The 1996 NBA draft sure wasn't Senior Night. A record 17
underclassmen, including the top seven selections, were among
the 29 players taken in the first round of the June 26 event at
Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. Forward John
Wallace, who played four years for Syracuse and led his team to
this year's NCAA championship game, sat in disbelief as two high
school kids (guard Kobe Bryant, taken No. 13 by the Hornets, and
forward Jermaine O'Neal, No. 17, Trail Blazers), two foreigners
(Ukrainian forward-center Vitaly Potapenko, No. 12, Cavaliers,
and Yugoslavian-born forward Predrag Stojakovic, now a Greek
citizen, No. 14, Kings) and a guy with a stress fracture in his
right foot (Memphis's sophomore center Lorenzen Wright, No. 7,
Clippers) were taken ahead of him.
"When you evaluate this draft in three years, you'll see my name
at the top of the list," Wallace vowed after the Knicks ended
his nationally televised misery by grabbing him at No. 18.
The Timberwolves didn't need to wait three years to declare
themselves on top of the world. Vice president of basketball
operations Kevin McHale had long lusted after Georgia Tech
freshman Stephon Marbury for two reasons: McHale had a glaring
need for a point guard, and Marbury was the only prospective top
pick who actually wanted to play in Minnesota, where he could
hook up with his close friend Kevin Garnett, the Wolves'
Minnesota got its man indirectly. The Bucks drafted Marbury at
No. 4 and then swapped him to the Wolves for UConn guard Ray
Allen (whom Minnesota had picked at No. 5) and future
considerations (which will be center Andrew Lang). By doing so,
the Timberwolves snagged an exciting floor leader who will draw
fans and took a giant step toward persuading Garnett to stick
around when his contract is up in two seasons. The latter is a
major concern of the Wolves' front office.
The Grizzlies also had been coveting Marbury, who declared he
wouldn't play for Vancouver. Then Cal freshman Shareef
Abdur-Rahim, who kept everyone guessing whether he would be in
or out of the draft, fell into their laps at the No. 3 spot.
Thus the Grizzlies bagged a 6'10" blue-chipper who may have been
in no position to be picky about where he ended up; the
speculation was that Abdur-Rahim's decision to bolt college was
tied to an expected NCAA investigation of Cal's basketball
program that could result in sanctions. Abdur-Rahim denies that
his decision was linked to any worries about a probe. "He is so
young," says Vancouver president and general manager Stu Jackson
of the 19-year-old Abdur-Rahim, "and he has such an upside as a
player. He'll grow up with this franchise."
Aside from the Wolves, the Knicks may have come out best on
draft night. New York tried in vain to peddle its three
first-round slots, then crowed as it landed three Final Four
frontcourt heroes: Wallace, Kentucky's Walter McCarty at No. 19
and Mississippi State's Dontae' Jones at No. 21.
The Knicks, who know all about disruptions, are unfazed by
Wallace's bad-boy reputation, which grew in the weeks before the
draft. Wallace, who had seemed an almost certain lottery pick,
allegedly blew off some predraft interviews with teams that
thought they might be interested in him, and he exhibited
surliness and arrogance in the interviews he did attend. Yet his
agent, Eric Fleisher, says Wallace failed to meet with only two
teams: the Celtics, because he missed his flight, and the
Pacers, because their request came at the last minute.
Wallace did work out for six clubs: the Bucks, the Grizzlies,
the Lakers, the Mavericks, the Nets and the Timberwolves.
Sources from those teams gave him low marks for attitude and
congeniality. "Some of his workouts might have come off the
wrong way, for whatever reason," says Fleisher, "but too many
teams didn't take the time to get to know John Wallace, and
tried to turn him into Derrick Coleman. That's unfair." The
invidious comparisons were almost inevitable: Both the 76ers'
Coleman and Wallace wore jersey number 44 while playing for
Jones also dropped from a likely lottery pick to a late
first-rounder but for medical reasons. A physical at the Chicago
predraft camp revealed that a surgical screw implanted to repair
his left foot, first injured in September, had come loose. A new
screw was put in last Friday. If the foot heals properly, as
expected, the Knicks will be big winners.
The draft's biggest losers could be the Kings, who took the
18-year-old Stojakovic, a 6'9" long-range shooter for the Greek
club PAOK. Sacramento general manager Geoff Petrie says he was
informed that Stojakovic had two contracts with PAOK: a
basketball-related pact that had expired, and a
personal-services contract that had two years remaining but was
shaky because it had been signed for Stojakovic by his father.
"We knew there was some risk, but we felt there was a very good
chance we could get him here," says Petrie.
Greek basketball sources say that Stojakovic's agent, Luciano
Capicchioni, told Sacramento and other teams that Stojakovic was
free to play in the NBA because Capicchioni wanted his client to
be the first foreigner drafted, a prestigious honor overseas.
Herb Rudoy, the American agent for Stojakovic who works with
Capicchioni, says Capicchioni did not mislead any teams and
adds, "I'm confident we can work out a settlement and Predrag
will be wearing a Kings uniform next season."
Others close to the Greek basketball scene say don't bet on it.
PAOK general manager Vasilis Economidis told SI through an
interpreter last weekend, "We will do whatever is necessary to
keep our players." Economidis said he has contacted FIBA, the
international basketball governing body, to discuss legal action
and added that the club has a five-year option on Stojakovic.
The Kings may find themselves in a bind, but the Hornets
apparently managed to work their way out of one. They drafted
Bryant, a 6'6" shooting guard, with the express purpose of
shipping him to the Lakers in exchange for center Vlade Divac.
The deal seemed to make sense for both sides: Charlotte needed a
center and the Lakers were trying to clear cap money for their
expected run at luring free-agent center Shaquille O'Neal from
the Magic. (Divac has two years left on his contract worth $8.36
million.) Just as important, Lakers executive vice president of
basketball operations Jerry West coveted the 17-year-old Bryant,
who in turn yearned to be in L.A. But Divac initially declared
he would retire rather than leave Los Angeles, where his wife,
Ana, is an aspiring actress. At the last minute (and facing the
possibility of being shipped to Atlanta rather than Charlotte),
Divac agreed to the move. Like all player transactions at the
moment, it can't be officially announced until July 9, when the
National Basketball Players Association is expected to ratify a
new labor agreement reached with the owners last Friday.
It's a win-win situation: Divac gets a $1.2 million payment
stipulated in a trade clause in his contract; Bryant gets to be
Guess there's one senior who had a good night after all.