The 12 guys better than Kobe: A 1996 draft retrospective
“I think what you like best about him, everyone says he makes everyone around him a better player. He’s a winning style guy, we realize there’s a lot to overcome when you come out of high school, but if anyone has a good chance, this young man is blessed with outstanding offensive skills.”
It's funny, twenty years later, that Hubie Brown could have been describing pretty much anybody.
The superlatives offered on the 1996 NBA draft’s television broadcast are incredibly non-specific. These are prospect-tropes you’ve heard before. They provide no assurance of professional success, with or without context. But Brown is talking about an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant. We know how that turned out.
As the Lakers legend wraps up his career, it can be easy to forget that twenty years ago, Kobe Bryant was one of the least sure-thing lottery-level commodities in a draft full of established college stars. He was the son of a pro basketball player, and he averaged 31 points per game as a senior at Lower Merion High School, but there was wasn't much to quantify the tenacity and will to win that have defined his career. His stock rose in private pre-draft workouts, but the perception—which wound up being pretty much accurate—was that he was two or three years away from being NBA-ready.
Not every team can afford to wait like that, and so 12 of them evaluated their own needs and passed. Looking back, each of those decisions vary in their actual logic. Bryant went 13th overall to the Charlotte Hornets and was immediately sent to the Lakers, who coveted him after seeing him up close in workouts, enough to exchange a proven, quality big man in Vlade Divac.
In retrospect, the 1996 draft class turned out pretty well. Many of the players picked before Bryant turned out to be good (or great) NBA players. The two players chosen immediately after him were an all-time three-point shooter (Peja Stojakovic) and a two-time league MVP (Steve Nash).
The full broadcast from 1996 is on YouTube, featuring analysis from Ernie Johnson, Brown and then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino. As Bryant exits the league, we took a closer look at the 12 players selected before him.
12. Cleveland: Vitaly Potapenko
What they said: “Great hands, shooting touch, and all business.”
This 21-year-old 6’10” Ukrainian center averaged 20.2 points and 6.8 rebounds over two seasons at Wright State in what was then the Midwestern Conference. However, the Midwestern Conference was still very much a mid-major conference and Potapenko in hindsight appears to be quite a dubious prospect. According to the broadcast, he shed 40 pounds from his college weight of 310 and raised his stock in the run-up to the actual draft. Analysts said his biggest strength was “shooting well with both hands.” But alas, the Cavaliers were in major need of a center and had just finished a 47-win campaign—you can see the logic if you squint a little bit.
Anyway, Potapenko scored 20 points in a game just eight times over a decade-long NBA career with the Cavs, Celtics, Sonics and Kings. Today, he works for the Cavs as assistant director of player development.
11. Golden State: Todd Fuller
What they said: “What you’re getting here is a young guy who has really improved his game from year to year to year.”
Fuller was a 6’11” center from N.C. State with a nice high-post game who averaged 20.9 points per game as a senior and once scored 30 points against Wake Forest and Tim Duncan. He also, as announcers note, had a GPA just under 4.0. The declining Warriors already had Joe Smith (1995’s No. 1 overall) in place down low and hoped to pair Fuller with him. It didn’t work. His rookie average of 4.1 points per game marked a career-high: that number declined each of the next four seasons as he bounced to the Jazz, Hornets and Heat before heading overseas.
Fuller is currently pursuing a Master's in advanced analytics at N.C. State. He recently told the San Jose Mercury News that he barely follows the NBA. He has, however, heard that Kobe is retiring.
10. Indiana: Erick Dampier
What they said: “Very strong, powerful basketball player. [The pick] probably surprises me a little bit.”
You probably know Erick Dampier best from all the times Shaquille O’Neal lambasted him in the media. The whole “Ericka” thing never totally went away. In his defense, neither should the bright red jacket and way-ahead-of-its-time air tie look he rocked while shaking David Stern’s hand on stage. The Pacers already had Dale and Antonio Davis, and added Dampier to bolster their frontcourt anyway. The Mississippi State star, despite his lack of real skills and inability to shoot free throws, was the second center selected.
Dampier's career wasn't spectacular, but he had an impressively long run in the NBA. He lasted 16 years in the league and was once traded from the Mavericks to the then-Bobcats for Tyson Chandler, a swap that had a major impact on the next season’s finals. Dampier ended up on the post-Decision Heat in 2011, then watched from the bench as Miami fell to Dallas—and Chandler— in six games.
9. Dallas: Samaki Walker
What they said: “They need a physical force. This guy is a legit 6'9".”
In addition to having a really fun name to say aloud, Walker wore an incredibly fly white bowler hat to the draft. After two years at Louisville, he turned pro with a reputation as a strong rebounder and shot blocker, and was seen as a bit of a project coming out. Though he never lived up to his billing, Walker later became a fairly useful Laker role player, starting 102 games in two seasons and winning a title alongside Kobe in 2002. He also says Kobe once punched him, over $100.
He also hit a shot that counted after the buzzer in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Kings, which helped lead the NBA to eventually use instant replay review for all end-of-period shots. Samaki Walker was more influential than you thought.
8. New Jersey: Kerry Kittles
What they said: “They know they’re getting a proven scorer…great quickness, finishing ability and he’s got range.”
Even with Bryant, an elite high school guard from the Philly area, also available, then-Nets coach John Calipari opted for Kittles, a sweet-shooting two-guard, out of Villanova. He remains the school’s all-time leading scorer after a decorated four-year career, but never became a star in the NBA partially because of knee injuries. Kittles, who was drawing Reggie Miller comparisons, played just eight seasons in the league. He peaked alongside Jason Kidd on some competitive Nets teams that lost in two straight Finals to the Lakers and Spurs. Or, maybe he peaked when he became a banker on Wall Street after retiring.
7. L.A. Clippers: Lorenzen Wright
What they said: “They’re gonna have to bulk him up if he’s going to have to play [center]...what they need is someone to get them over the hump in the last two minutes...he needs to go in the weight room.”
Wright was the seventh straight underclassman taken in this draft, which old-guard NBA execs probably lost sleep over in ‘96 and now means next to nothing in 2016. He came out of Memphis athletic and rail-thin. On the broadcast, they said his biggest weakness was “limited offensive skills,” and that his biggest strength as “athletic/raw talent,” which (and yes, hindsight) pretty much screams “giant red flag.” To his credit, Wright put together a 13-year career in the league, but never lived up to his draft position, starting 447 of 778 games.
Wright’s career ended in 2009, and in 2010 he disappeared for 10 days before his body was discovered in the woods near his ex-wife’s home in Tennessee. His death at age 34 remains a mystery.
6. Boston: Antoine Walker
What they said: “The guy has a great low post game...he reminds me of Magic Johnson in the open floor...somewhere [between] the championship game and the draft, he grew two inches.”
We can’t talk about Antoine Walker in this draft without the disclaimer that the above comments came from Rick Pitino, who happened to have just coached him to an NCAA title at Kentucky. But to hear Pitino, who would leave to coach Walker in Boston one year later, express his glee at his protegé landing with the Celtics is semi-suspect and fairly amusing.
Anyway, Walker turned out pretty well, making All-Rookie and ultimately three All-Star teams. He leveraged his unique combination of size and skills to become a high-volume scorer while also insisting on chucking threes relentlessly, despite being a statistically mediocre distance shooter for his entire 12-year career. Walker was once asked why he shot so many three pointers, and famously replied “because there are no fours.” He was traded six times from 2003-2008 and won a title with the Heat in 2006.
Though he sometimes struggled with his playing weight, he was capable of being pretty damn hard to stop.
In 2010, Walker filed for bankruptcy and has since become one of the poster boys for an era of extravagant player spending.
5. Minnesota: Ray Allen
What they said: “He has range, Ernie.”
When he was drafted out of UConn, Allen was the reigning Big East Player of the Year. This was the first of many honors to come: Allen would ultimately play his way to future Hall–of–Fame status, hit arguably the biggest shot in NBA Finals history and take on the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee's film He Got Game. (Roger Ebert called Allen “a rarity, an athlete who can act.”)
The early scouting reports were accurate, given that Allen became the NBA’s all-time leading three-point shooter and retained his ability to straight-up torch people for almost all of his 18 years in the league. His legacy is close to unassailable.
The Timberwolves, of course, did not at all reap the benefits of Allen's accomplishments: they traded him and a future first–round pick to the Bucks on the night of the draft for...
4. Milwaukee: Stephon Marbury
In exchange for Allen and a future first–rounder (which in 1998 became the immortal Rasho Nesterovic), the Timberwolves received future footwear innovator and Chinese basketball legend Stephon Marbury.
What they said: “He has a great feel for the game, he gets everyone involved, he can score, shoot threes, he’s a excellent defender and can make the pass in traffic.”
Seeing a tearful young Marbury break down in tears during his interview [2:09 mark] actually remains pretty poignant, even if his definition of an NBA point guard (“a leader, a person that’s going to make everyone around him better, sacrifice, doing whatever it takes to win”) doesn’t quite hold with the perception he created over the course of his career. The Brooklyn-born point guard out of Georgia Tech showed plenty of promise in Minnesota, before (as the story goes) eventually growing jealous of Kevin Garnett’s massive contract and wanting out. He was traded to the Nets in 1999 and enjoyed a productive career peak, but was out of the league at age 31, after which he headed to China and won three CBA titles (and counting).
For all the hype, “Starbury” was just a two-time All-Star. He led a number of mediocre Knicks teams and developed a reputation for being difficult in the locker room. At the end of his NBA career, he and Allen were briefly teammates in Boston. Looking at his prime, the talent and highlight-reel resumé are hard to question. He and Kobe briefly meet at 1:30 of this video.
Both the Wolves and Bucks enjoyed success with Marbury and Allen, respectively, but there’s an interesting what-if game to play with this trade, particularly given what Allen would accomplish alongside Garnett (and Paul Pierce) in Boston more than a decade later. What if Allen and Garnett had the chance to spend their entire careers as teammates? What if the Bucks had kept Marbury and let him distribute the ball to Vin Baker and Glenn Robinson on a team where he had a chance to become the undisputed No. 1 option? What if the Bucks had the chance to draft Rasho Nesterovic? WE'LL NEVER KNOW.
3. Vancouver: Shareef Abdur-Rahim
What they said: “What they need is a dominant guy who can board, block shots, get out on the break, fill a lane—he has all of those qualities, plus he’s excellent off-the-dribble facing.”
The selection of Abdur-Rahim, the Pac-10 Player of the Year from Cal, marked the highest a college freshman had ever been drafted. At 6'10", he was a skilled power forward whom the Grizzlies wanted to pair with Bryant “Big Country” Reeves (“a legitimate center,” as Pitino said). Abdur-Rahim became the team’s centerpiece almost instantly and also joined Team USA for a gold medal run in 2000, but Vancouver never turned the team around and he was traded to Atlanta for incoming rookie Pau Gasol in 2001. This all happened before the Grizzlies relocated to Memphis.
Abdur-Rahim played two seasons in Atlanta, including a lone All-Star campaign (21.2 points, nine rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.1 blocks) and was sent to Portland in the middle of 2003-04 for Rasheed Wallace (who played literally one game as a Hawk before getting dealt to Detroit, where he helped the Pistons win the Finals that year.) Abdur-Rahim finished his steady, highly-productive career in Sacramento, where a persistent knee injury forced him to retire at 31.
2. Toronto: Marcus Camby
What they said: “This young man has what all NBA teams look for. He’s a shot blocker, he’s extremely quick and if you double down on him, he’ll find the open man.”
Camby had a case to go No. 1 after leading UMass to the Final Four (later vacated after it was found he’d accepted money from agents) and was considered the top big man in the draft. A electrifying athlete who ran the floor and blocked shots, Camby joined a fairly promising young Raptors team that included Damon Stoudamire and Doug Christie (this all happened pre-Vince Carter/Tracy McGrady). He was traded to the Knicks for veteran Charles Oakley after just two seasons, where he became a key part of a team that went to the Finals in 1999.
Here are some especially-trill highlights of Camby at UMass that completely justify this pick in a vacuum.
Despite an extended run as one of the league’s best shot-blockers and rebounders, Camby didn’t quite put things together on the offensive end. He won Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 with the Nuggets and made the All-Defensive team four times. He was still incredibly solid for a decade despite dealing with a slew of injuries.
1. Philadelphia: Allen Iverson
What he said: “They just want me to come in, play my game, distribute the ball...It would be crazy to think I would come in and take all the shots.”
That quote is everything.
It’s amazing to watch a very-young Iverson’s interview with a very-young Craig Sager, and hear him talk about not shooting all the time. As far as dudes who shot all the time go, he’s up there with the greatest ever. Coming out of Georgetown with some off-court baggage after a 1993 arrest, Iverson won Rookie of the Year and was a dominant scorer right from the get go, listed at just 6'0". There’s not much need to really dress up any of his accomplishments or justify this pick. Just watch the highlights.
Iverson’s one trip to the NBA Finals came against Bryant and the Lakers in 2001, the year A.I. won MVP. The Sixers never had enough to trade blows with both Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Regardless, Iverson was a singularly exhilarating star who defined the immediate post-Jordan era as much as anybody. He will enter the Hall of Fame this summer.
Kobe retires as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, with 33,583 points going into his final game, against the Utah Jazz. He scored more points total than the five players drafted immediately ahead of him combined. He owns five championship rings, more than every 1996 first-round draftee combined if you exclude Derek Fisher, who won all five rings as Bryant’s teammate. He outlasted them all.
And yet, twelve teams passed. As we consider Kobe’s legacy, perhaps the most impressive part of his career is that hardly anyone expected it.