Draft Tales: They weren’t the next Isiah-Joe D duo, but Hunter & Houston stood test of time in Pistons ’93 draft.
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(EDITOR’S NOTE: Pistons.com continues its periodic series looking at past draft classes as the Pistons prepare for the 2020 draft in October amid the extended off-season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Bad Boys milked everything they could out of their core, winning back-to-back titles in 1989 and ’90 after two excruciating Game 7 losses ended their previous two seasons. Losing in the Eastern Conference finals to Chicago in 1991 was really their last hurrah. By the end of the 1992 season – when the Pistons lost a first-round series to the Knicks – the organization understood it was at a crossroads.
John Salley was traded later that summer to Miami for a first-round pick, a move that also put the Pistons under the NBA salary cap of – wait for it – $14 million, giving them more trade flexibility and two picks in the 1993 draft.
The Pistons went 40-42 in 1992-93 and the Bad Boys were splintering rapidly by that point. Over the summer, Mark Aguirre would be waived, finishing his career that season with the Clippers. Dennis Rodman was traded to San Antonio before camp opened. Vinnie Johnson had been retired for a year already. Rick Mahorn and James Edwards had moved on.
Bill Laimbeer was still around, though he’d mulled retirement for a few years and, in fact, would abruptly quit a month into the 1993-94 season. No one knew it at the time, but the 1993 training camp would be Isiah Thomas’ last, his career ending with a ruptured Achilles tendon in the season finale at The Palace. Joe Dumars turned 30 the month before the 1993 draft.
So the hopes of the franchise to lay a foundation for the next great era of Pistons basketball rested on those two first-round picks, which turned out to come consecutively, 10th and 11th. To ramp up the symbolism of the draft’s importance to the franchise, it was to be held at The Palace for the first and only time.
The building was packed with 20,000-plus that night, too, the excitement over the two Pistons picks amplified by the local angle of having Chris Webber – who’d won the last of three consecutive state titles at Detroit Country Day on the same floor just two years earlier before leading Michigan to two NCAA title games in his two seasons in Ann Arbor – the presumptive No. 1 pick.
The crowd was still buzzing with the blockbuster news of Webber’s subsequent trade from Orlando, which took him first, to Golden State, which sent the rights to Penny Hardaway, taken third, and three future No. 1 picks to the Magic when the Pistons went on the clock with the 10th pick.
They went into the night hoping to come away with one big man and one guard, but when Milwaukee took small-college star Vin Baker of Hartford with the No. 8 pick, Pistons general manager Billy McKinney veered in another direction.
With the 10th pick, the Pistons took another small-college phenom, Lindsey Hunter, and followed up with Tennessee’s Allan Houston at 11. Immediately, they were sold as the dynamic successors to Thomas and Dumars.
“We got the players we wanted,” McKinney said. “We wanted to get a big player, but you just can’t pass on talent.”
Hunter had blown up early in his senior season at Jackson State by dropping 48 points on Kansas in the star-studded Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, the rare occasion when Jackson State played a televised game. Hunter, who averaged 26.7 points as a senior, hit 11 of 26 3-point shots in that game, many from well past the arc. He also scored 43, including 39 in the second half, at Illinois that season.
McKinney had thrown a head fake the previous week when he told Detroit media he didn’t intend to draft anyone the Pistons hadn’t brought in for an individual workout. Hunter hadn’t been to Detroit, but the Pistons had targeted him all along. McKinney later said he was trying to throw off NBA teams, mentioning Jerry West of the Lakers specifically. Thomas, present at The Palace that night, approved of the pick.
“The coaches gave me a tape of him and I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “I took it home and told my wife, ‘You’ve got to see this.’ Not since I came into the league and Tim Hardaway have I seen a guy with that kind of dribbling ability.”
“I’m a young Isiah,” Hunter said. “I love to play defense. I can shoot. I’m a little cocky like him. I just met him a little while ago and I almost fainted. Here’s the guy I’ve always looked up to and now I get the chance to play with him. I’ve tried to play like Isiah since I was small. He’s the greatest point guard ever to play the game.”
Looking back at that draft, it’s a mystery why Houston lasted to the 11th pick. Between Webber and Hardaway, Philadelphia took 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley of BYU, who’d been off on a Mormon mission for two years after playing one season at Brigham Young. Kentucky’s Jamal Mashburn went fourth, followed by Isaiah Rider, Calbert Cheaney, Bobby Hurley, Baker and Rodney Rogers ahead of the two Pistons picks.
Houston played four years at Tennessee and averaged over 20 points a game all four seasons. In an era where the 3-point shot wasn’t nearly as prevalent, Houston took more than 40 percent of his shots from behind the line and made them at better than 40 percent all four seasons.
Thomas liked that pick, too, comparing Houston to a Detroit legend, George Gervin: “He can get a shot off at any time. Then he can put the ball on the floor and dribble. He’s also a big guard who can rebound and score. You win with guards in this league and we got two great ones.”
The rap on Houston was that he was soft-spoken and, perhaps, soft.
“I’ve been carrying that baggage since junior high because I’m a quiet, serious guy on the court,” Houston said. “But I just say, look at the stats. As long as you get the job done, you don’t have to be flashy.”
McKinney also scoffed at the label.
“People say Allan is quiet, but Joe Dumars is quiet and he’ll cut your heart out in a second on the court,” he said. “Allan averaged 22 points for four years in the SEC, one of the toughest leagues. I don’t think you can be soft and accomplish that.”
Hunter and Houston both went on to long, successful careers – 12 seasons for Houston, a remarkable 17 for Hunter – but never approached Thomas-Dumars terrority.
Houston played three seasons for the Pistons, averaging 19.7 points in 1995-96, before bolting for huge money offered by New York – seven years, $56 million – in the landmark 1996 free agency class that stiffened ownership resolve to reform collective bargaining. He appeared in two All-Star games during his nine seasons with the Knicks, averaging 17 points a game for his career on 40 percent 3-point shooting.
Hunter became a valued role player but never the big scorer or playmaker he was hoped to be, topping out at 14.2 points a game in his fourth season. He spent his first seven NBA seasons with the Pistons before being traded to Milwaukee for Billy Owens.
The Pistons and Hunter weren’t finished with each other yet, though. After stops with the Lakers and Raptors, Hunter was acquired by the Pistons before camp opened in 2003 – joining them just in time to be part of the 2003-04 Goin’ to Work championship Pistons, the first of another five-year tenure with the franchise.
So the 1993 draft didn’t turn out exactly like the Pistons hoped it would on that electric night at The Palace. But their two picks spent a combined 29 seasons in the league and, ultimately, had a hand in bringing the third NBA championship back to the Pistons.