Building a Franchise, One Draft at a Time

Ever wonder what has made Donnie Walsh one of the most successful NBA Draft decision-makers since he assumed the top spot in the Pacers organization in 1986? We sat down with the franchise Chief Executive Officer and President to discuss the thought processes that led to his most successful draft picks.

These are listed chronologically, not in order of impact or importance. That proved an impossible task, even for Walsh. Consider his answer when asked to name his favorite pick:

“Getting Tony (Davis) with 45 (in 1990) was good work but my favorites will always be the first couple because they were good picks. And taking Rik (Smits) at two (in 1988) and having him turn out when he was really a raw kind of player, I feel good about that. And Dale (Davis) was a great pick (in 1991). Probably, my best was Dale. Yeah, I’d have to pick that one.”

So, you really can’t decide either.

“Nah,” he said with a laugh, “I can’t.”

See if you can.

1986: The Big Bluff

Background: After their fourth straight season of 26 victories or fewer, owners Mel and Herb Simon turned to Donnie Walsh, who had been an assistant coach under George Irvine, to turn around the franchise. In his first draft, Walsh held the fourth overall pick in what was then thought to be a talent-rich group. The first three players picked were Brad Daugherty (Cleveland), Len Bias (Boston) and Chris Washburn (Golden State). That left a group including Chuck Person, Kenny Walker, William Bedford, Roy Tarpley, Ron Harper and Brad Sellers on the board.

The Pick: Person, a 6-8, 225-pound forward from Auburn, would go on to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award after averaging 18.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists while leading the Pacers to a 41-41 record and their first NBA playoff berth since 1981. That turned out to be the best overall season of his six with the Pacers, during which he averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He was traded to Minnesota, along with Micheal Williams for Pooh Richardson and Sam Mitchell on Sept. 8, 1992.

In Walsh’s Words: “We were sitting at four, with Golden State at three and New York at five. Now, New York liked Chuck and I was afraid they were going to trade with Golden State, and I knew Golden State wanted to take a big man. So when they asked me what I was going to do, I told ‘em I was going to go big. Whether it was exactly for that reason or not, they didn’t trade. But I put it out there that I was going for a big guy and when I took Chuck, everybody said I lied - and I did. If you’re going to lie, lie in your first one because then if you tell the truth, they're never sure. I think that pick got me started off as a GM the right way because we picked a guy who would become Rookie of the Year and we made the playoffs for just the second time in the NBA history of the franchise.”

1987: Offending Hoosier Nation

Background: Coming off that turnaround season in 1986-87, the Pacers held the 11th pick. David Robinson went to San Antonio with the No. 1 pick, followed by Armon Gilliam (Phoenix), Dennis Hopson (New Jersey) and Reggie Williams (L.A. Clippers). When the Pacers picked, the top names on the board were Reggie Miller, Muggsy Bogues, Joe Wolf, Tellis Frank, Jose Ortiz, Christian Welp, Ronnie Murphy, Mark Jackson and Ken Norman. But the local populace was enthralled by 6-2 guard Steve Alford, who had led Indiana University to a national championship.

The Pick: Miller’s selection was wildly unpopular at the time but turned out to be the greatest player of the franchise’s modern era. After spending a year backing up John Long at shooting guard, Miller moved into the starting lineup and by his third season averaged 24.6 points. Still a starter, he ranks among the top 15 scorers in NBA history and is the league’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals made and attempted.

In Walsh’s Words: “Going into that draft, I thought we needed a point guard and so I was looking at Kevin Johnson. As time went on, I realized Kevin was going to go to Cleveland (at No. 7 overall), which didn’t make sense to me but it got to the point where I knew it was going to happen. That’s when I looked at Reggie and when I really focused on him, I knew I was taking him. I also knew I was going to take a lot of grief over Steve Alford, but I was really confident Reggie was going to be a heck of a player. He was a great shooter but he was a better player than what people thought. I feel good about that because Reggie has become better than everyone, including me, expected. The I.U. fans forgave me, I think, within three years because by then Reggie had averaged 25 a game. I always thought Steve would be a good coach; in fact, I told him that. And he ended up being a good coach.”

1988: Center of Attention

Background: One of the least alluring draft classes in recent history featured a clear No. 1 pick in Danny Manning, but mostly uncertainty thereafter. The Pacers, with the best record of all the lottery teams, nevertheless got lucky and won the No. 2 pick. Avoiding the whirlwind of trades that swept across the top of the draft board, the Pacers knew they would pick from a group of players that included Rik Smits, Charles Smith, Chris Morris, Mitch Richmond, Hersey Hawkins, Rex Chapman and Rony Seikaly.

The Pick: A 7-4 center from tiny Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, Smits was considered a long-term project who could develop slowly behind solid veteran center Steve Stipanovich. But Stipanovich was stricken with a mysterious bone disorder in his knee and never played again, forcing Smits into a much more prominent role than he was prepared to absorb. A productive scorer immediately, it took time for Smits to develop into a true force in the low post but he did, landing in the All-Star Game in 1998. In his 12-season career, all with the Pacers, he averaged 14.8 points and 6.1 rebounds. He retired after the team reached the NBA Finals in 2000.

In Walsh’s Words: “I wanted a center, and the choice was between Rik and Rony Seikaly. I wanted to move Stipo to the four and I thought that if we had Stipo, we could bring Rik along slowly. I looked at Seikaly and Rik, and I thought they were both good. But Rik was 7-4 and the one thing I could see with Rik in games is that the guy could really shoot. Then I brought him in here and Jack Ramsay worked him out and he came over to me and said, ‘You’ve got to take this guy.’ And it wasn’t in Jack’s interest to say that because he needed time to develop. As it turned out, he didn’t get much time to develop because Stipo got hurt that year.”

1990: Going Deep

Background: A series of old deals had left the Pacers without their first-round pick (No. 14 overall) or their original second-round pick (No. 40 overall), but they did have picks 45 and 46 in the second round. The 45th pick, in fact, came as part of the package in the 1989 deal that sent Herb Williams to Dallas for Detlef Schrempf. So in addition to acquiring Schrempf, who quickly became a star with the Pacers, they also acquired a pick that could be used on a future All-Star. There were a number of solid players on the board when the Pacers picked, including Antonio Davis, Kenny Williams, Derek Strong and Cedric Ceballos.

The Picks: With the first of their consecutive picks, Walsh chose Antonio Davis, a 6-9 power forward from Texas El-Paso. With the next choice, he grabbed 6-9 small forward Kenny Williams from Elizabeth City (NC) State. Williams, a spectacular dunker, made the roster at age 21 and played 75 games as a rookie. In four seasons with the Pacers, he averaged 4.8 points and 2.7 rebounds before taking his career overseas. Davis, meanwhile, started out in Europe developing his physique and game for three seasons before, joining the Pacers in 1993 and having an immediate impact. In six seasons with Indiana, used almost exclusively as a reserve, he averaged 9.0 points and 6.6 rebounds. Davis was traded to Toronto in 1999 for the draft rights to the No. 5 pick used on Jonathan Bender.

In Walsh’s Words: “I can remember coming in (to his scouting staff) and saying, ‘Look, this is who we should try to get. I know who I want and what we’ve got to figure is how this draft’s going to go to see if we can get these guys.’ One was Tony, and the other was Kenny. We actually projected that draft all the way down to 45. We absolutely knew we were going to get those two. We needed athletes that were big, and they were big athletes – but they were better than that. I would’ve wanted Tony right away but I was glad he went to Europe forst. With Kenny, it was not basketball, it was off the court. He was just too young to absorb the pro life but when I look back on it, Kenny was very young when he played here and he won games at that age. He played some great basketball.”

1991: The Old Heave-Ho

Background: A team historically deep in shooters but shallow when it came to blue-collar players, the Pacers had a definite need for a rebounder to complement Smits in the frontcourt. Holding the 13th pick, they had a number of options on the board including Dale Davis, Rich King, Anthony Avent, Chris Gatling and Victor Alexander. Davis had impressed the Pacers with a pre-draft workout that became the stuff of legend. After running 20 length-of-the-court circuits, Davis walked off the floor and vomited into a nearby trash can. Assuming the workout was over, several coaches and scouts began to gather their coats and put away their pens. But rather than stopping, Davis simply walked over to Walsh and said, ‘What’s next?’

The Pick: Davis became the rebounder, defender, shot-blocker and enforcer the Pacers needed in their run to elite status in the 1990s. He averaged 9.4 points and 9.0 rebounds in nine seasons, reaching the All-Star Game in 2000. He was traded to Portland on Aug. 31, 2000 in exchange for Jermaine O’Neal.

In Walsh’s Words: “I liked that (workout moment) because it showed me he wasn’t going to bother with getting sick. He might not’ve been in shape but he just threw up in the trash can and kept going. I knew he was tough. I knew we needed a rebounder. I started looking at this guy and I knew there was nothing pretty about him, but he was getting every rebound. Then I started doing my homework on him and when I came out of it, I knew I wanted him. All the guys in the ACC that I talked to, including some players we had in here for workouts, when you mentioned Dale they’d say, ‘He’s a man. He terrorizes the guys in our league.’

”He was the high rebounder in the ACC for three years, and that’s really unusual. If you can be the best rebounder in the ACC three years in a row, you’re a great rebounder. That, and the way other guys talked about him, made me realize, ‘This guy’s for real. They’re afraid of him.’ That’s why I knew I wanted to take him. Now, that’s probably the most lying I did in any draft because I was really afraid somebody was going to jump in front of me. Everybody was saying to me, ‘Nobody’s going to take him at 13.’ Sure enough, the day of the draft, Milwaukee and Del Harris moved to 15 (in a trade with Atlanta), which made it real easy for them to jump to 13. I really had to sweat that one out because they wanted Dale. That’s why we didn’t let anyone know what we were doing.”

1995: Guarded Optimism

Background: After relying upon Vern Fleming and Haywoode Workman at the point the previous two seasons, Walsh wanted to add a different element to the backcourt – namely speed and offensive punch. Holding the 23rd pick, he knew he had to take a chance. The highest-rated players on the board at the time were Travis Best, Loren Meyer, David Vaughn and Sherell Ford. The Pacers also had one of the final picks in that draft, No. 52 overall.

The Pick: Best, a 5-11 point guard from Georgia Tech, didn’t become a star but was a solid, productive reserve for seven seasons, averaging 8.1 points and 3.8 assists. He finally got the chance to start in 2000-01 and responded by averaging career bests of 11.9 points and 6.1 assists. He lost the starting job to rookie Jamaal Tinsley in 2001-02 and was included in the seven-player trade with Chicago that brought Ron Artest, Brad Miller and Ron Mercer to the Pacers on Feb. 19, 2002. With the No. 52 pick, Walsh chose Fred Hoiberg. Nicknamed “the Mayor” for his popularity as a star at Iowa State, Hoiberg made the roster and averaged 3.9 points in four seasons before leaving the Pacers to sign with Chicago.

In Walsh’s Words: “We needed a point guard. I knew (Georgia Tech coach) Bobby Cremins, so I went down and watched Travis play and I knew he had been an unbelievable scorer in high school. I mean, he had 84 points in a 32-minute game once. I just liked him. I thought he could get away with being as short as he was and being a scoring point guard. I also thought he was great defensively, and we didn’t have that kind of quickness. That was a good place to pick him because, for whatever reason, he wasn’t being talked-up, maybe because of his size. But he was so strong, I knew he could play. As for Freddie, he obviously was a big-time college player, and he was a great athlete who could shoot. But he was also a great guy to have on your team. It shows you can find guys deep in the draft. He was at 52, and he’s still in the league.”

1998: Change in Philosophy

Background: Coming off a stirring season in which they pushed the mighty Chicago Bulls to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers had few immediate needs, and knew it was unrealistic to expect the 25th pick in the draft to have an impact right away. But Walsh knew the roster was beginning to show age and it would be a good time to take a chance on a younger player who could take time to develop. Though he had been an outspoken advocate of drafting players with college experience, Walsh knew two talented high school players would be on the board when he picked: Al Harrington and Rashard Lewis, but he also was intrigued by Cincinnati forward Ruben Patterson.

The Pick: The first prep player drafted that year, Harrington played sparingly his first two seasons but moved into a more prominent role in 2000-01, averaging 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds. He was one of the top Sixth Man Award contenders with averages of 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds when he suffered a severe knee injury midway through the 2001-02 season. He bounced back last season and played in all 82 games, averaging 12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds.

In Walsh’s Words: “We had a really deep team and a good team. I didn’t think anybody we’d pick was going to make our team. I had a tough time choosing between Al and Ruben Patterson because I thought Ruben was good. But in the long run I thought Ruben probably wouldn’t play for us in the next couple of years, so I’d be better off taking a high school guy who can develop. We were getting old. It was just a great position to take a player in. There was another high school player there (Rashard Lewis) and I took Al ahead of him and that kid turned out to be pretty darned good for Seattle. So both high school guys turned out to be worth the pick. At the time, I didn’t know what to think (about taking a high school player), actually. But I started thinking, ‘You’ve got to risk a little bit.’ When you get deep in the playoffs, you get beat by great players and we weren’t picking high enough to get a great player – other than if we just lucked out with a high school guy. So that’s what I did the next couple of years when we had really good teams.”

1999: Rolling the Dice

Background: The Pacers reached the Conference Finals for the second year in a row and had a stable roster, not to mention a head coach (Larry Bird) who wasn’t one for playing young talents. So Walsh, who entered the draft without a first-round pick, seized upon a chance to continue building for the future. The result was perhaps the most controversial move of his career.

The Pick: Walsh traded Antonio Davis, a popular and productive veteran, to Toronto in exchange for the draft rights for the No. 5 pick used on 6-11 high school forward Jonathan Bender of Picayune, MS. While Davis went on to become a full-time starter and All-Star with the Raptors, Bender has yet to fulfill his potential, averaging 15.3 minutes and 5.5 points in four seasons as a reserve. Walsh, however, remains convinced this deal not only worked to the Pacers’ advantage right away, but for the future.

In Walsh’s Words: “The year before I made that trade, Tony had come to me and said, because of his career, he thought he had to start and if he wasn’t going to start, he might ask me for a trade. After that season, he came to me and said, ‘That’s what I’d like you to do, if you can do it.’ I told him I’d look at it and see if there was something we could do. So we did the trade, and we took Bender because he was such a phenomenal talent. We also knew we had to wait on Bender. Our plan was to put Austin (Croshere) there (in the backup forward spot vacated by Davis) because we had to find out if he could play. When I look at that team, the one thing I didn’t really expect was the effect Austin had because we ended up going to the Finals and Austin was probably one of the big reasons why. Instead of having two Davises, we had a guy that stepped out on the floor, but he could rebound and he could score. It just gave us a different dimension than we had the year before, so it really worked out well for that team.

”I’ve heard people say, ‘If you had Tony, you would’ve won it.’ I don’t know what their thinking is. Tony couldn’t guard Shaq, so what are we talking about here? We had Sam Perkins that year, so we were covered, defensively, at center. I have the exact same feeling about Bender that I did about Rik Smits, that people are being highly critical, saying ‘This guy’s not any good, this guy’s a wasted pick, this guy’s this and that,’ and I’m sitting there saying, ‘I think you’re wrong, I think you’re wrong, I think you’re wrong.’ But it gets to a point where, all of a sudden the guy will start playing and you find out. In Rik’s case, there came a point where everybody realized we couldn’t win without the guy. “

2001: Changing of the Guard

Background: Entering draft night without a first-round pick but with a pronounced desire to obtain a playmaking point guard to complement the offensive-minded Best, Walsh focused on a group that included Jamaal Tinsley, Tony Parker and Gilbert Arenas. He wound up swinging a three-team deal with Atlanta and Memphis, acquiring the No. 27 pick in exchange for a lottery-protected future first-rounder. Atlanta exercised its option on the pick and will select No. 21 this year.

The Pick: Tinsley moved into the starting lineup right away and kept the job for two seasons, averaging 8.6 points, 7.8 assists and 1.72 steals. He ranked fifth in the NBA in assists as a rookie and sixth in his second season.

In Walsh’s Words: “We had Travis, but we thought we needed another point guard and we brought a lot of guys in here, and a lot of them were pretty good players. At the time, we had no pick until 41 (in the second round), and I thought Tinsley was a really good point guard. There were a couple of other guys I liked, too. When we brought Tinsley in, he played really well so we figured we’d take a shot and see if we could get that pick, and we were able to get the pick. He was a real point guard. He had the point-guard mentality and that’s the key thing because there are not many guys like that. I thought as a point guard, Jamaal was ahead of Parker and Arenas. They were good players but I think they were more shooters with great speed and in Travis, we had a player like that. What we didn’t have was a guy with the point-guard capabilities, and Jamaal had those.”