Draft tales: Pistons struck gold with Grant Hill in ’94, but the payload wasn’t realized until his free-agent exit
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look at past draft classes to illustrate the uncertain nature of the draft or to illustrate how even draft classes considered weak – as the 2020 draft is reputed to be – can yield impact players.)
The 1994 NBA draft stands as the tipping point in the way elite basketball players viewed the traditional path that delivered them to the sport’s pinnacle, the NBA.
Though no rule at the time barred high school players from bypassing college altogether – a result of legal challenges dating to the early 1970s – it was still more the norm that players would spend a bare minimum of two years in college and more often three and four.
The top of the 1994 draft showed how the sands were shifting. There were three contenders for the No. 1 spot that year and they were in various stages of their college careers.
Grant Hill was the anomaly even by the standards of that time, exhausting his college eligibility at Duke even though he was established as a top-tier NBA prospect after starting as a freshman on the NCAA champions. Glenn Robinson was more the norm, spending three years at Purdue – two in uniform after being academically ineligible under the Proposition 48 standard of the day – despite averaging 24.1 points a game as a 20-year-old sophomore in his first season of competition. And Jason Kidd entered the draft after two dominant years at California.
The Dallas Mavericks went into the lottery with the worst record (13-69) and the corresponding best odds (25 percent) to pull the top pick. Three teams – the Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves – finished with 20-62 records and nearly identical lottery odds. (They split the 491 combinations out of 1,000 that would yield the No. 1 pick, so the Pistons and T-wolves had 164 assigned four-digit combinations, or a 16.4 percent shot at the top pick, and the Bucks had 163 by losing a coin flip.)
Milwaukee wound up winning the lottery with Dallas second and the Pistons third.
Opinion was split three ways almost as evenly as the Detroit-Minnesota-Milwaukee lottery odds over the order of the top three picks. But the Bucks, in the heart of Big Ten country, zeroed in on Robinson.
The Pistons were in transition at the time, four years removed from their last NBA championship and with Billy McKinney in as general manager. McKinney wanted Hill. When Hill visited the Pistons before the draft, McKinney arranged a dinner at Ginopolis in Farmington Hills, only recently shuttered but then the go-to spot for the Pistons since Chuck Daly made it his favorite stop. Also included that night besides McKinney and Hill were Hill’s father Calvin – a star running back for the Dallas Cowboys in the ’70s – and the widely respected veteran holdover from the Pistons championship days, Joe Dumars.
Dumars pulled Hill aside and told him that he would make sure Hill would be well received by his new teammates and not have to put up with any of the attitude veteran journeymen can often subject a hot-shot rookie. Largely due to Dumars’ presence and stature, Hill left the meeting wanting the Pistons as badly as the Pistons wanted him.
But nobody was confident that Dallas would oblige and take Kidd instead of Hill. Kidd supposedly had a dazzling workout in Dallas and the Mavericks already had two young stars at shooting guard and small forward in Jimmy Jackson and Jamal Mashburn – both picked fourth in the 1992 and ’93 drafts – so Kidd, ultimately, made too much sense for the Mavs.
McKinney was so overjoyed by the results of draft night, he wept as he met the media to talk about Hill, later joking that, “If you had to write the check to pay this young man, you’d cry, too. Grant Hill is the whole package.”
The ’94 draft was also a watershed in another way for the NBA. Hill’s negotiation was relatively painless – he agreed to an eight-year, $45 million deal – but Robinson’s contract talks with the Bucks were more vexing. He wound up holding out until the eve of the regular season, initially demanding the game’s first $100 million deal but settling for $68 million over 10 years. Bucks owner Herb Kohl, whose department stores bear the family name and who would go on to become a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, had bought the franchise nine years earlier for $18 million.
Robinson’s holdout and unprecedented contract prompted the NBA to institute a rookie salary cap in time for the 1995 draft, which incentivized players to get to the pro ranks earlier to accelerate the timetable on signing a second contract where bigger rewards awaited them. Kevin Garnett declared for the 1995 draft out of high school and that opened the floodgates of the preps-to-pros migration that stopped only when the NBA changed eligibility rules ahead of the 2006 draft stipulating American-born players had to be a year removed from their high school graduation.
Hill and Kidd would go on to share the Rookie of the Year award with Robinson finishing third, though it didn’t end particularly well for any of the three with their original franchises. Hill left the Pistons in July 2000 as a free agent after losing in the first round in each of his four playoff appearances. Robinson spent eight seasons in Milwaukee, earning two All-Star berths but not advancing in the playoffs until his seventh season. And Kidd would be gone from Dallas midway through his third season, traded to Phoenix when the chemistry between him, Mashburn and Jackson turned sour.
Hill and Kidd proved the gems of the draft class, though, entering the Hall of Fame together in 2018.
There is grand irony in the fact that the unbounded hope the Pistons felt as an organization the night Hill was drafted that he would enable a second great era in franchise history wasn’t realized until he left as a free agent. The return, via a sign-and-trade deal – Ben Wallace – instead turned out to be the first building block in the next Pistons championship era.