBA draft, the Vancouver Grizzlies select … Steve Francis! From the University of Maryland.” It will never be topped.