It doesn't take a No. 1 pick in the draft to uncover a superstar
By Steve Popper
Whenever the date really set in that this was the year of LeBron, another bit of reality will set in on May 22 when the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) is held and 12 of the 13 teams in the mix find out that they don’t get the prize that they have been staking their franchises on since falling out of the playoff race.
But there is another bit of reality hidden beneath the headlines and exclamations of LeBron-mania and it is this: You don’t have to win the lottery to win the draft. The list of early entrants is released today and it provides the road map to the draft, the high school phenoms, the one-year college wonders, and the overseas talent, too – clearing up the draft with a who’s who of who is available. And that list should provide the knowledge that there is more than one way to win the draft.
You need only look back at last year to learn the lesson. While the debate raged on whether Yao Ming or Jay Williams should be the No. 1 overall pick, a debate that ended with the 7-foot-5 Yao getting the honors, the teams that lined up below were able to do just fine.
While Yao enjoyed significant success in Houston, the got milk? Rookie of the Year award did not go to him, and it didn’t go to Williams, who struggled through growing pains as a rookie in Chicago. Allow your eyes to drift down the page, remember the rookies rising to greet David Stern at the podium on draft night and keep on going until you reach the ninth player selected, Amare Stoudemire, to find the player who emerged as the best rookie.
Perhaps even more telling is that the third-place finisher for the honor behind Stoudemire and Yao was the No. 10 pick, Caron Butler, and fourth place went to San Antonio’s Emanuel Ginobili, who was selected No. 57 overall in the 1999 draft. And now it has been three straight years that the No. 1 pick did not get the award. So hitting the jackpot in the lottery does not always translate to hitting the heights in the standings.
And Thorn has seen the draft from both sides, plucking out a star of his current team with the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft, Kenyon Martin, but also oversaw the drafting of Michael Jordan in Chicago in 1984. In that draft, the Bulls settled for third with the Houston Rockets getting the top spot and taking Olajuwon, and then Portland skipping Jordan for center Sam Bowie.
“That was a freak thing,” Thorn said. “Portland was in the lottery, and if they had won then Houston would have taken Michael, hands down. When Portland got the No. 2 pick, they had Clyde Drexler and Jim Paxson, and they felt they didn’t need another medium size player. They felt they needed a big guy, and if their doctor said that Sam Bowie was okay, they were going to take him. I knew that a month before the draft. Their doctor said he was okay, so they wound up taking him. I don’t think they even considered it.
“I would have taken Olajuwon if I was No. 1. I don’t know how many teams were in the league then, 26, but everyone would have taken Olajuwon. I would have taken Jordan at No. 2 because I wasn’t a huge Sam Bowie fan and he had a broken leg. But by being No. 3, we fell into Jordan by circumstance. It’s like Phoenix fell into that kid Stoudemire at No. 9 last year when two of the three best rookies went No. 9 and No. 10.”
So while LeBron may be a foregone conclusion to go No. 1 to whoever gets the right spin of the ping-pong balls in the lottery, you just might do pretty well if you tumble down the draft. While the teams that don’t get the top spot sit before the prying eyes of the television cameras, consider this as you try to force a smile – Kobe Bryant went No. 13 in 1996, Tracy McGrady went No. 9 in 1997, and Thorn’s own Richard Jefferson went No. 13 in 2001.
“If you’re not No. 1 it’s not the end of the world,” Thorn said. “This year, you have Carmelo Anthony, who looks like he can be a real good player. You’ve got the kid, Darko Milicic from Yugoslavia, who is more of a risk in that he plays about 18 minutes a game where he is. But he looks like he’s got a lot of talent; he’ll probably be good. If you’re No. 2, Anthony is pretty good.”
And there will someone, whether it is at No. 9, No. 13 or No. 58 – the last spot in the draft – who just might turn out to the one you wanted all along.