It has to be a bittersweet thought to any Kentucky fan: There’s a chance, maybe a good one, that the first two players chosen in the NBA Draft will be Wildcats. And BOTH are freshmen.
Should John Wall and Demarcus Cousins go 1-2, it would be a new chapter for the basketball history books. Twice has a school seen its players chosen with the second and third picks: Connecticut in 2004 (Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon) and Duke in 2002 (Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy). But no college has ever had two of its players chosen with the first two picks.
Cousins would have to fit a specific need and keep improving his game to become the kind of lockdown pick in the two spot that Wall seems to enjoy as the sure-fire top choice. Some like Derrick Favors, the talented power forward from Georgia Tech who has more polish to his game.
But with every long stride he takes on the court, Cousins seems to take a similar stride when it comes to proving he has the skills and the smarts to warrant a fat contract from an NBA team in need.
Wall and Cousins seem a cinch to top UK’s last lottery daily double; in 1984 Sam Bowie was chosen by the Portland Trailblazers with the second pick in the draft (yes, ahead of Michael Jordan. Back then it actually made sense. That’s a topic for another discussion). Melvin Turpin was taken sixth by the Washington Bullets, who immediately traded his rights to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-way deal involving another big man, Tim McCormick.
Sifting through NBA first-round draft picks through the years can spark a lot of memories – especially from someone who’s seen a few of these players come through Rupp Arena.
You know Jodie Meeks was drafted in the second round in ’09 (Bucks); Derrick Rose of Memphis (coached by John Calipari) was the top choice in ’08 (Bulls) and the ’07 draft, which saw freshman center Greg Oden of Ohio State selected first (Trailblazers) included three players from the Florida team that had just won its second straight NCAA title.
Let’s go back to the 2006 NBA Draft. I was actually in New York with my kids, visiting family. I realized the draft was that night, so we headed down to Madison Square Garden (the draft is in the auditorium attached to the arena).
We saw Italian star Andrea Bagnani chosen first by the Toronto Raptors; my son got to boo J.J. Redick of Duke, who was taken 11th by the Orlando Magic. And it was cool when we heard Commissioner David Stern step to the podium and announce, “With the 21st pick in the draft, the Phoenix Suns select… Rajon Rondo…” Not long after that, the Suns traded the rights to the Kentucky guard to the Boston Celtics.
But the real fun in the ’06 draft that night had come one pick prior, when Stern said, “With the 20th pick in the draft, the New York Knicks select…” (Knick fans, as always, had packed the place, ready to cheer, or unleash a torrent of boos) “…Renaldo Balkman of the University of South Carolina.” Then, after a pregnant pause, “Renaldo is not in the building…”
UK fans might recall Balkman for his dreadlocks, and his ability to pound the glass. He also could disappear during a game without warning. The New York fans were so stunned and confused by the choice, they forgot to boo. I turned to my son and said, “Outside of the ESPN guys on stage, we’re probably the only people in this building who even know who he is.”
The 2005 draft had four North Carolina Tarheels taken in the first round, including Marvin Williams (2nd, Atlanta) and Raymond Felton (6th, Charlotte). Some think UK might have four go in this year’s draft, with Patrick Patterson and possibly Eric Bledsoe joining Wall and Cousins in the first round.
The aforementioned ’04 draft saw Sebastian Telfair leap from his New York high school to the Portland Trailblazers as the 13th pick. Telfair had led Rick Pitino to believe he’d sign and stay a year at Louisville, but he jilted the Cardinals. Because he thought he had Telfair, Pitino had backed off Rondo. That’s when Tubby Smith got a phone call, and a new recruit.
Lebron James, a recent guest in Rupp Arena, was the top pick in the ’03 draft, which also saw Marquette’s Dwyane Wade go to the Miami Heat with the fifth pick, just a couple of months after crushing the hopes of Big Blue fans in the NCAA tournament.
Tayshaun Prince was the 23rd player taken in the ’02 draft; two years later he would help the Detroit Pistons win an NBA title.
Three of the top four picks in the ’01 draft were big men who jumped directly from high school, including top choice Kwame Brown. He was the glaring draft mistake that still haunts then-Wizards co-owner Michael Jordan.
UK center Jamaal Magloire went in the ’00 draft via the 19th pick to Charlotte; he later would become an All-Star while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 1999 draft saw UK’s Scott Padgett go to the Utah Jazz with the 28th pick; Duke had four go in the first round that year, including top choice Elton Brand (Bulls).
In ’98, Nazr Mohammed, coming out a year early, was taken with the final pick in the first round, by Utah, which then traded his rights to Philadelphia. You could argue that Mohammed, who won a ring with the Spurs in ‘05, has had a more productive career than the top pick – Michael Olowokandi of Pacific (Clippers).
Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan went first in the ’97 draft (Spurs), which included UK’s Ron Mercer, chosen by Pitino with the number six pick for the Celtics. Ex-Wildcat Derek Anderson was taken 13th by the Cavaliers.
Antoine Walker was the first of three Wildcats to go in the ’96 draft, following their NCAA championship. Like Mercer, he was chosen sixth, by Pitino and the Celtics. Tony Delk was taken 16th (Hornets) and Walter McCarty went to New York with the 19th pick. Top choice? Allen Iverson of Georgetown (‘76ers).
North Carolina had players go 3-4 in the ’95 draft – Jerry Stackhouse (‘76ers) and Rasheed Wallace (Wizards).
Jamal Mashburn was the fourth player taken in ’93 (Dallas Mavericks). Top choice was Chris Weber (Sacramento Kings), shortly after he and his Michigan teammates eliminated Mash and the Wildcats from the Final Four.
LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal went first in the ’92 draft (Orlando), followed by another outstanding big man, Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown (Charlotte). Then came the player UK fans still love to hate: Christian Laettner of Duke. He went to the Minnesota Timberwolves and never became much of a relevant player in the league.
The 22nd player taken in the ’91 draft was Leron Ellis of Syracuse (Clippers), who had begun his career at UK but transferred because of the impending NCAA sanctions.
The 1990 draft included ex-UK opponent Dave Jamerson of Ohio U (15th pick, Miami), whom Wildcat fans respected; also, Dwayne Schintzius of Florida (24th, San Antonio), whom they didn’t.
Louisville’s Pervis Ellison went first in the ’89 draft, which also included Shawn Kemp (17th pick, Seattle). Kemp had signed with UK but never played for the Wildcats, leaving after he was distantly (and, it says here, innocently) linked to jewelry that had been stolen at the Wildcat Lodge.
Danny Manning of national champion Kansas went first in ’88, when UK fans grudgingly watched the “Boy King,” Rex Chapman, leave after his sophomore season (8th, Hornets). Current UK assistant Rod Strickland was drafted that season as well (19th, Knicks).
David Robinson of Navy, who torched Kentucky for 45 points, was top choice in ’87. That draft included little-known Scottie Pippen of Central Arkansas. He was taken with the fifth pick by Seattle, which traded his rights to the Bulls. He teamed up with a guy named Jordan to win a few rings...
Three players from the ACC went 1-2-3 in 1986: North Carolina’s Brad Daugherty (Cavaliers), the doomed Len Bias of Maryland (Celtics) and N.C. State’s Chris Washburn (Golden State). Then came the SEC: Chuck Person of Auburn (Pacers) and Kentucky’s Kenny Walker (Knicks). Louisville’s Billy Thompson went to the Hawks with the 19th pick; they traded his rights to the Lakers, whom he helped win an NBA title in 1987.
A couple of months after his Georgetown Hoyas lost to Villanova in the championship game in Rupp Arena, Patrick Ewing was taken first in ’85 (Knicks). ‘Nova’s Ed Pinckney was chosen 10th (Suns).
The ’84 draft might have been the best of all time, with Akeem Olajuwon going first (Rockets), then Bowie. UNC had another 3-4 day with Jordan and Sam Perkins (Mavericks) followed by Charles Barkley (‘76ers) and Turpin.
Ralph Sampson, who at the last second chose Virginia over Kentucky, went first in ’83. He was selected by the Rockets, who also had the third pick and used it to take Rodney McCray of Louisville, not long after the first UK-U of L Dream Game.
Joe Barry Carroll, whose Purdue team won the NCAA Mideast Regional and a trip to the Final Four in Rupp Arena, was taken first in ’80, followed by Louisville’s Darrell Griffith (Jazz). He had just led the Cardinals to their first NCAA title.
The 1979 draft is when the Phoenix Suns selected UK’s Kyle Macy with the 22nd and last pick. Macy had made it clear he was going to play his senior season at Kentucky, but because he had redshirted after transferring, at that time he was eligible to be drafted. The Suns took him and held his rights, signing him after his college career was over in 1980. The rule has since been changed. (Magic Johnson of Michigan State was chosen first that year, by the Lakers).
The 1978 draft saw NCAA champions Rick Robey (3rd, Pacers) and Jack Givens (16th, Hawks) of Kentucky selected in the first round. Minnesota’s Mychal Thompson was first (Trailblazers). Larry Bird was chosen sixth, by the Celtics, but, like Macy, he came back for another year of college ball at Indiana State before he signed.
Indiana’s Kent Benson was taken first in 1977, by Milwaukee. Tennessee actually had two first-round picks: Bernard King (7th, Knicks) and Ernie Grunfeld (11th, Bucks).
N.C. State’s high-flying David Thompson went first in 1975 to the Hawks, followed by Dave Meyer of UCLA (Bucks) in a draft that saw UK forward Kevin Grevey chosen with the 22nd and final pick, by Washington. Grevey would go on to win a ring with the Bullets.
UCLA big man Bill Walton was chosen first in ’74. He helped Portland win one title but then came the onslaught of injuries. He later won another as a sub with the Celtics. Marvin “Bad News” Barnes of Providence went second (‘76ers) but spent his first two seasons of pro basketball in the old ABA, where he was named Rookie of the Year with the Spirits of St. Louis in 1975.
One of the first-round picks in the ’73 draft was Swen Nater of UCLA (16th, Bucks) who spent his college career as Walton’s backup. Walton always said Nater was the toughest post player he ever faced in college.
The first pick in the 1972 draft was a man long-remembered as the biggest disappointment of all time among top picks: LaRue Martin of Loyola, chosen by Portland. He was an immediate flop. But that draft was interesting because it included Kentucky State’s Travis “Machine Gun” Grant, taken with the 22nd and final pick by the Lakers. Just ahead of him, the Bucks chose a sophomore out of Massachusetts, a forward who could play a little: Julius Erving, who actually began his career in the ABA.
The ’71 draft saw another Kentucky State Thoroughbred chosen in the first round, Elmore Smith (3rd, Buffalo Braves). He had his best seasons with the Cavaliers, who chose first that year, picking Notre Dame’s prolific guard, Austin Carr.
The Pistons took big Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure with the first pick in the ’70 draft. After San Diego took Michigan’s Rudy Tomjanovich, the Atlanta Hawks selected the incredible Pete Maravich, out of LSU. Boston had the next pick; Red Auerbach chose Florida State center Dave Cowens, from Newport, Kentucky.
This year, Kentucky might match the draftees UCLA produced in 1969: Lew Alcindor (1st, Bucks) and Lucius Allen (3rd, Seattle). Louisville’s Butch Beard was chosen 10th, by the Hawks, just after Boston drafted a guard from Kansas named Jo Jo White.
In 1968, San Diego and Washington tied for the worst record in the league, so they flipped a coin to see who would draft first. The Clippers won the toss and selected Elvin Hayes, a budding superstar from the University of Houston. The “losers” chose Wes Unseld of Louisville, who would go on to win Rookie of the Year and MVP honors the following season, and lead the Bullets to the ’78 NBA title. Tennessee big man Tom Boerwinkle was chosen fourth (Bulls). That’s the highest any Volunteer has ever been drafted.
Western Kentucky’s Clem Haskins was the third player taken (Bulls) in 1967, a draft that saw San Diego choose UK forward Pat Riley with the seventh pick, just after the New York Knicks had selected a guard from Southern Illinois named Walt Frazier.
Check out the 1964 draft: Only seven players were chosen, including former Lafayette High School star Jeff Mullins of Duke (5th, St. Louis Hawks). Back then there weren’t as many teams in the league.
The ’62 draft saw only seven players taken as well, including Leroy Ellis of St. John’s, father of ex-Wildcat Leron. Leroy went to the Lakers with the sixth pick; right after that, the Boston Celtics drafted Ohio State’s John Havlicek.
The ’60 draft included one of the greatest 1-2 combinations in basketball history: Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, chosen first by the Cincinnati Royals, and Jerry West of West Virginia, who went to the then-Minneapolis Lakers. That draft also saw Lenny Wilkens of Providence selected (6th, Hawks); he would go on to become the winningest coach in NBA history.
Elgin Baylor and Seattle University lost to Kentucky in the 1958 NCAA final; his consolation – he was the top pick in the draft that year (Lakers).
The first pick in the 1957 draft was another ex-WVU Mountaineer, Rod Hundley, who was chosen by Cincinnati. Number two was Louisville’s Charles Tyra, taken by Detroit. The eighth and final pick was a guard out of tiny North Carolina Central: Sam Jones, who joined Bill Russell in Boston and picked up a few championship rings of his own.
Russell arrived on the scene in 1956.
A draft-day trade in ’56 has since been called one of the most important trades in the history of North American sports – and it involved a former Kentucky Wildcat.
Because Boston had finished second in the previous season and the worst teams had the highest draft picks, the Celtics had slipped too low in the draft order to pick All-American Russell, the great center from the University of San Francisco.
Celt’s coach and general manager Red Auerbach already had used his territorial pick to acquire talented forward Tom Heinsohn. Back then, NBA teams could choose a player from their respective market area, in order to bolster home attendance.
But Auerbach knew the Rochester Royals, who owned the first draft pick, already had a skilled rebounder in Maurice Stokes. The Royals were looking for an outside shooting guard and were unwilling to pay Russell the $25,000 signing bonus he had demanded.
The St. Louis Hawks, who owned the second pick, originally drafted Russell, but were hoping to deal for Celtics center Ed Macauley, a six-time All-Star who had roots in St. Louis.
Auerbach agreed to trade Macauley, who had previously asked to be traded to St. Louis in order to be with his sick son, if the Hawks would give up the rights to Russell. However the owner of St Louis called Auerbach later and demanded more in the trade. Not only did he want Macauley, who was the Celtics’ premier player at the time, he wanted former UK All-American Cliff Hagan, who had been serving in the military for three years and had not yet played for the Celtics.
Auerbach grudgingly agreed to give up Hagan, and the Hawks made the trade.
During that same draft, Boston also claimed guard K.C. Jones, Russell's former USF teammate. Thus, in one night, the Celtics managed to draft three future Hall of Famers: Russell, K.C. Jones and Heinsohn. The Celts went on that incredible run, winning 11 titles in 13 seasons.
Hagan did get a ring, though, teaming with the great Bob Pettit to lead the Hawks to the 1958 NBA championship. Pettit was a two-time All-American out of LSU, who scored 50 points against Russell (who had been hobbled by an ankle injury) in the final game.
Hagan also earned an even more impressive ring – the one that comes from being inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.
Perhaps that lies in store for one of the Wildcats who will be drafted this year.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)