2001 Draft, A Preview of 2004?

2001 Draft, A Preview of 2004?
May 23, 2004, 01:00 am
Submitted by Jeffrey Risdon

With all the high schoolers and foreign prospects flooding into this year's draft, it is pertinent to recall the remarkably similar 2001 NBA Draft. Both drafts feature several prominent high schoolers, a fair sampling of foreign teenagers, and a weaker than normal class of college upperclassmen. As it turns out, the 2001 NBA Draft class is quite possibly the least successful draft class after three seasons of any group in history. For the sake of teams choosing in the 2004 draft, one only hopes this upcoming draft class is far more successful than its similar predecessor. What can we learn about the 2004 draft from the example set by 2001?

To begin, we review the lottery picks of 2001:

1. Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards.
The Wizards were 19-63, but had added a prominent new player in addition to their #1 pick, one Michael Jordan. Optimism surrounded the franchise, which had made the playoffs just once in the previous twelve seasons. Brown was a tall high school forward noted for his quickness, athleticism, quiet work ethic, and humble demeanor. His selection as the first high school player to be taken #1 overall was generally regarded as a strong move for the perennially snake bitten Wizards, as he would learn from the best and fill the needed role of frontcourt scorer and rebounder.

2. Tyson Chandler, Chicago Bulls.
4. Eddy Curry, Chicago Bulls.

We consider these two as a pair, as they will forever be linked as the first time a team selected two high schoolers in the lottery. Chandler had been on the draft radar since his freshman year at Compton Dominguez High School, where his freakish combination of size, range, and athleticism so obviously destined him for direct entry that he was never seriously recruited by colleges. Curry was a local Chicago boy, an agile big man dubbed "Baby Shaq" and a supposed low-post beast with a lunch pail game that Bulls fans and management craved. The Bulls were coming off the worst three-season stretch in NBA history, floundering after being coolly rejected by marquee free agents. Their best player, Elton Brand, was dealt to the Clippers in order to claim Chandler. While many eyebrows raised at the stark immaturity of the baby Bulls, it was hard to conceive the team could possibly get any worse with two promising young talents and recent pickups Brad Miller and Ron Mercer.

3. Pau Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies.
Gasol was a lanky seven-footer from Spain with a storied junior career entering the draft at age 20. He was noted for having a variety of moves and a deft touch, with three-point range and the ability to use both hands. However, some called his toughness and spirit into question. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, had just moved from Vancouver and were optimistically approaching a fresh start in Memphis after beating three playoff teams in their final four games the previous season to finish 23-59. Looking for more versatility, they traded Shareef Abdur Rahim to Atlanta in order to select Gasol. They also held the sixth pick, which we will cover momentarily.

5. Jason Richardson, Golden State Warriors.
The first player taken with any college experience, Richardson left Michigan State after two years of displaying incredible leaping and finishing ability, not to mention his shaky jumper and often lacking defense. The Warriors were a Western Conference-worst 17-65, but featured young frontcourt talents Antawn Jamison, Marc Jackson, and Erick Dampier. Richardson was projected as a good fit for a team that needed a slashing scorer to replace aging legend Chris Mullin's outside prowess.

6. Shane Battier, Memphis Grizzlies.
Along with the aforementioned Gasol, Battier was part of a new Grizzlies identity. The only college graduate taken in the top fourteen picks, Battier was a versatile jack of all trades who some considered the best overall player in the draft. His mastery of intangibles and brainy play, combined with deadly shooting range and impressive proclivity for drawing charges, made him a relatively safe choice, though most conceded his upside was smaller than the younger draftees.

7. Eddie Griffin, New Jersey Nets.
Traded to Houston for #13 pick Richard Jefferson, #17 pick Jason Collins, and #22 pick Brandon Armstrong, Griffin was a talented power forward in the classic mode, a strong scorer with good feet and a nose for the ball. He was also plagued by questionable character and behavior, which probably kept him from being selected higher coming out of Seton Hall after one season. The Rockets were coming off a 45-37 season that still fell short of the playoffs, and were a team in transition from the Olajuwon/Drexler years. They were badly in need of an infusion of young frontcourt talent.

8. Desagana Diop, Cleveland Cavaliers.
No pick exemplifies the devotion to unproven youth more than Diop, a huge Senegal native plucked from Oak Hill Academy after playing sparingly in his two seasons there. Diop allegedly entered the draft only after hearing rumors he was not going to get much playing time his first year at Virginia and deciding to cash in on the youth movement. The Cavaliers were rebuilding from a 30-52 finish following the departure of Shawn Kemp. Desperate for size to complement the promising outside games of Andre Miller, Wesley Person, Lamond Murray, and Matt Harpring, coupled with the chronic foot issues of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Cavs chose to rebuild with the raw young African project, opting for future dividends instead of the quick fix most fans favored.

9. Rodney White, Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons went 32-50 in '00-'01 and faced life without Grant Hill. A secondary wing scorer was needed to fit in with Jerry Stackhouse, Corliss Williamson, and workmen Ben Wallace and Jerome Williams. White looked every bit the part after a stellar freshman year at UNC-Charlotte. A 6'9" bruiser with good mid-range touch and impressive isolation moves, White raised his draft stock with impressive showings in the NCAA tournament and pre-draft workouts. With a solid veteran nucleus, the Pistons weren't expecting an immediate starter but still needed a good scorer to anchor the second unit and step up should the need arise.

10. Joe Johnson, Boston Celtics
11. Kedrick Brown, Boston Celtics.

Two consecutive picks for the Celtics after a ho-hum 36-46 campaign featuring young scoring studs Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce and not much else. The Celtics needed an infusion of athletic talent and energy, not to mention another scorer or two and anyone who could rebound, as the Celtics finished last in both offensive rebounds and rebound margin in '00-'01. Johnson led Arkansas in scoring and rebounding in both his seasons, and his ball handling ability and smooth style figured to create matchup nightmares for opponents. Brown was a junior college scoring and shot blocking machine, despite being only 6'7". He was a workout wonder, nailing long jumpers and displaying his jaw-dropping athleticism, helping to erase doubts about his lack of competition.

12. Vladimir Radmanovic, Seattle Sonics.
After finding themselves outside the playoffs despite winning 44 games, the Sonics were looking to add shooting range to pair with athletic youngsters Rashard Lewis (himself a direct-from-high-school player) and Desmond Mason and feed off superstar Gary Payton. Radmanovic had proven his shooting prowess with Yugoslavian junior and national teams, and at age 20 had already been a pro for four years. Questions persisted about his quickness and defense, but his nice touch and surprising nasty streak were big plusses for the retooling Sonics.

13. Richard Jefferson, Houston Rockets.
Dealt in the Eddie Griffin deal to New Jersey, Jefferson was a prolific wingman and solid defender during his three years at Arizona. Some questioned him going at #13 and to New Jersey, which was coming off a 26-56 season and in need of a major overhaul and overall talent upgrade. Jefferson had a shaky outside game, and his ball-handling and rebounding were question marks, though his ability to finish and slash were highly rated, and his experience and incremental improvement at a major college program helped ease some concerns.

14. Troy Murphy, Golden State Warriors.
After a consensus All-American junior season at Notre Dame, Murphy took his strong rebounding and nice shooting touch to the Warriors, still looking for an outside threat after taking the slashing Richardson at #5. Widely seen as a limited pro due to lack of speed and athleticism, Murphy nonetheless parlayed his impressive scoring touch, floor-burn style and two All-Big East conference team selections into the final lottery pick.

To recap, 14 picks, 11 teams, 16 combined years of NCAA basketball, 3 foreign players and an aggregate team winning percentage of .419 for the drafting teams.

Fast forward to the present, three seasons removed from the 2001 draft. Not one of the four lottery picks who jumped straight from high school has appeared in a playoff game or even finished within five games of making the playoffs. In fact, only Jefferson has ever averaged more than 12 minutes a game for a team that won a playoff game. Only Gasol has appeared in an All-Star game, and he is also the only player in this group to average 20 points per game in a season. Jefferson, Johnson, Richardson, and Radmanovic have proven they are capable NBA starters, and Johnson, Jefferson, and Richardson have shown All-Star potential. To be sure, the high schoolers have shown flashes of greatness, with Chandler putting up solid numbers between back injuries and Kwame Brown putting up 12 games of at least 15 points and 10 rebounds this past season. But the standings don't lie, and neither do some inglorious stats. Among them:

Curry is statistically in the bottom five passers (assists minus turnovers) for any player getting at least 20 minutes per game and has been among the top eight in fouls per minute in each of his three seasons.

Diop has averaged less than one quarter (12 minutes) of playing time per game in his career, the fewest minutes per game over his first three seasons of any player taken in the top ten (among those who have actually played in three NBA seasons) since 1994.

Griffin is currently suspended by the league for violating its drug policy, following personal problems which led to his release by the Rockets and Nets.

White apparently brings out the worst in his team. Since joining the Nuggets, they are a woeful 17-58 when he plays more than 20 minutes in a game; when he does not play at all, they are 16-4.

Battier's minutes, scoring, shooting percentage, and rebounding have all declined from his rookie year, and he was relegated to a bit player in the Grizzlies' breakthrough season.

Kwame Brown remains frustratingly inconsistent, balancing his aforementioned strong performances with 21 games in which he failed to score at least 8 points in at least 20 minutes. Two games after putting up 30 and 19 against the mighty Kings, he was held scoreless and grabbed just 3 rebounds against the middling Jazz.

Looking deeper into the 2001 draft, the picture remains a mostly disturbing one. Two players, Kirk Haston (#16, Hornets) and Joe Forte (#21, Celtics), are out of the league, while eight other first round picks averaged fewer than 12 minutes per game this past season without a serious injury. For comparison, the 1997 and 2000 draft classes feature just four players each in their top twenty-five who fit that ignominious billing. Only Tony Parker (#28, Spurs), Richard Jefferson, and Jason Collins (#18, Rockets, traded to Nets) have started for teams that made the Finals, and Collins is among the statistically weakest starting centers in the league. In fact, Parker, Jefferson, Collins, and Jamaal Tinsley (#27, Grizzlies, traded to Pacers) are the only players in the entire first round to average more than 25 minutes per game for a team that won a playoff series. The only other players worth noting after three seasons are Zach Randolph (#19, Blazers), the NBA's Most Improved Player in '03-'04, and Samuel Dalembert (#26, Sixers), who emerged as a defensive force this past season. Interestingly, both Randolph and Dalembert left college after one season and saw their stock drop after less than impressive workouts and evaluations, while Parker came from France at age 19 and was chided for his lack of size and experience against accomplished competition. No other players from the first round are anything more than spot starters for their teams after three seasons. To lend perspective, thirteen players taken in the first round of the 2003 draft started at least 25 games as rookies, and as many as eighteen could realistically start that many games next season.

The teams who selected the 2001 lottery picks have an aggregate win percentage of .489, an improvement of slightly more than seven wins a season on average, skewed higher by Gasol, Battier, Jefferson, and Johnson, each of whom has played on one 50-win team. Remove Jefferson and his .601 percentage with the Nets (who added All-Star Jason Kidd and a healthy 2000 #1 Kenyon Martin during the same offseason) and the win total falls to an average of just over four wins a team. For lottery teams in search of new life, an average of four more wins after three seasons isn't exactly a strong return on investment, much less a ringing endorsement of choosing fresh-faced high schoolers or untested Europeans.

The latest 2004 mock draft features a lottery with four direct-from-high school players, five largely unproven foreigners, and a combined nine seasons of NCAA experience. If history is any indication, this looks like a terrible year to be in the lottery. For the five teams that have stunk their way into both lotteries, perhaps trading the picks for proven legitimate talent, trading down, or swapping for a future first rounder would be prudent. Upon reviewing the strikingly similar 2001 draft, immediate help in 2004 seems unlikely. It is more likely these teams, especially those in the top ten who choose high schoolers, will find themselves still at the mercy of the ping-pong balls in three years.

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