It was late 2002 or early 2003. I was young enough that I hadn’t legally drunk a beer yet. There I was: sitting in the glow of a hulking desktop monitor, well past midnight in my college dorm room, eyes glued to NBADraft.net and EuroBasket. It was the height of the NBA’s international recruiting bubble. Dirk Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic were All-Stars, Yao Ming and Nene were in the midst of successful rookie seasons, and young Nikoloz Tskitishvili, the Georgian 7-footer with the ballerino’s feet, was still a teenager with time to “develop” his game. The talent gold rush was in full swing, and without YouTube (which didn’t exist yet) or much year-round reporting on the draft (ESPN’s Chad Ford was a purely seasonal delight back then), the best way to learn about the next Yao on a frigid February night in Illinois was to scan the grainy Balkan mug shots uploaded to draft blogs while reading garbled scouting reports emanating from Turkey, Russia, and the Baltic states.
That’s when I found him. Sultan Kosen. Discovered by a Galatasaray scout in southeastern Turkey, Kosen stood 7-foot-11 and lived on his family farm near the Syrian border. Within a few years, it was believed he might stand as tall as 8-foot-2. The image of Kosen that ran with his bio showed him standing flat-footed beside a basketball hoop, holding a ball in one hand and reaching up to touch the rim with it. Based on his gangling posture and blank expression, he seemed only vaguely aware that he might be expected to put the ball through the hoop. But hey, you can’t teach height.
Kosen’s NBADraft.net profile and his write-ups on Eurobasket are gone now, lost to website redesigns and archive overhauls, but the gist of them can still be found on message boards:
Galatasaray has immediately signed the young player, and the club is confident to convert him into a basketball player in two or three years, even if he is only a project at the pure beginning. At present, in fact, Kosen needs a surgical treatment on his knees and needs to improve his athletic skills.
Doctors say [that] he needs to have some medical surgery before he starts to walk and run easily. He has had an operation till now but needs to have one more for his knee in order to be able to run properly. Cavit Altunay the legendary Turkish Basketball player who discovered Sultan Kösen says that the Turkish giant will be on duty by the year 2004 assuring us to see him on the basketball courts. “Sultan may not be able to play 40 minutes but even 15 minutes of his play will add a lot to his team.”
The basketball audience is impatiently waiting for those answers full of hope of discovering the future Eurostar, maybe an NBA star: SULTAN of The BASKETBALL.
To recap: Istanbul club team discovers Kosen, a 7-foot-11 Turkish giant whom they expect to be 8-foot-2 after an operation that will allow him to straighten his knees. Then he will learn to run. Then he will learn to play basketball. Then he will be ready for the NBA draft. With a little luck, from there he will supplant Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the greatest center of all time. Ladies and gentlemen: SULTAN of The BASKETBALL.
Even during an era when NBA front offices were tripping over each other to acquire foreign talent and Jason Kapono was openly griping that he should change his name to Kaponovich to improve his draft status, the Kosen story was ridiculous. Threads on BasketballForum.com seemed more concerned with how soon he would die than how his height would bother Shaq in the post. To my knowledge, Kosen never played an organized basketball game, but he was certified by Guinness as the world’s tallest man in 2011 (he eventually topped out at 8-foot-3), and he appeared on Today to demonstrate how grotesque a can of Coke looks in his hand. He’s also a strong candidate for having the finest Google image search results on the Internet.
That’s what I loved about following the NBA draft in the early 2000s. That’s what kept me up at night. It was the Wild West of the NBA Internet age, when technology had opened up borders and given us access to more information than we’d ever imagined, but before it brought us tools like YouTube and Synergy Sports that would allow us to make sense of all that raw info. NBADraft.net and DraftExpress could give us a picture and a rough description of a highly touted Euro prospect, and the rest was often up to our imaginations. It was a time of 7-5 Russian giants, 6-7 Czech point guards, and Polish 7-footers with “excellent mobility.” So what if two out of those three were Pavel Podkolzin and Jiri Welsch, and the other was Marcin Gortat? One out of three ain’t terrible, and damn, those days were fun.
“I can’t say that we started with this mission statement and a business model and goals for everything. It really wasn’t like that. I had no idea it was gonna evolve into a full-time job. It was just like, let’s throw some shit up on the Internet. I didn’t know anything about basketball when I started this thing. I was clueless.”
That’s Jonathan Givony, founder and president of DraftExpress, one of the most prominent, influential, and trusted NBA draft publications around. He adds, “The good thing was that nobody was really paying attention to us for the first five years.”
Givony created the site in 2004, during his freshman year at the University of Florida. At first, he called it NBA Draft Zone, but after two days the league contacted him and requested its name be removed from the title, so he settled on DraftCity, which later became DraftExpress. If Givony’s assessment of DraftExpress’s early days seems overly harsh, it’s probably because he’s seen himself develop as a scout since then — a natural result of 10 years of experience and the ever-increasing sophistication of statistical databases and player-evaluation tools.
Aran Smith, who founded NBADraft.net in 2000, tells a similar story about running a website in the early to mid-2000s: “I wasn’t talking to NBA scouts or GMs the way that I am now. There weren’t the Synergies; you weren’t getting 30 games for Duke or all the big teams on TV every day. You’d have to go off a lot less footage and stats and so forth. It was more of a crapshoot.”
That dice roll was particularly haphazard with regard to international players. Web prognosticators like Smith and Givony would be lucky to get their hands on a few hours of game tape for foreign prospects, and then they’d have to weigh that eye-test information against the hype spun out by players’ agents and whatever smoke screens NBA team scouts might be floating. I asked Givony how a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo — whose fantastical dimensions and fairy-tale origin story are reminiscent of the Kosens and Podkolzins of the previous decade — might have been covered differently in 2004.
“Maybe we would have gotten some VHS tapes in the mail,” Givony says, before pausing to compare Giannis to a Puerto Rican center from the 2004 draft. “That’s how I wrote about Peter John Ramos. I thought he was going to be this great player, and I just got two or three VHS tapes from this guy on the Miami Heat message board who lived in Puerto Rico. So I don’t know how we would have gone about getting something from Greece — like, second-division Greece. Probably [Giannis] would have just gone undrafted and emerged later on.”
Securing footage of draft-eligible prospects no longer feels like an international scavenger hunt, thanks to Synergy Sports Technology, the subscription-based online service that collects and organizes video from the NBA and various international leagues and tournaments. Givony says scouting a player like Croatia’s Dario Saric 10 years ago would have boiled down to watching “a couple scattered tapes — whatever you could muster up.” Today, Synergy’s database includes video of almost 1,200 offensive possessions and 571 defensive possessions from Saric’s latest season with Cibona Zagreb. “Without Synergy,” Givony says, “we would be 10 percent of what we are right now.”
Givony is surely correct about how much more proficient sites like DraftExpress and NBADraft.net have become at projecting how players will fare in the NBA. But back when draft prognosticating was such an imperfect science — a mere “10 percent” of what it is today — the draftniks of the world had a way of filling up that other 90 percent with a verve that’s missing from the clinical appraisals we’ve grown used to in recent years.
That passion seeped into many of the early DraftExpress posts, including a memorable 2004 paean to point guard (and eventual late-first-round pick) Sergio Rodriguez titled “The Spanish Magician,” and a breathless, nearly 1,800-word look at Martynas Andriuskevicius and Johan Petro that begins with a near-echo of Hamlet: “Petro or Andriuskevicius, Andriuskevicius or Petro? That has been one of the hottest topics amongst the crowd during the European Junior Championships.”
In case you lack perfect recall of draft-bust stiff centers over the past 12 years, allow me to jog your memories. Andriuskevicius was a pipe-cleaner skinny 7-foot-3 big man from Lithuania who drew comparisons to Arvydas Sabonis after flashing some decent ballhandling and passing skills and a serviceable 3-point shot as a teenager in Europe. The Orlando Magic drafted Andriuskevicius 44th in the 2005 NBA draft and traded him to Cleveland. He played six games, logged nine minutes, and scored zero points in his NBA career, and unfortunately he’s now best known for getting punched in the head by Awvee Storey during a 2006 D-League practice and suffering a fractured skull. Petro was drafted 25th in 2005 by Seattle. He was one of the Sonics’ trio of consecutive big-man busts, sandwiched between 2004’s Robert Swift and 2006’s Mouhamed Saer Sene. Petro lasted eight uneventful years in the league.
Yet despite their lackluster careers, the glass was way more than half full when former DraftExpress writer Luis Fernandez scouted these two centers in 2004. Here he is on Andriuskevicius (before the line in which Fernandez says the big Lithuanian is “as long as an NBA regular season”):
It’s impossible not to feel astonished while taking in the combination of physical and athletic characteristics this kid displays. As he was running around on the court, I almost had to pinch myself to believe it.
And then, on Petro:
Like Martynas, he’s extremely gifted physically. A legit seven footer, very athletic and already really strong, a beast considering his age.
I almost had to pinch myself reading those passages, and by the time I unearthed NBADraft.net’s February 28, 2005, mock draft, I knew I had lapsed into full NBA draft fever-dream hallucination mode. It was as if I were sitting around the boardroom table, waiting for the Atrocious GM Summit to begin, only instead I had stumbled into the Electric Euro-Step Acid Test GM Summit.
Big Marty Andriuskevicius at no. 2! Look at the fourth pick: Hi, Tiago! My fellow New Yorker Chris Taft going fifth? Cosign. I had completely forgotten that, once upon a time, Nemanja Aleksandrov had been considered a potential no. 1 overall pick and I probably had read a Kindle Single’s worth of commentary on the Serbian forward’s vast upside.
It can be a hoot to look back at all the players whom DraftExpress and NBADraft.net hyped to absurd degrees, but let’s not forget that NBA team scouts with decades of experience have been wrong just as often. It wasn’t the upstart bloggers who used lottery picks on Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Qyntel Woods or Derrick Williams and Jan Vesely; it was the pros.
Besides, the point here is that unless you work for an NBA team, following the draft isn’t just about being right and selecting the best available player. The NBA junkies will come back for their dope, whether it’s some stepped-on, 2004 message-board junk or it’s 2014’s raw, uncut product, beamed in straight from Don Synergy’s plantation of data servers. Following the draft in the mid-2000s may have been even more fun than it is today, when many NBA fans can already name a potentially fatal flaw in the games of every likely top-10 draftee, and Adrian Wojnarowski will resume his draft-night tradition of tweeting at us from the future — every pick, roughly five minutes before it happens, with 100 percent accuracy. It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just what is.
But even a modern-day draft guru like Givony will admit it’s OK for us to miss what was. “People used to be more excited about the draft,” he says. “There was more hype around these guys and a lot more uncertainty. Every guy was gonna be the next great thing. Now, it’s like we dissect these guys so much that we kind of take the enthusiasm away.”