It doesn't take a No. 1 pick in the draft to uncover a superstar

Hidden Gems

By Steve Popper


Amare Stoudemire won got milk? Rookie of the Year after going No. 9 in the 2002 NBA Draft.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
2003 early entry candidates
NEW YORK, May 16 -- It seems that this has been the LeBron James lottery since the highly-touted high schooler was in kindergarten. Wasn’t it back then that we first heard of him tossing down reverse jams? Or was it second grade when he dropped 10 three-pointers with more than 200 National Basketball Association scouts watching from the tiny desks lining the court?

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.

LATE STEALS
Recent draft picks and their rookie stats
PLAYER
YEAR
TEAM
PICK
PPG
RPG
APG
Amare Stoudemire
2002
PHO
No. 9
13.5
8.8
1.0
Caron Butler
2002
MIA
No. 10
15.4
5.1
2.7
Richard Jefferson
2001
HOU*
No. 13
9.4
3.7
1.8
Shawn Marion
1999
PHO
No. 9
10.2
6.5
1.4
Paul Pierce
1998
BOS
No. 10
16.5
6.4
2.4
Tracy McGrady
1997
TOR
No. 9
7.0
4.2
1.5
Kobe Bryant
1996
CHA**
No. 13
7.6
1.9
1.3
Michael Finley
1995
PHO
No. 21
15.0
4.6
3.5
Jalen Rose
1994
DEN
No. 13
8.2
2.7
4.8
Sam Cassell
1993
HOU
No. 24
6.7
2.0
2.9
Latrell Sprewell
1992
GSW
No. 24
15.4
3.5
3.8
* Traded to New Jersey
** Traded to L.A. Lakers
“I think it depends on who’s out there,” said Nets’ GM and President Rod Thorn. “If you have a Tim Duncan, an Hakeem Olajuwon, one of those great, great players, I think it’s very important to win the lottery. This year you’ve got LeBron James, who’s got a chance to be a tremendous player. But every year there are guys that slip through. Paul Pierce was drafted at No. 10. Caron Butler last year went at No. 10. And some of those people between No. 1 and No. 10 don’t do very well. Some years, even No. 1 is not very good.”

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.


Steve Popper has spent the last six years following the Knicks and Nets for the New York Times, and has covered the NBA for more than 11 years.