With the 2010 Draft Lottery leading to mock drafts popping up all across the World Wide Web, it offers up a chance to look back at the 1996 Draft that spawned so many of this year’s postseason stars. Widely regarded as one of the best drafts of all-time (1985 and 2003 would beg to differ, mind you), it has produced 10 All-Stars, including Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Derek Fisher.
The 1996 Draft marked a period when the trend of jumping from high school to the NBA was gaining steam, as Kevin Garnett had opened the preps-to-pros door one year earlier. Still wary of tabbing a raw high schooler with a high draft pick, many teams shied away from Lower Merion High’s Bryant in favour of “safer” picks. Then-Nets head coach John Calipari admitted he was intrigued by Bryant’s ceiling, but felt Kerry Kittles, whom he selected at No. 8, was more of a sure thing.
The Lakers took advantage of that mindset and acquired his draft rights from the Charlotte Hornets (who had grabbed him at No. 13) for another sure thing in Vlade Divac. Divac would find some success in two seasons in Charlotte and even more as a member of the Sacramento Kings, but Kobe has spent much of his NBA career among the NBA elite and continues to do so as he tries to lead L.A. to a defence of their 2009 title.
While never the game-changer that Bryant has been, Fisher has been a steady, reliable presence at the point and a key contributor to four Laker titles. He was selected 11 picks after Kobe, available to be taken by L.A. at the No. 24 spot. Even though he had a stellar career at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), he was an under-the-radar type who had quietly excelled at a small school in a mid-major conference. In Fisher, the Lakers saw a mature player with a high basketball IQ.
Fourteen years later, Bryant and Fisher are firmly in the middle of L.A.’s deep play-off run as they hold a 2-0 lead against the Suns. But they know that the series is far from over, as Phoenix has displayed a feisty side that stems directly from Nash, the team’s anchor.
Much like Fisher, Nash enjoyed a successful college career leading a small, lesser-known program. After leading Santa Clara University to three West Coast Conference championships, he became the first Bronco to have his jersey retired by the school. Also like Fisher, although he was drafted by his current team in 1996, he is in his second stint with the franchise.
Nash’s first stint in Phoenix, upon being selected 15th over-all to boos from Suns fans hoping for a more marquee name, was marred by struggles acclimating to the pro game and a dearth of opportunities behind star guards like Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell and Jason Kidd. Of course, after a six-year tenure in Dallas, Nash’s second stint in the desert has been much more fruitful and he has all but cemented himself as a future Hall-of-Famer. Now, at 36 years old, he continues to lead the Suns’ high-tempo offence while playing some of the best basketball of his career.
Another ageless wonder from the ’96 draft can be found hitting crucial threes for the Celtics in the Eastern Conference final. Selected fifth over-all by Minnesota in 1996, Allen found himself in Milwaukee after a draft-day trade for No. 4 Stephon Marbury.
Always a great player lost on mediocre teams with the Bucks and then the Sonics (although he did lead Milwaukee to the 2001 Eastern Conference final), the sharpshooter got his chance to shine on a contender when he was dealt to Boston in 2007. Forming one-third of the “Big Three” with Garnett and Paul Pierce, Allen won his first NBA title in 2008. Perhaps even more remarkable is this year’s run, where he and his Celtics teammates were written off as over the hill prior to the postseason but stunned Cleveland and find themselves two games away from the NBA Finals.
Some have drawn comparisons between the ’96 class and this year’s draftees in terms of sheer depth of talent. John Wall appears to be a can’t-miss, just as Allen Iverson was 14 years ago. But the real similarity could lie in the ability to find game changers well past the No. 1 pick.
That being said, it’s all speculation until we find Wall, Evan Turner and Derrick Favors vying for the 2024 NBA title.