Their Time Is Now
Collison and Ridnour Key to Sonics 2005-06 Season

From time to time, SUPERSONICS.COM will go in-depth to profile a member or members of the Sonics family in Green and Gold Insider. Green and Gold Insider goes beyond standard features to explore all aspects of the story with magazine-style writing and bigger, bolder photos.

Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM | October 31, 2005

Dave Pendergraft, the Seattle SuperSonics Director of Basketball Operations, will never forget his call to President/CEO Wally Walker. After watching Oregon junior Luke Ridnour combine for 52 points, 13 assists and 13 rebounds in consecutive games against the two Arizona schools, Pendergraft had found the Sonics next point guard.

"A little guy, suspect shooter - I always had a little bit of doubt," says Pendergraft. "I remember calling Wally on my cell phone. I said, 'We've got no choice. If we're going to take a point guard, we've got to take this guy. He's too quick, he's too fast. He's making shots I didn't think he could make."

Pendergraft tells a similar story about the Sonics other 2003 first-round pick, Kansas forward Nick Collison.

"I remember the game - against Texas, Texas at Kansas," says Pendergraft. "(General Manager) Rick (Sund), Wally and I were all there. Nick had a lot of points and like 20 rebounds [23, to be exact] against arguably one of the most athletic teams definitely in the Big 12 and maybe in the nation [Texas was ranked third in the NCAA entering the game, and featured three future NBA players in its starting five]. Nick was everywhere. He was getting every freaking rebound. Our thought process was between a Michael Sweetney and him. For me, that separated him."

In the spring of 2003, the 2003 NBA Draft emerged as one of the most important in the history of the Sonics. On February 20, the Sonics reshaped the face of the franchise by trading All-Star guard Gary Payton, who had spent his entire 12-plus-year career in Seattle, to Milwaukee. The package the Sonics got back was headlined by Bucks guard Ray Allen, but key to the Sonics willingness to part with not just Payton but also young swingman Desmond Mason was the Bucks inclusion of their first-round pick.

Going into one of the deepest drafts in recent NBA memory, the Sonics held their own 12th pick as well as Milwaukee's 14th pick, giving them the opportunity to add a pair of players to their core. With Allen at shooting guard and promising young Rashard Lewis at small forward, the Sonics made a rare break from their typical best player available strategy.

"We were in pretty good shape when we made the trade with Ray and you had a nice developing perimeter player at the three spot with Rashard," says Sund. "You also had Vlade (Radmanovic), who is a perimeter player that can play some four. We really needed a four man and we needed a point guard.

Collison and Ridnour sold Sonics scout Dave Pendergraft with their performance in key games.
Getty Images - Elsa (L) and Stephen Dunn (R)

"It's a little bit untypical of the way teams do it Ö my personal preference is I don't like to go in and draft for a position unless it's late in the draft - like 25, 26, 27. I like to focus in and take the best player. But we had some pretty good players."

Despite focusing in on the two positions, the Sonics still had plenty of options. At point guard, the Sonics considered Marcus Banks, Leandro Barbosa, T.J. Ford, Reece Gaines, Kirk Hinrich and Ridnour. In addition to Collison, Sweetney, Maciej Lampe and Brian Cook were considered options at power forward.

Collison strongly stated his case for the Sonics in his workout at The Furtado Center prior to the draft, a workout widely regarded as one of the best in franchise history.

"He had a great workout," says Pendergraft. "Matter of fact, I remember him shooting the ball better than any of us thought. At KU, he mainly played in the low block and at the high post."

The Sonics knew they wanted Collison, but picking 12th, there was no guarantee he would still be available.

"We didn't think there was any chance he'd be there," Pendergraft says. "We thought New York would take him and not Sweetney. We were shocked that he was there when we took him. We soft-sold him. We didn't talk to anybody about Nick Collison, how good we thought he was."

After the Knicks took Sweetney, their backup plan, with the ninth pick, the Sonics sweated out the next two picks. Washington wasn't a major concern, and the Wizards selected Georgia swingman Jarvis Hayes. Golden State was more of an issue; the Warriors were considered something of a wild card. Despite having drafted a pair of swingmen the previous two years, Jason Richardson and Mike Dunleavy, Golden State drafted a third in Frenchman Mickael Pietrus, leading to cheering in the Sonics Draft Room.

"It was like waiting for the verdict," joked then-Coach Nate McMillan after the draft. "(Commissioner David) Stern walked up and he didnít say Collison, and we felt like we got off."

But the Sonics were only halfway done. After the Memphis Grizzlies picked, the Sonics would be up again, looking for a point guard. In the days before the draft, the Sonics had eliminated Hinrich and Ford from consideration, realizing both players would be gone by the time they picked.

They were, as was UNLV's Banks, taken 13th by Memphis as part of a pre-arranged trade with the Boston Celtics. Brazilian Barbosa had been eliminated from consideration, but there was something of a split within the organization between Ridnour - favored by the front office - and the coaching staff's favorite, Louisville product Gaines.

"I remember calling him 'The Brett Favre of college basketball.' He can really deliver the ball."
"The real problem was that the coaching staff kind of liked Gaines," says Sund. "Everybody was big on Hinrich, but he didn't get there. Our scouts and Wally, the consensus there was Luke. The problem was the media wasn't (on board). You were a little nervous, but it turned out great."

A sure lottery pick at the start of the draft process, the Pac-10's Player of the Year had been dogged by concerns about his size and defensive ability. Critics were everywhere; during ESPN's draft coverage, one analyst infamously suggested Ridnour "couldn't guard the chair I'm sitting in."

"I don't care what they say, but I heard what they said," says Ridnour. "Where they got that, I don't know. It seems like they start a rumor about every single player that gets drafted. It just goes with the territory."

The Sonics were confident that Ridnour - voted Oregon's Defensive Player of the Year as a junior before entering the draft - could hold his own. They were also excited about the potential combination of Ridnour's ability to deliver the ball to shooters and their star players on the wings, Allen and Lewis.

"I remember calling him 'The Brett Favre of college basketball,'" says Pendergraft. "He can really deliver the ball. He's got unbelievable respect for his receivers. He knows how to get it to Ray, Vlade and Rashard where they want it. Because we had these shooters and because he was such a great deliverer of the ball, it was a no-brainer."

When Stern walked to the podium to announce Ridnour as the Sonics pick, the most important 10 minutes in recent Sonics history were complete.


Collison and Ridnour prepare to meet the media after being selected by the Sonics.
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty