A product straight out of high school developed into a key cog in the “Seven Seconds or Less” machine and one of the most dominant forces in the entire league. Amar’e Stoudemire truly put the ‘power’ in power forward, as he was nearly unstoppable in the paint across an entire decade. But how did the generational talent fall all the way to pick nine in the 2002 NBA Draft?
Well, fortunately for the Suns, they were one of his first workouts.
In a time where players were able to enter the draft directly from high school, Stoudemire was just a teenager looking to live out his dream. Scout.com listed the Florida native as not only a five star recruit, but the number one high school player in the nation.
Stoudemire had originally committed to play college hoops at the University of Memphis, the 19-year-old already had the frame and skills to play against the best in the world and decided to make his dream a reality by declaring for the NBA Draft.
While an upstart Suns team featuring a young Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and Stephon Marbury seemed like the perfect fit for the dynamic big man, then-owner Jerry Colangelo was not the type to draft prospects straight out of high school. However, Stoudemire’s performance at the 2002 McDonald’s All-American Game had Colangelo thinking about making an exception.
“I was not a proponent of drafting high school kids,” Jerry said. “Then I saw him perform in the McDonald’s open and he was like a man among boys. I said to Bryan [Colangelo] to Mark West to our staff, ‘Bring him in. I want to see this guy.”
The Suns interest in Amar’e was apparent and it didn’t take long for that feeling to become mutual.
“I fell in love with the city of Phoenix from the moment I touched down,” Stoudemire said. “There was a certain energy of the city once I landed. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how the workout was going to go, but I was motivated and focused.”
Once the workout started, jaws began to drop.
“He clearly stood out in the gym as one of the most fierce competitors and athletic young men then I’ve seen in a long time,” said former Suns General Manager Bryan Colangelo. “There was something that just stood out about him, even personality wise. He had a star appeal to him that made you feel very comfortable that you had something special.”
“He impressed the heck out of me,” Jerry said. “The mere fact that he had the background that he did. That he was just standing there. He was a physical specimen, for sure. Couldn’t shoot the ball, but he had everything else.”
Between his athleticism, finesse and relentless motor, the 19-year-old was putting on a show in Phoenix.
“We had the test to check their vertical,” said Frank Johnson, the team’s head coach at the time. “When he jumped straight up in the air and touched the numbers everyone’s mouth [dropped]. Literally just went, ‘Wow. Should we stop this workout now?’ It was just an amazing workout because he wanted more. He wanted to show you more.”
Following just the first day of the workout, Jerry’s mind was already made up.
“I think he did something when we were talking and Jerry just said, ‘This is the guy we are taking,” Bryan said.
The Suns identified the perfect fit to complement their budding core, but now it was just a matter of Stoudemire dropping all the way down to the ninth pick in the draft.
“I would only tell you that there were a lot people who evaluated Amar’e and maybe not everyone evaluated him the way that we did,” Bryan said. “We made a decision that he was who we wanted at nine if he was on the board. So, we did everything we could, within the rules, to make sure that he was the guy available at number nine when it rolled around.”
Jerry kept Stoudemire in Phoenix overnight and took him out to an Arizona Diamondbacks game before putting him right back in the gym the next morning.
“Once I got to travel around and see the city a little more, going to the Diamondbacks game during that time, I felt like I was already drafted,” Stoudemire said. “Before the draft, I felt like I was home.”
The Suns wanted Stoudemire and Stoudemire wanted the Suns. As one of the first teams to witness the generational talent in an NBA workout setting, Jerry wanted to do his best to keep it that way.
“I called his agent and said, ‘Look, I don’t know where he goes in the draft. We’re drafting number nine, but we want him and he wants us. So, I’ll put the ball in your court. I don’t want him going to any other workouts, but that’s your call,” Jerry said.
Stoudemire didn’t work out for any of the eight teams above them as the Suns looked poised to land the themselves a player they felt could dominate in Phoenix.
“We were very fortunate that he did not work out for teams that were above us,” Johnson said. “I don’t know why, but he didn’t. Of course, at that time, not many teams would draft you if you didn’t work out. We got very lucky there.”
However, on the eve of the 2002 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Clippers called the Suns out on their gamesmanship and attempted to call their bluff.
“The Clippers called Bryan and said, ‘You guys are hiding out Amar’e Stoudemire. We’re drafting eighth. You’re ninth. We’re going to take him,” Jerry said.
His response: “Take him. You’re ahead of us. You’re entitled to take whoever you wish.”
The next day, the draft began to unfold with the Suns uncertain if Stoudemire would fall past the the Clippers.
First pick – Houston Rockerts - Yao Ming
Second pick – Chicago Bulls – Jay Williams
Third pick – Golden State Warriors – Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Fourth pick – Memphis Grizzlies – Drew Gooden
Fifth pick – Denver Nuggets – Nikoloz Tskitishvili
Sixth Pick – Cleveland Cavaliers – Dajuan Wagner
Seventh Pick – New York Knicks – Nenê
Eighth Pick – Los Angeles Clippers – Chris Wilcox
“With the ninth pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns select Amar’e Stoudmire from Cypress Creek High School in Orlando, Florida.”
“They took Wilcox, a forward from Maryland,” Jerry said. “We get Amar’e at number nine.”
“I guess you could say he fell to number nine,” Johnson said. “How amazing is that?”
The answer: just as amazing as his production during his rookie season. Stoudemire played all 82 games for the Suns, averaging 13.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks that year. Despite being the only high schooler in the draft and falling all the way to pick nine, Stoudemire was named Rookie of the Year and he immediately became a force to be reckoned with throughout the league.
“A year later, I remember walking out of Staples Center with Coach (Alvin) Gentry. He was coaching the Clippers at the time. He said, ‘You got our guy.’ I said, ‘How did we get your guy when you picked before us?,” Bryan said. “He laughed and said, ‘Come on Bryan. You know that was our guy.’ I said, ‘No, you should have taken him if that was your guy.”
Rookie of the Year honors was just the beginning for Stoudemire as he continued on to become one of the greatest players to ever wear a Phoenix Suns uniform. In his eight years with the Suns, he earned himself five NBA All-Star selections (third most in Suns history) and was named to the All-NBA team four times (tied for the third most in Suns history).
“It turned out to be such a wonderful pick for the organization,” Bryan said. “It turned out great. Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes you’re wrong. That one we went into with a certain degree of confidence that we had the right player picked.”
Over his eight seasons in Phoenix from 2002-2010, the man known as STAT, short for “Standing Tall and Talented”, averaged 21.4 points on 54.4% shooting. Among players to shoot at least 50% from the field over this timespan, he ranked 1st in the NBA with his 21.4 points per game. A strong free throw shooter who got to the line often in addition to his efficiency from the field, he posted a True Shooting Percentage of 60.6% with the Suns, the 2nd-best mark of any NBA player over this time frame (min. 1,500 made field goals) behind only his teammate for much of this time, Hall of Famer Steve Nash.
What started as an unlikely chance for the Suns to land the star talent, turned into one of the greatest draft picks in franchise history.
On the Suns’ career regular-season leaderboard:
Ranks 5th in double-doubles (200)
Ranks 6th in points (11,035)
Ranks 3rd in rebounds (4,613)
Ranks 5th in blocks (722)
Ranks 3rd in free throws made and attempted (3,044, 4,018)
Ranks 11th in games (516)
In career per-game averages among Suns players (min. 100 regular season games):
Ranks 4th in points per game (21.4)
Ranks 7th in blocks per game (1.40)
Ranks 11th in field goal percentage (.544)
Ranks 13th in rebounds per game (8.9)
On the Suns’ all-time playoff leaderboard:
Ranks 2nd in points per game (24.2)
Ranks 5th in points (1,258)
Ranks 5th in rebounds per game (9.2)
Ranks 4th in rebounds (479)
Ranks 3rd in blocks (94)
Ranks 2nd in free throws made and attempted (355, 474)
Ranks 5th in field goals made (450)
Ranks 8th in field goals attempted (861)
Next stop, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame? Only time will tell, but the accolades and stats surely suggest as much.