I’ve been asked to write a column about the top 10 sleepers as far as selecting players for the NBA Draft. We like to define a sleeper as someone who our office and the league office is cognizant about but is not known to the NBA constabulary and the general public. I’ve been doing this for more than six decades and for most of that time there were an ample supply of relatively unknown players who might fit the categorization of a sleeper.
But in the early years of the NBA Draft, it was a laborious process of 15 rounds or less and the total number of players who could fit into the sleeper context was often the subject of controversy. Simply stated, rarely did a sleeper make his bones in the NBA. There were too many players to scout or sign and teams often passed on their later picks deep into the session. When the sixties passed into the seventies and the eighties, the Draft would eventually be cut down to its present two rounds. Even with the opportunity to add more scouting personnel here and abroad, and scouting tools not available to people of my generation, there still seems to be more “unknown” type players awaiting discovery.
Here’s my top 10 (with a bonus) and eventually we will include another list of players who made it in the league while failing to get drafted. The fact that some of my so-called sleeper contingent were taken in the first two rounds does not hide the fact that few outside the confines of the NBA had ever heard of these people prior to draft day.
1) Scottie Pippen (Central Arkansas) – Drafted in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft as the fifth pick by Seattle and then traded to the Chicago Bulls for Olden Polynice who was taken as the seventh pick in the first round
I had invited a player named J.P. Lovelady (Arkansas Tech) to come to our rookie summer camp in the 1960s when I was GM of the St. Louis Hawks. He was 6-5 ½ and 210 and played both the two and the three and I felt I really had a sleeper since I knew I didn’t even have to draft him. I felt I had discovered another Jerry Sloan and planned to sign him when he arrived in St. Louis. As fate would have it, he was killed in an auto accident before our camp. I made arrangements for flowers and to attend his funeral.
Going quickly forward, near 20 years later I received a call from Archie Jones, who reminded me that he was a freshman on the Arkansas Tech team when Lovelady was a senior. He was now an assistant coach at Central Arkansas and had a junior player who he said had NBA potential. He reminded me of my interest in Lovelady and said, “You have to see this kid play.” He pointed out that Pippen was a little older and more mature than most college players.
I told everyone about him and some teams sent scouts to see him that next season but few turned in glowing reports. An associate of Chicago’s Jerry Krause told him the game was like a YMCA church league game and you couldn’t tell a thing. M.K. Turk, the genial head coach of Southern Mississippi, came to the rescue. He scheduled Central Arkansas on his fall schedule. I flew down to Hattiesburg unannounced, bought a ticket and sat way up in the stands to watch Pippen score 37 (more or less). A quick call to the PIT headquarters earned him an invite to that tourney and the rest is history. Credit Krause for making the moves to get him; Portland was ready to grab him at No. 6 until Jerry switched deals with the Sonics. Scottie played 17 years in the NBA.
2) John Stockton (Gonzaga) – Drafted with the 16th pick in the first round of the 1984 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz
I knew about Stockton since one of our bird-digs had visited the Bing Crosby Museum in Spokane on the campus of Gonzaga (Bing was a graduate of that institution). An invite to Portsmouth brought him an invite to Hawaii for the now defunct Aloha Classic and then to our pre-draft camp in Chicago. He probably should have made the Olympic team that year but everyone questioned his height, except Frank Layden that is, who took him 16th. He only played 19 years in the NBA and was named one of the 50 greatest players of the first 50 years (as was Pippen).
3) Jack Sikma (Illinois Wesleyan) – Drafted with the eighth pick in the first round of the 1977 NBA Draft by Seattle
A two-time NAIA All-American, Sikma used his senior year to polish his game against Division I teams. I made a three-day trip following his team as they played successive days against Jacksonville, Florida and Florida State. Then I urged people to see him against DePaul in Chicago. I think he scored something like 27 or 30 points with double-digit rebound figures, but few really zeroed in on him. Lenny Wilkens, then coaching Seattle, and one of his early coaches, Bob Hopkins, really liked him and grabbed him early. He played 14 years in the league and now is an assistant coach for the Sonics.
4) Maurice Cheeks (West Texas State) – Drafted in the 2nd round with the 36th pick of the 1978 NBA Draft by Philadelphia
Maurice helped Philadelphia to the ’83 NBA title. He holds the all-time Philadelphia assists and steals mark and was named to five All-Defensive Teams. He played 16 years in the NBA and made the playoffs in 13 of those years. He is currently the head coach of Philadelphia, his second season there after four seasons in Portland.
5) Karl Malone (Louisiana Tech) – Drafted in the first round with the 13th pick of the ’84 NBA Draft.
There were plenty of skeptics regarding his ability even after I had 30 or more NBA people watch him play against Joe Dumars (McNeese State) in Lake Charles, La. his junior year. He played 19 years as a partner of one of the most potent twosomes in NBA history with Stockton. Malone is a member of the 50th anniversary team (with Stockton), was the league’s MVP in 1997 and 1999 and was named to the All-NBA First Team 11 times (Second Team twice). He played on the winning U.S. Olympic teams in 1992 and 1996 and holds too many team and league records to mention.
6) Bill Laimbeer (Notre Dame) – Drafted in the third round with the 65th pick of the 1979 NBA Draft and traded to Detroit in 1982 after spending one year in Italy and a year and a half in Cleveland.
After averaging only 7.4 points per game at Notre Dame in three years, he became one of the most feared rebounders in the league. He played in all 113 playoff games over a nine year career with Detroit and played a total of 14 years in the league. Bill was part of the famed Bad Boys of the Pistons, played on two title teams (’89 and ’90), appeared in four All-Star Games and still remains the team’s all-time leading rebounder. He has been the head coach of the WNBA Detroit Shock since 2002 and has won two WNBA titles.
7) Alex English (South Carolina) – Drafted in the second round of the 1976 Draft by Milwaukee as the 23rd pick.
Wayne Embry, who drafted him, credits me with supplying him the information that enabled him to take English in the second round. Alex played in 10 playoffs and averaged 24.4 ppg to go with a career mark of 21.5 ppg. English played 16 years in the NBA, totaling 1,193 games and played in eight All-Star Games. He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
8) Terry Porter (Wisconsin-Stevens Point) – Drafted in the first round of the 1985 NBA Draft by Portland with the 24th pick.
He was a Small College All-American who won numerous honors as a collegian and earned postseason invites to Hawaii. He played 17 years in the NBA scoring on a 12.2 ppg clip over 1,274 games (15,586 total points). His playoff mark of 14.7 ppg covers 124 games over 16 years.
9) Paul Silas (Creighton) – Drafted in the second round of the 1964 NBA Draft by the St. Louis Hawks as the 12th pick.
He played on three NBA title teams as part of his 16-year career. As a collegian, he set an NCAA mark for the most rebounds in a three year career – 1,751. Paul made five NBA All-Defensive Teams and appeared in 163 playoff games in 14 seasons. He was an assistant coach for four NBA teams – New Jersey, New York, Phoenix, Charlotte – and was a head man for nine years (three with San Diego, four with Charlotte and one each with New Orleans and Cleveland).
10) Ben Wallace (Virginia Union) – Not drafted by any NBA teams. Signed as a free agent with Washington in October of 1996.
He was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006 and All-Defensive First Team from 2002 thru 2006. He played on one title team and has appeared in 93 playoff games (not including this year) and has a rebound per game mark of 10.7.
11) Al Attles (North Carolina A&T) – Drafted in the fifth round by Philadelphia in 1960 as the 39th pick.
He played in 711 games over an 11-year period and appeared in 62 playoff games over a seven-year stretch. He turned to coaching in 1970, winning a total of 557 games against 518 losses – all with Golden State – and currently is completing his 20th year as vice president and assistant general manager of the Warriors.