by Gerry Brown
You don't have to look far to see how big an impact a draft pick can have. San Antonio won the draft lottery in 1997 and picked Tim Duncan first overall. Just two seasons later, after 32 years of falling well short, San Antonio won its first NBA title this season.
In the early 1990s, the expansion Orlando Magic had two top picks —Shaquille O'Neal in 1992, and Chris Webber (whom they immediately traded for fellow draftee Penny Hardaway) in 1993— and were in the NBA Finals by 1995.
Of course, just because a player is taken early in the draft, it's no guarantee of success. Several highly touted college players have struggled at the next level and never fulfilled their lofty expectations. Pervis Ellison (1989), Ralph Sampson (1983), and Joe Barry Carroll (1980) were all taken first overall in the draft, but went bust in the NBA.
And the draft is not a foolproof fix for a franchise's failures. The Sacramento Kings, for example, have had a lottery pick for nine of the last ten years without seeing much improvement. The Kings, who may finally be on the upswing, seem like they might have struck gold with 1998 pick Jason Williams, but it's still too early to be sure.
It is with this knowledge of how risky the draft can be that we look at this year's crop of incoming prospects.
Unlike some other years, when everyone knew who the top pick was going to be, 1999 holds an element of mystery. There are several options for the Chicago Bulls, who won this year's draft lottery for the top pick just one season after losing the greatest draft pick of all time, Michael Jordan (taken third by the Bulls in 1984) to retirement.
The Bulls, who fell back to earth with an audible thud after winning six titles in eight years, may choose not to pick at all, but trade their pick to another team for a player and a lower pick. Rumor has it that Toronto may offer forward Tracy McGrady or guard Doug Christie and the fifth pick for the number one pick.
The Bulls, who originally thought they might take Rhode Island's Lamar Odom, are now reconsidering. Odom is considered by many to be the best overall prospect but his recent actions (i.e. unsuccessfully trying to back out of the draft and return to URI for another year, not submitting to a draft physical, and not working out for many clubs) have teams skittish.
Maryland guard Steve Francis is also a potential Number 1 pick. The explosive scorer didn't dominate in the NCAA tourney, but his talent is unquestionable. Elton Brand has an outside shot at going first as well. Last season's college player of the year at Duke is solid, but not as dynamic as Odom or Francis, and the Bulls want to still be selling tickets three seasons from now.
It's kind of silly to try to predict which draftee might have a Hall of Fame career in the pros, but silliness has never stopped us before. A Mississippi high school kid, Jonathan Bender, may have the biggest upside in the draft. He's already done something big, breaking Michael Jordan's scoring record with 31 points in the McDonald's All-America game in March.
Is Bender, a 6'11" forward, a shoo-in for the Hall? Certainly not yet, but get back to us in 2010.
Almanac: Pro Basketball
Almanac: College Basketball
First of all, there may never be another Pervis. But who has the biggest bust potential? Duke's Corey Maggette is the NBA prospect of the month, and while he is unquestionably a great athlete, that is not certain to translate into a great NBA career. The benches of the NBA are filled with great athletes.
Maggette will probably be a top five pick, but his lack of a proven perimeter game could hamper the 6'6" forward's career growth and make him wish he had that degree from Duke to fall back on.