The NBA Draft is far from an exact science
Measure For Measure
Tradition has it Sir Isaac Newton was resting beneath an apple tree when an apple fell on his head, urging him to ponder the Universal Law of Gravitation.
Donnie Walsh doesn’t recall any trees inside Churchland High School, site of the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, though a similar brush with the principles of modern physics and gravity remains etched in his mind when contemplating the NBA Draft.
“Somebody shot the ball and it took a long bounce into the corner, and he got out there and got it, and when he got it, I kind of thought he was going to hold it and throw it out to one of the other players,” Walsh said. “He then turned and just took the ball to the goal and dunked on everybody. And it wasn’t so much that he did that, because he was big, but it was how quick he was. It just happened like lightning.”
Foster was later selected by Golden State with the 21st overall pick, forcing Walsh to engineer a trade -- surrendering a future first round pick and the draft rights to Vonteego Cummings (No. 26) -- to secure the “apple” of his eye. Foster has since developed into one of the league’s top rebounders and a reliable frontcourt presence.
“That play was the one that really caught my eye,” Walsh added. “I didn’t think he was going to take the ball and try to throw down on the whole team. It showed me aggressiveness that you really want with a big guy.”
The NBA Draft is far from an exact science. Its subtleties and intricacies are best explained through anecdotes told by some of the league’s most influential and experienced draft experts, who venture through each step of the process, hoping to arrive at logical conclusions in the form of shrewd selections. The following are some examples, spread out among the different stages of evaluation.
The College Season
Walsh’s expertise wasn’t limited to random moments of clarity, much to the dismay of his colleagues. It’s been well documented how in 1987 he ignored the cries of the Hoosier faithful and drafted Reggie Miller instead of Steve Alford. He wasn’t the only potential suitor at the dance.
“I remember watching Reggie in the Pac-10 Tournament, I believe, and just falling in love with him,” said John Nash, who was General Manager of the Sixers back then and occupies that same post now with Portland. “He was playing at home and had a monster 39-point performance, but unfortunately my colleague Donnie Walsh took him at No. 11, and I wasn’t picking until 16.”
Several years later as GM of Washington in 1992, Nash’s love for a particular player didn’t go unrequited. An early season scouting trip led him to North Carolina State, where he became enamored with Tom Gugliotta, who was still on the board when Washington was picking sixth.
“I went to see him and I went away saying to myself, this guy is going to be a long-term solid player, because he did a little of everything,” said Nash. “Injuries have taken their toll later in his career, but at his peak, Tom was pretty much what I thought he would become in the league.”
Miller, on the other hand, showed amazing durability throughout his 18-year career, thanks in large part to having solid protection. Dale Davis, who Walsh took with the 13th pick in 1991, was one of Miller’s trusted body guards.
“He was the top rebounder in the ACC for three years, and yet, if you see Dale in a camp situation, he’s not going to stand out, because he’s not a scorer,” said Walsh. “In the pre-draft camp settings, the guards tend to dominate the ball and the big guys don’t get a real chance. But, I’d seen enough of Dale to know that he could provide the toughness, rebounding and defense that would really help us.”
The Pre-Draft Camps
No discussion of the league’s pre-draft camp history is complete without mentioning Scottie Pippen’s performance at the PIT in 1987; Dan Majerle in 1988; and Tim Hardaway in 1989. Jamal Crawford took the Chicago camp by storm in 2000, going in as a potential second-round pick and eventually becoming the eighth overall selection.
These days, with many of the top prospects electing to bypass the pre-draft camp circuit, these venues have become more about a player securing a spot in round two, or making a monumental leap into the latter part of round one.
General Managers still see them as a valuable tool in identifying players that may have slipped through the cracks.
“The more avenues you can see players in, the more information you gather,” said Hawks GM Billy Knight. “We’re in the information business when it comes to evaluating players, and the more info you have, the better off you’ll be when making a decision. I enjoy the PIT. I think it’s been valuable.”
In 2004, Royal Ivey of Texas came to Portsmouth hoping to generate some interest. His performance didn’t yield a subsequent invite to Chicago, but it was some of the little things that caught Knight’s eye, which led him to spend the 37th pick on Ivey.
“Royal is physical, he’s tough and he competes all the time. He loves to play. He has heart. A lot of times those things don’t show up,” said Knight. “Whether it’s hustling back on a play, or sticking his nose in there on a defensive set, or getting back and taking a charge. He’s just a tough, hard-nosed guy who competes. That will always give a guy a chance, and Royal has a chance to be an NBA player.”
The Individual Workouts
Not surprisingly, Miller scored big points in a shooting drill.
“When Reggie came in he was making shots practically from halfcourt, and releasing those shots with ease. You knew that he was going to be someone who could shoot the ball comfortably,” said Knight. “When the drill was finished, Reggie still wanted to stay out there and shoot. He didn’t feel he made as many as he would like.”
In Harrington’s case, it was the sheer physicality of his workout that led the Pacers brass to believe he would eventually become a valuable NBA player.
“We brought Al in for a workout and he literally moved people out of the way with his body,” said Knight. “He was just so big and strong you knew that his body was going to be such that he’d be able to handle the punishment of the NBA and dish it out.”
In 1995, Garnett conducted a private workout in Chicago for approximately 100 people representing teams in the lottery. And he didn’t disappoint.
“It was a special workout. Here was a young man when it wasn’t yet fashionable to draft high school players, who was so impressive that he went five. He just put on a phenomenal performance,” said Nash. “Having said that, I opted to pass on him. I had the fourth pick and I chose Rasheed Wallace, because he had two years of seasoning in college. That was obviously an opportunity that Kevin McHale seized.”
In Bryant’s case, Nash was working for the Nets who had the eighth pick in 1996 and wanted to select Bryant.
“In our workouts in New Jersey with Bryant, you could tell he was special. We were very close to drafting him. The story’s been chronicled many times,” Nash said. “The long and the short of it is, we didn’t get him.”
In many cases, it’s the last hurdle in the process and can carry just as much weight as a dynamic on-the-court showing.
“It’s like anything else. When a guy shows up for an interview in jeans and a sweatshirt, you know his heart’s not in it,” said Nash.
In 2003, Walsh was intrigued with James Jones’ potential, having scouted him at Miami and watching him perform during the pre-draft camps. Getting a feel for the type of person he is made grabbing him in the second round (49th overall) a slam dunk.
“I can remember I thought he had great potential because of his shooting ability, athleticism and length,” Walsh said. “And then, getting to know him, meeting him. This guy’s a four-year college graduate and it’s a completely different experience in dealing with him, because he’s a man. He’s very serious and does every single thing you ask him to do. Very serious about improving his game. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be in the NBA for 10-plus years.”
As with anything in life, the draft is filled with unexpected twists and turns, and in the case of Stanley Roberts in 1991, unexpected fluctuations.
“Stanley played overseas just before his draft year, Nash said. “I went over to watch him play and he played very effectively. From the time the European season ended, through June when we were conducting workouts, he gained a significant amount weight and was terribly out of shape when he went through the workouts. His stock dropped tremendously and he was drafted 23rd when some people thought he was a top-10 talent.
“Unfortunately, that was a characteristic of his career, in that, nobody would argue that Stanley Roberts had the talent to be a long-term NBA player, but he didn’t have the determination, and as a result, he was often out of shape and often unable to compete.”
A hand injury in 2002 kept Oregon’s Fred Jones from going full-tilt in Chicago. That didn’t stop Isiah Thomas from taking an interest and passing his feelings onto Walsh, who made Jones the 14th pick, when most had him pegged for the late first round.
“Isiah brought him to my attention and I could never figure out why, because the guy was hurt,” said Walsh. “Because Isiah seemed really interested, I went back and watched a lot of Freddie’s games on film and what I saw was that he was a great athlete and in his senior year he really delivered in the clutch.
“He had two great teammates (Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour), and what I saw was that when the game got close, they looked at him and he made all the big shots. I kind of looked at him as a Vinnie Johnson type of guy but more athletic.”
In 2003, before Nash was hired as General Manager, Portland had zeroed in on Viktor Khryapa of CSKA Moscow. Khryapa eventually withdrew his name from the draft, but the Blazers remained interested and continued to scout him and view tapes of his games. During that process, the team became interested in Khryapa’s teammate with CSKA Moscow, Sergei Monia.
“Our international scout was very high on Monia,” said Nash. “And so, because we had an extra pick that we had purchased from New Jersey, we made the decision to take Khryapa and even though we knew Monia didn’t have a buyout, we were prepared to draft him just on potential. We also liked the fact that he was going to go back and play another year. We expect he’ll join us this year.”
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