Wednesday, June 23, 2010

With the fourth pick, the Timberwolves select...a bad center

In the run-up to the NBA draft, NBA TV has been replaying past drafts, from the legendary 1984 event to the depressing 1986 draft. No matter the sport, I've never gotten real excited about drafts, simply because it's usually several years before anyone knows if it was worth celebrating a selection. A team that gets an A on draft night might get a D if the pundits graded three years later. Or maybe my enthusiasm died during a June night in 1990, when I went with my parents to the Timberwolves draft party in Minneapolis. It was a very cool event. A drive north to the big city, food and drink, big-screen televisions, Timberwolves celebrating a new day.

The Timberwolves selected Felton Spencer that year. A lot of things kill parties. Bad music. Running out of beer. Felton Spencer. The next years affirmed our fears about Felton (a year later, remarkably, the Wolves drafted another center who did nothing for them - Luc Longley - although at least Luc found success while filling the lane for Jordan's Bulls).

Still, it's fun watching these old drafts. Drafts don't interest me much as they happen, but looking back always provides highlights.

They just played the 1996 one. Rick Pitino served as an analyst, an NBA expert based on his sterling success with the Knicks - he was still a year away from leaving Kentucky for Boston. At one point, Pitino, Ernie Johnson and Hubie Brown welcomed new Nets coach John Calipari to their desk, where the former Massachusetts coach praised the team's pick of Kerry Kittles. There had been talk the Nets would take high school phenom Kobe Bryant. Peter Vecsey, the longtime New York Post columnist who often has the word acerbic used before his name, was working for TNT. Vecsey said the Nets should have taken Bryant. Calipari smiled that same grin he gives recruits who express concern about an upcoming SAT exam and said the team liked Bryant, but got the man they wanted. They envisioned Kittles playing a pair of spots, "the 1 or the 2."

Calipari - the only NBA coach in history to have more Final Four appearances vacated (2) than playoff appearances (1) - proved right. In their rookie years, Kittles averaged an impressive 16 points per game, compared to Bryant's meager and embarrassing 7 points a game.

NBA Reference has all the drafts. It's fun clicking on a random year. Take 1985. Four centers went in the top six picks, headlined by Patrick Ewing. The other centers were Benoit Benjamin to the Clippers (of course), Jon Koncack to Atlanta and Joe Kleine to Sacramento. Oy. Three players who made it to the NBA thanks to the cliche, "You can't teach height." Later in the draft, there was another run on tall stiffs, as Denver grabbed Blair Rasmussen with the 15th pick, Dallas took Bill Wennington at 16, and remarkably - bizarrely, ridiculously, inexcusably, heinously - took Uwe Blab with the 17th choice.

And it's almost a guarantee that after each of those picks, the general managers of those teams looked a reporter in the eye and said with a straight face, "We wanted him all along. We got the guy we wanted the whole time."

Karl Malone, incidentally, went to Utah with the 13th pick. Detroit grabbed Joe Dumars at 18. In 1985 the NBA had an absurd seven rounds. If you were white, 7-feet tall and didn't get drafted that year, it was only because your pre-draft physical indicated there was a 95 percent chance you'd die within nine months. There are some great names there, though. Mario Elie - who became known as one of the grittiest players during his NBA career and played on numerous title teams - went 143 spots after Uwe Blab, as Milwaukee took him at 160. Dallas took Minnesota Gopher Tommy Davis in the fifth round. Davis did nothing in the pros, but he became a star overseas, especially in the Philippines. I remember stories that he once scored more than 70 in several games, but couldn't find anything online verifying that.

The diminutive Spudd Webb emerged from the Class of 1985, as did the late Manute Bol, the gentle giant with a great soul. Atlanta took a guy who actually was a great center - Arvydas Sabonis - but it would be 10 more years before he played in the NBA, and that was with Portland, a decade after his prime and years after his knees went out.

The Wolves have the No. 4 pick this year. In the past teams have found franchise players there, and franchise killers. In between the centers from hell in 1985, Seattle grabbed Xavier McDaniel with the fourth pick, a standout player for a number of years. Three years later, the Nets - being the Nets - took Chris Morris at No. 4, one spot ahead of Mitch Richmond. Other players who went in that position include Glen Rice, Dikembe Mutombo, and Donyell Marshall in 1994 - to the Wolves. Marshall certainly did nothing spectacular in the Target Center, but it's hard to criticize the Timberwolves considering the lack of depth in that draft. The 12 picks after Marshall: Juwan Howard, Sharone Wright, Lamond Murray, Brian Grant, Eric Montross (who, in a previous life was taken in the 1985 draft), Eddie Jones, Carlos Rogers, Khalid Reeves, Jalen Rose, Yinka Dare, Eric Piatkowski and Clifford Rozier. A few guys you'd take over Marshall, but nothing that would have altered the franchise.

But no matter who the Wolves take on Thursday it seems unlikely the player will fix the team or improve their fortunes dramatically. Outside of Kevin Garnett, that's the history of the team. How bad has it been? That depressing night in 1990, the night of Felton? That was actually one of the best draft nights in team history.

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