Big mistake to take size over skill at No. 2 in NBA draft

Shawn Bradley was delighted to be a Sixer, but didn't delight fans.
Shawn Bradley was delighted to be a Sixer, but didn't delight fans. (Mike Potter)
Posted: June 22, 2010

UNLESS YOU HAVE been underground, bunking with LaRue Martin, you are well aware that the 76ers have the second pick in Thursday's NBA draft. Which, for the most part, is a good thing. Getting to pick the second-best prospect is better than getting the third, fourth or fifth pick, or so one would be led to believe.

The No. 2 pick might be the trickiest selection of all, something of which the Sixers have become quite aware, having owned it three times, never quite landing what they had hoped. It's where a team needing a big man takes a gamble and usually gets burned (see Shawn Bradley, 1993).

As recently as last year, the Memphis Grizzlies took 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet with the No. 2 pick when they could have chosen Tyreke Evans. Thabeet is such a project that he became the highest draft pick to play in the NBA Development League. Evans, a Chester native, was the NBA's Rookie of the Year.

In 2003, after the Cleveland Cavaliers chose LeBron James, the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic, a supposed 7-foot wunderkind from Serbia. They had the opportunity to draft Carmelo Anthony (No. 3), Chris Bosh (No. 4) or Dwyane Wade (No. 5). No wonder the Pistons were in the lottery this year.

The Atlanta Hawks went with potential in 2005 and chose North Carolina's Marvin Williams, when they could have had their franchise point guard of the future in either Deron Williams (No. 3) or Chris Paul (No. 4).

And in 1984, the biggest No. 2 blunder of all was pulled off by the Portland Trail Blazers. Again, a team in love with a big man was burned. After the Houston Rockets selected Akeem (before he added the "H") Olajuwon, the Blazers picked Kentucky's Sam Bowie. They could have taken a guy named Michael Jordan, who went No. 3 to Chicago, or Charles Barkley, who went No. 5 to the Sixers. They could have traded down and gotten John Stockton, for crying out loud. But Portland figured that Jordan and their own Clyde Drexler were similar players, so they went big instead.

Bobby Knight, who coached Jordan in the 1984 Olympics, urged his pal, Portland general manager Stu Inman, to take Jordan with that second pick. "But we need a center," Inman shot back. To which Knight reportedly replied, "So play him at center."

Inman didn't listen and the rest is history.

Of course, the big-man gambles have failed with No. 1 picks as well. In 2007, the Trail Blazers, who have a history of drafting the wrong big man (see LaRue Martin and Bowie), chose man-child Greg Oden, who has been on the injured list more than on the court. They could have taken a pretty decent small forward by the name of Kevin Durant. And in 1998, the Los Angeles Clippers opted for center Michael Olowokandi when they could have gone small and taken the better player in Mike Bibby.

But the Sixers should be more careful this time around. Will they gamble and go big, or will they play it safe? Maybe the trade with Sacramento, which secured 7-foot Spencer Hawes and 6-7 swingman Andres Nocioni, helped make up their minds. Even before the trade with the Kings, all indications were that president/general manager Ed Stefanski and his staff would go with the consensus pick and draft Ohio State's Evan Turner. But if they decide to trade the pick and gamble on bigs - Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors or Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins - they won't be setting a precedent. Only once have the Sixers actually signed their No. 2 pick.

In 1974, after the Trail Blazers selected Bill Walton, who would lead them to the 1977 championship over Philadelphia, the Sixers chose Marvin Barnes. To say Barnes was a strange egg would be putting it mildly. This guy once hit a Providence College teammate over the head with a tire iron. The Sixers never signed him. Instead, Barnes took his act to the American Basketball Association, where he began an undistinguished career that included 4 years in the NBA with four different teams.

In 1993, the Sixers had a chance to get in the middle of the deal that sent Chris Webber, who was the No. 1 pick, to Golden State in exchange for Anfernee Hardaway, the No. 3 pick, who went to Orlando. This is when they should have traded the pick. Instead, the Sixers stayed away, let the Warriors and Magic make the deal, and were satisfied to pick 7-6 Shawn Bradley, whom many expected to revolutionize the game. Yeah, right.

Then, in 1997, as the Larry Brown regime was getting under way, the Sixers lost out in the Tim Duncan sweepstakes and were looking at Keith Van Horn as their possible choice at No. 2. With a deal in place, the Sixers chose Van Horn for New Jersey and sent him to the Nets with a few salary dumps in exchange for the seventh (Tim Thomas) and 21st (Anthony Parker) picks in exchange.

Three picks - one defection, one trade, one stiff.

The differences between Nos. 1 and 2 have set up franchises for great runs and set up others for failure.

In 1969, Neal Walk, the next-best big, was chosen by the Phoenix Suns after Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, went to Milwaukee. The Bucks won a world championship in Abdul-Jabbar's second season. Walk and the Suns never came close.

In 1983, Steve Stipanovich went to Indiana after Houston chose Ralph Sampson (before he got hurt). The Rockets went to the NBA Finals in 1986.

And in 1997, the Spurs took Duncan and Van Horn ended up with New Jersey. The Nets did get to the NBA Finals in 2002 with Van Horn still on the roster, but it was Jason Kidd (chosen, coincidentally, with the No. 2 pick in 1994) who led them, not Van Horn. Duncan, meanwhile, will go down as one of the greatest power forwards in league history, having won four NBA championships and three NBA Finals MVPs.

The most tragic No. 2 pick involved the Boston Celtics. In 1986, just after winning the NBA title, the Celtics chose Maryland's Len Bias. The day after the draft, Bias, expected to be Larry Bird's heir apparent, died of cocaine intoxication. Thirty years earlier, the most successful No. 2 pick in the history of the league went to the Celtics in a trade. In 1956, the St. Louis Hawks picked Bill Russell and promptly traded him to Boston for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.

With the second pick in the 2010 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select . . . a sure thing.

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