Friday, February 02, 2007

Most Important Draft Pick Ever

While talking about the NBA with my brother the other day it finally dawned on me that the 2003 NBA draft is the most important draft of this decade, and may well have decided the future of some NBA franchises for the next twenty years. In fact, one can make a case that the 2003 draft was more important than the 1984 draft that yielded Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. It remains unclear whether the 2003 draft will produce as many Hall of Famers as the 1984 class, but from a sure business model for many franchises, if not the league as a whole, it will have a far greater impact. The teams with the last two picks in the first round the Phoenix Suns, did better than most of the teams in the middle with their selections of Leandro Barbosa and Josh Howard respectively. The Bulls found a point guard in Kirk Hinrich and with this group the NBA found a nice blend of international and American talent that helped the league make further inroads in the worldwide market, while restoring the interest of fans in the United States.

You must think that I am crazy for saying that there is a more important draft than the one that produced Michael Jordan. And if you think that’s crazy, listen to this, I think Darko Milicic was a more important draft pick for the future of this league, than Michael Jordan.

Blasphemous. I know. But hear me out, I am not suggesting that Darko is a more important player for the history of the league, just a more important draft pick. My brother didn’t buy it either, but I’m still going to try to persuade y’all.

It was amazing to hear Darko blame the Pistons for the setbacks in his career while reading a recent article on him in the NYTimes. In his mind, it’s as if there was no way off of the bench for him. The strange thing about this is that Darko has been a bench player during his entire career. He was on the bench on his club team in Europe, rode the pine for the Pistons, and is now riding the pine for the Orlando Magic. Given that piece of information, it seems ludicrous that an organization would invest upwards of 15million dollars in a player with that resume. Making matters worse, is that he was surrounded by the most talented group of players to be appear in the same draft in years; Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Josh Howard, Kirk Hinrich, TJ Ford, Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw. If you’re keeping count that list includes the league’s current scoring leader, Anthony, a defending championship MVP, Wade, and the reigning most improved player, Diaw.

In hindsight everyone knows that Jordan would go ahead of Hakeem and Bowie, but Bowie was an All-American at Kentucky and were it not for the injuries that derailed his career, he would’ve still been a lottery pick. The comparison to Kwame Brown is also off base because Brown was selected over high school peers Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, neither of whom have become the superstars that Darko’s classmates have become, and in the case of James and Anthony, already were.

If you’re a Pistons fan it must pain you to watch Chris Webber limp up and down that court knowing that your team could’ve easily had a frontline of Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Chris Bosh. Worst of all, it must really hurt to hear Joe Dumars refuse to admit his error.

But none of this really explains why I think Darko might be the most important draft pick in NBA history. There have been other players who did not live up to expectations, and Darko may very well end up being another Raef LaFrentz, who is the player he most reminded me of when I heard about Darko in 2003. However, there has never been a player in the annals of sports so gratuitously mythologized—nor has there ever been an organization to so blatantly fall for that myth. Sure the NFL produces a workout freak every year during its draft, but those players are still often alumni of top football programs, and not semi-pro players off of the street, which is essentially what Darko was when the Pistons drafted him. I’d go a step further and say that Darko was the NBA version of the fake pitcher that Sports Illustrated chronicled in an article in the late 80s who had a 110mph fastball and sundry other skills that were off the charts. In that article SI was poking fun at the cult of baseball scouting and the legendary characteristics often attributed to phenoms. No baseball team was misguided enough to draft that player, but for some reasons, with a wealth of NBA ready talent in their backyard, the Pistons saw fit to travel to the outskirts of Europe to check out the 18 year old seven footer who can run, jump, shoot threes, block shots and chew gum at the same time.

How ironic, that while Darko continues putting up inconsistent nights for the Magic and tries to convince himself that he’s actually an NBA caliber player, the magical 18 year old prototype who the Pistons were fawning over will be making his first all-star start. Although his name isn’t Darko, it’s Chris Bosh.

As of now we should be prepared to measure Darko not by his career output, especially in comparison to his other draft classmates, but to critically consider how deftly he and his agents, and their number one cheerleader at the time ESPN’s Chad Ford, hustled the Pistons into drafting him.

Jordan may have pulled many a magic trick during his NBA career (especially when playing the Knicks), but he could never have pulled off the caper that Darko pulled off on draft night 2003.

The Nightshift Chronicler

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