Ranking the best Bulls' bargain draft picks
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
So who’s the greatest Bulls Draft pick ever?
Forget about Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Derrick Rose and even Reggie Theus.Those were easy to make—though maybe not in Portland’s case regarding Jordan.
Basically, for this exercise I’ve eliminated almost all high first-round and/or lottery picks. It’s hardly a scientific examination, but what list is?
Frankly, the Bulls are like most other teams in that they haven’t been very good at catching lightning in a bottle when it comes to the NBA Draft. However, every now and then, a blind squirrel does find a nut, or so I’m told.
One personal favorite of mine, Mickey Johnson, was actually picked by Portland in 1974. The West Side kid who attended Aurora College never played for the Blazers. Ol’ Mickey (his actual name is Wallace) was traded to the Bulls a couple of months after the Draft. So he can’t make this list if I’m going to follow my rules.
In any event, here’s a look at the players I think have been the Bulls’ best efforts with the unheralded.
1. Toni Kukoc, No. 29 in 1990
Nicknamed “The Waiter,” for his deft passing skills, the 6’11” forward from Croatia, is by far the best value Draft pick the franchise has ever made. A star overseas, Kukoc was reluctant at first to jump to the NBA, but eventually he arrived before the start of the 1993-94 season. He was named a second team All-Rookie that year and a couple of seasons later earned the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 1995-96. By that time, Jordan had returned to full-time duty, and Kukoc went on to be a key cog on three Bulls title teams in the late ‘90s.
2. Norm Van Lier, No. 34 in 1969
This was a heck of a pick, though at the time the Bulls didn’t really know what they had in Norm Van Lier. Just prior to the start of his rookie training camp in 1969, Chicago traded Van Lier to Cincinnati for forward Walt Wesley. Two years and 10 games into the 1971-72 season, the Bulls were able right that wrong by making another deal with the Royals, getting Stormin’ Norman back in the fold. With Van Lier behind the wheel, the Bulls enjoyed a great four-year run, going 209-119 (.637) and making two Western Conference Finals appearances. As a Bull, he made three All-Star teams and was named a member of the first or second NBA All-Defensive team seven times.
3. Taj Gibson, No. 26 in 2009
Last season’s late first-round selection of Taj Gibson was one of the best low picks the Bulls have ever made. A 6’9” forward out USC, Gibson was one of only two players to see action in all 82 games last year. He also worked his way into the starting lineup and was named an NBA First-Team All Rookie member, averaging 8.9 points and 7.4 rebounds and 1.27 blocks. Rarely do first-year players picked this low make an impact, let alone start for a playoff team right away.
4. Cliff Ray, No. 40 in 1971
Back in 1971, the 40th pick was a third-round selection, and that year the Bulls grabbed an undersized 6’9” center out of Oklahoma, Clifford Ray. Through grit and determination, Ray became one of the top defensive pivots in the league. But, after two straight Western Conference Finals defeats, the Bulls swung a deal with Golden State for future Hall of Fame center Nate Thurmond in 1974. Ray and Chicago’s first-round pick the following year, which the Warriors later used to select Joe “Jellybean” Bryant (yes, Kobe’s dad!), was the price paid to land Big Nate. Thurmond was 33 years old and entering his 12th season. Chicago’s coach and GM, Dick Motta, was convinced Thurmond was the missing piece. But in the end, it was Ray sipping champagne after he and the Warriors knocked off the Bulls for the Western Conference title, and went on to sweep of the Washington Bullets to capture the 1975 NBA Championship.
5. B.J. Armstrong, No. 18 in 1989
In 1989, the Bulls owned three first-round picks—Nos. 6, 18 and 20. Jerry Krause always had a thing about not drafting kids from Chicago, so he passed on Nick Anderson (No. 11 to Orlando) and Tim Hardaway (No. 14 to Golden State). Instead, Krause went “big” grabbing Oklahoma All-American Stacey King at No. 6. King was a helpful role player during Chicago’s first Threepeat run in the early ‘90s, but it was Krause’s second pick in the first round, a baby-faced sharpshooter from Iowa, who ended up being a major player during that first Threepeat run. In fact, he became a full-time starter in 1992. Two seasons later, he made the All-Star team. Toronto grabbed him in the 1995 expansion draft, and a few months later shipped him to Golden State. After battling injuries and bouncing around between the Warriors, Charlotte and Orlando, Armstrong returned to the Bulls in 1999 to close out his career and later work under Krause in the front office before eventually becoming a player agent, who now represents Derrick Rose.
6. Rod Higgins, No. 31 in 1982
A 6’7” forward out of Fresno State, Rod Higgins was the eigth overall pick in the second-round in 1982. He had two runs with the Bulls during a nomadic 13-year career. He was a classic journeyman playing with eight different teams, including two stints each with both the Bulls and Warriors. He became Michael Jordan’s first friend in Chicago and now works for him in Charlotte. As a rookie, Higgins made 42 starts and averaged 10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 27 minutes.
7. Pete Myers, No. 120 in 1986
Much like Higgins, Pete Myers lived the life of a basketball nomad, playing with eight different teams over nine seasons, as well as playing overseas in Italy. Myers was a sixth-round pick out of Arkansas-Little Rock and another of Jerry Krause’s finds. The Bulls waived him after his rookie season, but brought him back after Michael Jordan retired for the first time. Known as Skeeter Hawk (don’t ask!), Myers took over Jordan’s starting spot and was a key player in that 55-win season and near fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals in 1993-94. He’s since worked as a scout and currently is a Bulls assistant coach.
8. Ron Artest, No. 16 in 1999
Ron Artest is one of the most notorious figures in the NBA due to his starring role in the infamous “Malice in the Palace” brawl in 2004. That night, Artest ran into the stands to fight a beer-tossing Pistons fan. Today he’s creating chaos with the Lakers. But, back in 1999, he was the second first-round pick of the Bulls after Krause grabbed Elton Brand with the first. Artest had three reasonably productive, if somewhat erratic seasons with the Bulls before being traded to Indiana as part of the Jalen Rose deal that basically ruined the Pacers franchise forever.
9. Chris Duhon, No. 38 in 2004
You’d think a guy who was a four-year starter at Duke, who is that school’s all-time leader in steals (300) and minutes played (4,813) and is second in assists (819), would get some respect. Did I mention as a freshman, he directed them to the 2001 NCAA Championship?
Even with all that good stuff on his resume, heady point guard Chris Duhon had to wait until the second-round to hear his name called on Draft night. Duhon quickly became a favorite of Head Coach Scott Skiles for his tough defense and gritty floor leadership. He had four solid seasons with the Bulls before signing a wealthy, two-year deal with the Knicks in 2008. He’s a free agent again this summer.
10. Mark Landsberger, No. 35 in 1977
Power forward Mark Landsberger played only two years in college before jumping to the NBA and ending up as the fourth Bulls Draft pick the year of the infamous Astronaut Draft (Tate Armstrong at No.13; Mike Glenn at No. 23; Steve Sheppard at No. 30).The brawny banger had three solid seasons with the Bulls, averaging 7.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in a little over 20 minutes per game before moving onto the Los Angeles and playing a supporting role on two Lakers Championship teams (1980 and 1982).