Under Walsh, Pacers Moved Away From Guesswork at Draft
Time was, teams approached the NBA Draft with muttered prayers and crossed fingers. They conducted no pre-draft workouts or interviews, just rolled the dice based on what they had seen of a player in college or international play.
For all but the elite players, it was even more of a crapshoot. With so little interaction going on between employers and future employees, players sat back on draft day and hoped the phone would ring. If it did, they rarely had a clue who might be on the other end.
It's evolved, to say the least. Today, most NBA teams bring in players six at a time for drills and competitive halfcourt games, and that's after having stalked them through their seasons and pored over recordings of any of their games they care to see, and then scouted them in pre-draft camps where they are poked, prodded, interviewed, and auditioned in drills and scrimmages.
The Pacers, who own the 23rd pick in the 2018 Draft, conducted five announced workouts with six players each, and brought in another player, Jalen Brunson, for an individual session. Front office executives, the scouting staff, and the coaching staff attended each one, focusing their collective gaze on the talent.
All this was inevitable, probably, given the competitive environment of professional sports and the technologies available to evaluate players. Today's system makes the drafts of past decades seem more like games of darts, which isn't to say there weren't bullseyes.
Take Darnell Hillman, for example. The Pacers did, in 1971, when he was in the Army. He had come to their attention after being voted Most Valuable Player in a national AAU tournament while playing for the Armed Forces team. Hillman found out about it while riding in an Army bus following a practice. A teammate reading a newspaper shouted, "Hey, Darnell, you've been drafted!" Hillman, who knew nothing of the American Basketball Association, much less the Pacers, frowned and said, "What are you talking about? You can't be drafted twice. I'm already sitting here doing my time."
That wasn't an unusual case in that era. Teams made their choice without meeting the player and the drafted player took a phone call — sometimes after learning of his selection in a newspaper.
The process hadn't changed that much by 1982, when the Pacers selected Clark Kellogg with the eighth overall pick. He had flown to Dallas to talk with Mavericks officials, who had the fourth pick, and been visited in his native Columbus, Ohio by Chicago Bulls general manager Rod Thorn, who controlled the seventh pick. He had not spoken with anyone from the Pacers' front office, whose members assumed Kellogg would be gone by the time their turn came around.
Dallas and Chicago both passed on Kellogg, and lived to regret it. The Mavericks took Bill Garnett and the Bulls took Quintin Dailey while the Pacers gleefully grabbed Kellogg, who had been voted the Big Ten Conference's Most Valuable Player out of Ohio State his junior season.
When Kellogg slipped to the Pacers, Indiana didn't hesitate with the selection of the Ohio State forward. (NBAE/Getty Images)
Reggie Miller is believed to be the first future Pacers player brought in for a pre-draft interview, in 1987. Donnie Walsh had taken over as general manager the previous year but also kept his pre-draft process as secretive as possible to avoid tipping off other teams. He had drafted Chuck Person without an interview or workout in 1986 to help convince the rest of the league he was going after a big man with his pick. He had personally scouted Person during Auburn's regular season, however, and felt confident in taking the future Rookie of the Year.
Walsh slipped Miller into town the following year, but only for an interview. Miller met with Walsh, coach Jack Ramsay, and assistant coach Mel Daniels, but they showed no particular interest in drafting him with the 11th pick, he once recalled. In fact, he felt he had received a collective cold shoulder, particularly from Daniels, who opposed drafting him because of his slender build.
"It was just a meet-and-greet," Miller said in 2005. "I was just in and out."
Miller went on to play 18 seasons for the Pacers, still stands as their all-time leading scorer, and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He also became such a good friend of Daniels that he flew to Indianapolis to speak at his funeral service in 2015.
Rik Smits became the first player to audition for the Pacers the following year, when they had the second overall pick. With Walsh and Ramsay watching, he went one-on-one with Daniels, who as a 6-foot-9 center had twice been named the ABA's Most Valuable Player. Daniels was 43 years old at the time and had been retired from his Hall of Fame playing career for more than a decade.
"I had the idea Mel wasn't crazy about me," Smits recalled. "I was this no-name guy from a small school. But I remember he took a shot that I blocked, and I could tell he was thinking, This guy isn't so bad. Maybe I changed his mind a little bit."
Walsh recalls that Smits left a positive impression.
"When he finished working out, Jack walked over and said, 'Donnie, you've got to take this guy.'
"That was a very generous thing for him to do. He knew this kid wasn't likely to help him right away, but he said, 'You have to take this guy for the sake of the franchise.'"
The 7-foot-4 Smits, who went on to play 12 seasons for the Pacers and become their second-leading scorer in their history behind Miller, got the last laugh on the skeptical Daniels, although unintentionally.
"Later we went to lunch," Walsh said. "We're sitting there and Rik goes, 'So you played center for the Pacers?' Mel said yes. And Rik looks at him and goes, 'Kind of little.'
"I thought Mel was going to eat the table, he was so mad."
After matching up with Mel Daniels in a pre-draft workout, Smits believed he held his own. (NBAE/Getty Images)
Pre-draft workouts were the norm throughout the league from that point on, but for years would remain solo auditions. One of the more memorable ones for Walsh involved Dale Davis in 1991. The Pacers had scouted him extensively in his senior season with Clemson and Walsh believed he would fill their need for an aggressive rebounder.
Davis wasn't being brought in to score and it would be impossible to measure rebounding in a solo workout, so all that was left for Walsh to measure was the 6-11 forward's mental toughness. He put Davis through a demanding workout to make sure he was worthy of the 13th overall pick, having him run fullcourt at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport on the IUPUI campus, dunking at each end, along with other intense drills.
At one point Davis dunked the ball, ran off the court and vomited into a nearby waste basket, then immediately continued the drill. That was all Walsh needed to see. Davis backed up his reputation for intimidation in his first NBA game. He signed late after a contract holdout and missed the first 10 games. He made his debut on Nov. 18 against Detroit. Coming off the bench late in the first half, he needed just seven seconds off the game clock to block a shot by Orlando Woolridge and put Woolridge on his back.
The Pacers won the game by 18 points. Pistons guard Isiah Thomas made a point of shaking hands with Davis afterward and Davis went on to play 16 NBA seasons — largely because of his toughness.
Walsh considered Davis one of his savviest selection, given where he got him, who else was available and how much Davis contributed to the teams of the 1990s. He considered the selection of Travis Best with the 23rd overall pick in 1995 to be equally successful.
"To already have a good team and then to have him come off the bench..." Walsh mused.
Best's availability to the Pacers was the result of a confluence of circumstances that were unfortunate for him but fortunate for the franchise. It was an example of the small fateful twists that have a major influence on a player's career and a team's fortunes.
Best's college career at Georgia Tech ended prematurely when the team wasn't invited to play in the NCAA tournament. The players turned down an invitation to the NIT — "prima donnas, I guess," Best says now — so he lost out on a prime opportunity for national exposure.
Still, he had averaged 20.2 points his senior season, leading the ACC in scoring until the final game of the regular season when Joe Smith, who wound up going first in the draft, took over the lead. He was regarded as one of the elite point guards in the draft, along with Damon Stoudamire of Arizona and Randolph Childress of Wake Forest.
Best, though, was injured in a pickup game after the season when he dove on the floor, skidded and suffered third-degree burns on his left hand — a major problem for a left-handed point guard. He competed in a pre-draft camp in Phoenix while wearing a heavy wrap, but wasn't able to shoot or handle the ball well.
Travis Best knew he was on the Pacers' radar when he was drafted. (NBAE/Getty Images)
He later had an individual workout with Charlotte, which owned the 22nd pick, but was out of shape because of his injury and out of the loop on how to prepare for an NBA audition. Hornets officials put him through a grueling session, with shuttle drills to test his quickness and fullcourt drills to check his ability to pull up and score in transition.
"They basically ran me ragged," he said. "By the end of the workout I was shooting nothing but air balls. I knew I wouldn't be going there."
Finally up to speed on the process, he went to Chicago for the major pre-draft gathering, which included drills and scrimmages before multiple officials from every NBA team. There, he saw players who were likely lottery selections come in to be measured and interviewed but not needing to prove themselves in the workouts. Best believed he belonged in that group, and would have been if not for the abrupt ending to his college season, his injury and his naivete during his earlier pre-draft experiences.
"They were all happy, knowing they had it made," Best said. "I had to work out and earn my keep. That put a chip on my shoulder."
By his own estimation he dominated in Chicago. His teams went undefeated and he "destroyed" each of his individual defenders. So, when he followed that by working out for the Pacers he felt totally prepared. He was in shape and he shot exceptionally well. With no other workouts scheduled, he left Indianapolis absolutely confident he wouldn't get past them in the draft. And he didn't.
Walsh's predominant memory of drafting Best is that everyone had agreed on him as the pick heading into the draft if he was available. But when Walsh picked up the telephone to report the selection to league officials, coach Larry Brown suddenly suggested taking Rashard Griffith, a center. Walsh stared hard at Brown as he declared loudly and clearly, "Travis Best!"
Which is another lesson of the draft. While you have to remain flexible and ready for last-minute adjustments, you have to stick to a plan and avoid last-minute impulses.
Griffith wound up going 38th to Milwaukee, and never played in the NBA. Charlotte, the other team that worked out Best, selected center George Zidek, who bounced between three teams over three forgettable NBA seasons before returning to Europe.
Best was a byproduct of the fickle nature of the NBA draft and proof that uncontrollable circumstances can sway a franchise's fortunes for better or worse. Had he been healthier and/or better informed of the pre-draft process, he probably would have gone 22nd to Charlotte, or higher.
He turned out to be a valuable backup and part-time starter in 6 ½ seasons with the Pacers, best known for hitting a critical 3-pointer in the final game of the first-round series with Milwaukee in 2000, which averted a disastrous conclusion to Larry Bird's coaching career and propelled a run to the NBA Finals.
The Pacers should be happy if the investment of all their manpower, analysis and expense produces someone as valuable with this year's 23rd pick.
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