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NBA Redraftables Reevalutations: How the Top Player in the Yao Ming Draft Went Ninth

The best, worst, and Knicksiest moves from the 2002 class

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Draft season is here, even if the NBA season isn’t, so we’re taking a look back at some of the most interesting lotteries of the past 24 years. On the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed, Bill Simmons and a rotating cast are redrafting every pick 1-13/14, starting with 1996. Here, we’re going deep on what actually did happen by choosing the best, worst, and Knicksiest move of each class with the gift of hindsight, and also looking at how the numbers would re-rank the lottery board today. (For reference, here’s how the 2002 draft played out.)

Best Move

Amar’e Stoudemire to the Suns, no. 9

The 2002 draft featured a strange cocktail of decorated college stars and complete unknowns. Teams either were dead set on finding the next Dirk Nowitzki or terrified of drafting the next Kwame Brown. Even Yao Ming, who went no. 1, was viewed as a massive dice roll for the Rockets: front offices weren’t sure if the 7-foot-6 center was the second coming of Shaq or Shawn Bradley. Houston was rewarded for its courage, as Yao turned into a star and averaged 19.0 points and 9.2 rebounds during his career, making eight All-Star teams and five All-NBA teams before being forced into retirement because of injuries. Although he played only eight seasons, his career was by all measures a mammoth success, helping spread the game in his home country and leading to his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2016.

The same can’t be said for the four other big men taken in the lottery before Stoudemire (no. 9) came off the board. The Grizzlies thought they had a sure thing in All-American Drew Gooden (no. 4) out of Kansas, but he topped out as a serviceable role player. The Nuggets, in a moment of Dirk FOMO panic, took Nikoloz Tskitishvili at no. 5 (more on that later, obviously). Nene, who has had a solid but not-All-Star-level career, also went to the Nuggets at no. 7, and Chris frickin’ Wilcox went no. 8 to the Clippers on the heels of Maryland’s NCAA title win. That left a skinny teenager, long on red flags and upside, for the Suns to gamble on at no. 9. And did it ever pay off.

At his peak, Stoudemire was one of the best power forwards the league has ever seen. With a devastating combination of power and speed, S.T.A.T. was equally likely to hurdle, juke, or move you. He threw down the types of dunks that could rattle an arena and he produced the types of posterizations that led opponents to cower in fear when he was flying to the rim. In just his third season, he averaged a career-best 26.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks while shooting 55.9 percent from the field. He served as the anchor for the run-and-gun Marbury Suns and the Seven Seconds or Less version once Steve Nash arrived. He won Rookie of the Year in 2003, made six career All-Star teams, and earned five All-NBA selections (including first team in 2007).

But microfracture surgery on both knees would ultimately rob one of the league’s greatest athletes of his greatest gift. Even in second gear, Stoudemire was an effective, and sometimes dominant, big man. After signing a massive five-year, $100 million deal with the Knicks in 2010, Stoudemire averaged 25 and eight his first season in the Garden, but his numbers would decline from there, as did his games played. After playing 78 games his first season in New York, Stoudemire played 47 (of 66 games in the lockout season), 29, and 65 before being traded to Dallas in another injury-shortened season in 2014-15.

Stoudemire retired from the NBA at age 33, but he wasn’t done playing basketball, at first signing with Hapoel Jerusalem in Israel and making appearances in China and the Big 3 before returning to Israel to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Stoudemire played 14 seasons in the NBA, tied for third most in his class, but you can’t help but feel robbed when looking back at his career. What if Stoudemire’s knees had held up? Heck, what if just one had? How high could he have carried the Knicks? How many more prolific seasons would he have put up? And would he have won a ring late in his career? It’s a tough note to end on, but Stoudemire’s career as a whole was something to behold.

Worst Move

Nikoloz Tskitishvili to the Nuggets, no. 5

Look, I get it. Every NBA team was (rightfully) kicking itself for not drafting Nowitzki in ’98. It was clear by Dirk’s second season that the GMs who passed on him were never going to live this down. That led to two things: One, it helped validate the draft cases of other great young international players, like Pau Gasol, who was selected no. 3 in 2001. Two, teams became obsessed with scouring the globe for the next great international prospect, which led more than a couple into buying fool’s gold, like Tskitishvili at no. 5 in 2002.

Nikoloz Tskitishvili to the basket
Nikoloz Tskitishvili during his rookie season with the Nuggets
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The 7-footer lasted only four seasons before burning out of the league, finishing with career averages of 2.9 points and 1.8 rebounds. He also ended his career with minus-1.6 win shares, the lowest mark of any player in the 2002 class and one of the worst marks of any lottery pick in history.

So why did the Nuggets take him? Before coming to the NBA, Tskitishvili played for Benetton Treviso in Italy, which was being coached at the time by none other than Mike D’Antoni. In 11 games that season, the lanky 19-year-old averaged 6.6 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. I’ve got nothing else to add after that. Somehow, someway, that and what must have been some very convincing highlights were enough to get him selected fifth. Remember, the Dirk FOMO.

The Nuggets mitigated the Tskitishvili damage by picking up Nene, the no. 7 pick, in a trade with the Knicks. Nene was a very productive big man for the franchise throughout his 20s, though Denver could have drafted Stoudemire or Caron Butler (who went no. 10), either of whom would have paired nicely next to the franchise’s lottery pick the next season: Carmelo Anthony.

Most Underrated Move

Carlos Boozer to the Cavaliers, no. 35

Boozer was the third wheel on Duke’s 2001 national title team after Jay Williams and Mike Dunleavy, who went nos. 2 and 3 in the ’02 draft, but the power forward ended up being the most productive Blue Devil in his draft class—and one of the most valuable players overall.

Boozer averaged 16.2 points and 9.5 rebounds during his 13-year career, finishing second among his draft peers in win shares and box plus-minus, and first in value over replacement player (VORP). He made two All-Star teams and an All-NBA third team in 2008, and had career earnings of more than $146 million (arguably the most important metric of all). He was a dependable source of offense and a rugged rebounder, one of the unsung heroes of the Derrick Rose–era Bulls, and one of the most successful second-round picks in history. His fall in the draft can likely be attributed to general managers overthinking things. Everyone assumed Boozer had already reached his ceiling as a junior at Duke and wouldn’t have much upside. Instead, his prolific production carried over to the league, with the big man’s arsenal and willpower being underestimated by scouts and executives (HOLDAT L).

Boozer wasn’t the only steal in the ’02 draft. Despite a first round littered with busts, the second round produced six 10-year vets (compared to nine in the first round). Most notable: Matt Barnes at no. 46 (Grizzlies), Rasual Butler at no. 53 (Heat), and Luis Scola at no. 56 (Spurs). All three had long, fruitful careers, but the latter was a particularly big heist. The Spurs snagged the Argentine with the third-to-last pick, and when he came over five years later, at age 27, he contributed 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, playmaking in the post, and rugged defense for Houston. Scola would play 10 seasons for the Rockets, Suns, Pacers, Raptors, and Nets, developing a reputation as one of the most durable and reliable players in the league.

Biggest What-if

What if Jay Williams hadn’t gotten injured?

There wasn’t so much unfettered hype around Jay Williams entering the league as there was unwavering confidence. Almost everyone was certain the Naismith Player of the Year would, at a minimum, turn into a 10-time All-Star. Sure, Yao offered more upside and intrigue as a potential game-changing behemoth. But the Duke guard was a lock to improve any franchise. Here’s what Bill Simmons wrote back in 2002:

Years from now, we will remember “Yao Ming over Jay Williams” the same way we remember “Bowie over Jordan,” “Traylor for Nowitzki,” “Carroll for McHale and Parish,” “Aguirre over Thomas” and every other great draft day blunder in NBA history. I’m not just predicting it, I’m guaranteeing it.

As bold as this sounds now, few blinked at the time. Williams was so productive and electric at Duke that it was hard to imagine a scenario where his skill and poise wouldn’t translate to the NBA. And while Williams experienced his fair share of struggles his rookie season (9.5 points and 4.7 assists on 39.9 percent shooting), we tragically never got to find out whether he would realize that tantalizing potential. A devastating motorcycle accident after his first season led to career-ending injuries, including a fractured pelvis, a torn ACL, and a severed nerve in his leg. Williams attempted a comeback in 2006, after grueling years of physical therapy, but never made it past the D-League.

It’s hard not to wonder what a healthy Williams would have done for the Bulls. Would he and Jamal Crawford have blossomed into one of the league’s best backcourts? Would Williams have been able to get more out of Eddy Curry or Tyson Chandler in Chicago? And would the Bulls have used subsequent lottery picks differently (Kirk Hinrich in 2003 and Ben Gordon in 2004) if they weren’t trying to fill their point-guard void?

How the Knicks Fucked Up

If you think we’re piling on with this category, you just aren’t familiar with Knicks draft history. The 2002 draft was yet another stroke of genius. In a draft-day trade, the Knicks sent the no. 7 pick (Nene), prime Marcus Camby, and over-the-hill Mark Jackson to the Nuggets for damaged Antonio McDyess, Frank Williams, and a 2003 second-round pick (which became Maciej Lampe).

Spurs v Knicks
Antonio McDyess
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

McDyess suffered a patellar tendon rupture early in the 2000-01 slate, and returned for just 10 games in 2001-02, averaging 11.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 23.6 injury-cautioned minutes. That would have scared most teams off—but not the Knicks, who were banking on the 28-year-old bouncing back to the 20-10 form he displayed early in his career. But like so many Knicks moves that maybe looked good on paper, this one fell apart. McDyess reinjured his knee in a meaningless exhibition game before he could make his official Knicks debut and was forced to sit out the entire 2002-03 season. Eighteen disappointing games into the following season, New York traded him to the Suns. While he would play seven more seasons in the league, including many productive campaigns as a role player with the Pistons, he was long gone from New York by then.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the trade, Camby gave the Nuggets six prolific seasons, leading the league in blocks three times and winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2007. He averaged 10.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks during his time in Denver. Nene, whom the Knicks also traded away for McDyess, gave the Nuggets 10 seasons in which he mostly served as a starter, averaging a rock-solid 11.3 points and 6.0 rebounds along the way.

So, in essence, the Knicks gave away 16 productive seasons of frontcourt play in exchange for 18 injury-riddled games. Told you we weren’t piling on.

In-Hindsight Draft Board

Using a mix of two all-encompassing statistics—Basketball-Reference’s win shares and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR wins above replacement—we calculated the peak and career value for each player drafted (and undrafted) since 1996. (Peak value comprised the top five seasons of a player’s career.) Then, for each class, we ranked the players in three ways: by peak value, by career value, and by an ultimate blend of the two, using baseball’s JAWS model as an example. The first chart shows the top 13 players according to these rankings, while the second looks at the lottery picks that didn’t make the cut. An important caveat is that all of these rankings address regular-season performance only; feel free to mentally adjust placements based on playoff exploits.

The New Lottery Order

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Amar'e Stoudemire 9 2 1 1
Nenê Hilário 7 1 3 2
Carlos Boozer 35 3 4 3
Yao Ming 1 6 2 4
Tayshaun Prince 23 4 5 5
Mike Dunleavy 3 5 6 6
Caron Butler 10 7 7 7
Matt Barnes 46 8 8 8
John Salmons 26 9 11 9
Luis Scola 56 10 9 10
Udonis Haslem Undrafted 12 10 11
Drew Gooden 4 11 12 12
Chris Wilcox 8 13 13 13

The Lotto Picks Left Behind

Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Player Pick Career Rank Peak Rank Blended Rank
Jay Williams 2 39 41 39
Nikoloz Tskitishvili 5 65 65 65
Dajuan Wagner 6 61 62 62
Jared Jeffries 11 18 19 18
Melvin Ely 12 60 32 42
Marcus Haislip 13 57 59 59