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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Unsung Knick History – The 1996 Draft of No Return(s)

This is the eleventh in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.

So many people have written in to me to suggest that I feature a story on the Knicks’ 1996 draft that I almost wonder if that inherently disqualifies it from being considered “unsung,” but then I figure, “Hey, if the people want to hear about, let’s talk about it!”

In June of 1996, the New York Knicks were getting ready for a Summer shopping spree. The team had cleared out significant salary cap space during the 1995-96 season through trading Charles Smith and Doug Christie. Once they renounced their free agent point guard, Derek Harper (and six other players, including J.R. Reid, who they had received for Smith) the Knicks were far enough under the cap to make a number of aggressive moves to re-shape their roster for the 1996-97 season.

Before that happened, the Knicks would have to participate in the 1996 NBA Draft, which was one of the most talent-rich NBA drafts in recent memory. This draft was notable for the Knicks in that they had three first round draft picks, numbers 18, 19 and 21. The top end of the draft was remarkable, with a top five of Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury and Ray Allen. However, the players drafted from #10-21 have combined for thirty All Star appearances (and counting)! And the Knicks had three picks in that #10-21 section.

And yet somehow, they ended up with effectively nothing.

Read on to find out what happened!

The Knicks acquired the three draft picks through a variety of means. The #21 pick was their own pick. The #18 pick was traded by the Detroit Pistons to the San Antonio Spurs in 1993 as part of the Dennis Rodman/Sean Elliot trade between Detroit and San Antonio. When the Knicks dumped Charles Smith’s salary on the Spurs in the middle of the 1995-96 season, the Spurs passed along the Pistons’ pick.

The #19 pick was acquired as a result of former Knick coach Pat Riley leaving the team after the 1994-95 season while still having a year left on his contract (letting the Knicks know through a fax – sleazy, Pat! Sleazy!!). The Knicks accused the Heat of tampering with Riley while he was under contract tot he Knicks. The dispute was settled in September of 1995 with the Heat giving the Knicks $1,000,000 as well as the #19 pick (which the Heat had, in turn, acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in 1994 in the Kevin Willis/Steve Smith and Grant Long trade).

So, armed with three first round draft picks, sources at the time alleged that the Knicks tried to trade up but could not get anyone to take their package of picks for a higher-ranked player (which makes sense, as, again, this was a highly regarded draft, so people weren’t going to let go of their picks easily – the Bucks got a future first rounder just for swapping the #4 and the #5 picks!).

Ultimately, the Knicks drafted Syracuse star John Wallace at #18, Kentucky star Walter McCarthy at #19 and Mississippi State forward Dontae’ Jones.

That’s a pretty disappointing haul, but it’s made even more disappointing when you look who was drafted around those players.

Here’s picks #10-21 in the 1996 NBA Draft…

10. Erick Dampier
11. Todd Fuller
12. Vitaly Potapenko
13. Kobe Bryant
14. Peja Stojakovic
15. Steve Nash
16. Tony Delk
17. Jermaine O’Neal
18. John Wallace
19. Walter McCarthy
20. Zydrunas Ilgauskas
21. Dontae’ Jones

Yep, just three picks away from two-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), Steve Nash, and five away from Kobe Bryant (who has an an NBA MVP of his own as well as one or five NBA titles).

The most galling part is that Zydrunas Ilgauskus also has had a long, distinguished NBA career (including two All-Star Game appearances) and the Knicks literally drafted around him.

Luckily, for hindsight purposes, the following picks to close out the first round were a bit less exciting….

22. Roy Rogers
23. Efthimios Rentzias
24. Derek Fisher
25. Martin Müürsepp
26. Jerome Williams
27. Brian Evans
28. Priest Lauderdale
29. Travis Knight

Derek Fisher, of course, has gone on to win five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers and was certainly a steal at #24, but had he ended up on the Knicks in 1996-97, I don’t know if he even would have seen any playing time at point guard behind third-year man, Charlie Ward, and Chris Childs (who the Knicks ultimately signed with their salary cap space, along with shooting guard Allan Houston). Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams had a good NBA career (ending it as a member of the Knicks in 2005), but it was not like he was obviously a better player at the time than either Wallace, McCarthy or Jones.

No, the Knicks’ problem in 1996 was not one of inept drafting, but rather one of simple bad luck. They were just one pick away from Jermaine O’Neal! Heck, Cleveland only got the #20 pick over the Knicks through a coin toss (the two teams finished with the same record in 1995-96), so that was another thing that just didn’t go the Knicks’ way (I wonder if the Knicks would have even have drafted Ilgauskus if they had the chance).

The draft looked even worse a year later, as the Knicks officially gave up on all three players, trading all three players before the start of the next season! Wallace was dealt as part of a three-way deal that netted the Knicks center Chris Dudley, while McCarthy and Jones were dealt (along with the Knicks 1997 draft choice, John Thomas) for the immortal Chris Mills. Jones, by the way, is notable in the fact that while he never actually played a game for the Knicks in 1996-97 due to an injury, he still managed to get himself suspended during the Knicks/Heat playoff brawl during the 1997 NBA Playoffs (so he missed the first few games of his Celtics career, a career that was extremely short-lived).

I guess Chris Mills was part of the Latrell Sprewell trade, so maybe without him they would not have landed Sprewell! That’s something, right? I doubt Mills was actually the key to that deal, but still, it’s something!

Anyhow, that is the story of the 1996 Knicks NBA Draft. Sad, huh? Why exactly did so many of you want me to feature this? It is way depressing!

If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

19 comments on “Unsung Knick History – The 1996 Draft of No Return(s)

  1. Nick C.

    I always got annoyed with JVG for for not playing Wallace more my thinking was “he’s the only one who had any game” because the odffense seemd to bog down alot. LOL At least I had an excuse in that I went to SU and he did one-man gang them to the finals. Didn’t Jones break his foot in camp or have it broken in the NCAAs. Those were the days when rookies didn’t play which was OK while they were on their run but by then it was clearly winding down and the indifference (yes I mean you Frederic Weis draft) well you get the point.

  2. Brian Cronin

    Good point, Nick, I should have mentioned Jones’ injury was why he didn’t play for the Knicks in 1996-97. I edited it to fix that. Thanks!

  3. taggart4800

    Keep these articles coming! I started following the Knicks in 2005 (i still cannot fathom why) and it was this site that really cemented my fanatasism. Anyway it is really great to learn these little nuggets of history. Did any of the Knicks picks achieve once they left the Knicks, playing or otherwise?

    As an aside i would be intrigued by a deal centered around Prince if he is unhappy with the coach. Only got a year left on his salary but it would probably take another team to get it done if it is even at all possible or necessary.

  4. rayhed

    wow- i’ve never heard anything related to that riley rumor… where can one read more?… (who doesn’t want more reasons to hate that guy)

  5. latke

    John Wallace did not have a terrible career. He just always seemed like maybe he’d smoked some pot right before the game and wasn’t in the mood to rebound or guard anyone.

    tommy heinsohn still talks about Walter McCarty…

    Seriously though, after Charlie Ward, all the way up until Isiah became GM and snatched Trevor Ariza in the second round, the knicks’ drafting was terrible. I remember trying so hard to be excited about Lavor Postell, and wondering when we were going to be saved by the Frederic Weis, and then the Nene pick – the one good player we drafted in that timespan – and we immediately traded him (along with Camby) for a gimp. Then when we traded that gimp, after paying him for two years and him only playing in 18 games, he experienced a career renaissance, playing 6th man for a very good pistons team, and now still getting quality minutes for the Spurs. Essentially, we traded Camby, Nene, and McDyess for Stephon Marbury…

    I know that’s not really fair to say, because who knew that McDyess’s injury was so serious… I’ve been trying to figure it out, and apparently at some point he had microfracture surgery, but it’s unclear if it was before or after the Knicks signed him, and even with that, the surgery was in its infancy back then. It had wrecked Penny Hardaway’s career, but many thought that was mostly psychological. It wasn’t until later when Allan Houston’s and Chris Webber’s careers both took serious downturns after the surgery that people became wary of it.

  6. Frank

    latke:I remember trying so hard to be excited about Lavor Postell, and wondering when we were going to be saved by the Frederic Weis, and then the Nene pick – the one good player we drafted in that timespan – and we immediately traded him (along with Camby) for a gimp.Then when we traded that gimp, after paying him for two years and him only playing in 18 games, he experienced a career renaissance, playing 6th man for a very good pistons team, and now still getting quality minutes for the Spurs.Essentially, we traded Camby, Nene, and McDyess for Stephon Marbury…I know that’s not really fair to say, because who knew that McDyess’s injury was so serious… I’ve been trying to figure it out, and apparently at some point he had microfracture surgery, but it’s unclear if it was before or after the Knicks signed him, and even with that, the surgery was in its infancy back then.It had wrecked Penny Hardaway’s career, but many thought that was mostly psychological.It wasn’t until later when Allan Houston’s and Chris Webber’s careers both took serious downturns after the surgery that people became wary of it.  

    In Layden’s defense — McDyess was considered one of the top PFs in the league before his injury. He took essentially an entire year off, then looked great in the preseason (17.7 points and 13.3 rebounds in 29 min/game) before he got hurt again — if I remember correctly it was actually thought to be an unrelated injury, although I can’t imagine that reinjuring the same knee twice was just chance.

    That being said – for much of the 1999-2000 playoffs Camby was the best player on the floor — just ran into the DRob and Duncan buzzsaw in the finals. I can’t say I was particularly happy about the trade when it happened….

  7. Nick C.

    rayhed: wow- i’ve never heard anything related to that riley rumor… where can one read more?… (who doesn’t want more reasons to hate that guy)  (Quote)

    Just read Peter Vescey in the Post he seems to bring that (resigning by fax) and that JVG “quit” when it looked like the team would suck almost every month or so. LOL

  8. Z

    Thanks Brian. Entertaining as always. Just wondering, though, if there is any public documentation verifying that Grunfeld was trying to trade up, and if so, who of that crop was he targeting? I’d wager that Kobe and Jermaine O’Neal were not on their board because the Knicks were looking to contend immediately. We were also behind the curve on Euros, so I’d guess against Peja (and Z, who of course could have been had with the #19 pick). If they’d traded up, we probably would have ended up with Fuller or Potapenko, only furthering our frustration.

    As it was, the Knicks ultimately just went with people they’d just seen play in the Final Four that spring. I guess they were saving $ on scouting so they could throw it at Chris Childs….

  9. Nick C.

    Z-oh wow I never looked at it that way, I thought they picked guys who were great or at least good in the Final Four. I never looked at it like they were too lazy or couldn’t be bothered to do much more than watch the tournament.

  10. Nick C.

    BBA, I went to Syracuse (as I seem to be mentioning every third post sorry) so I was beyond thrilled about the pick and him. JVG wa sloath to play rookies and I think Wallace got the plays no D rap (perhaps well-earned but it was a long time ago).

  11. Brian Cronin

    Thanks Brian. Entertaining as always. Just wondering, though, if there is any public documentation verifying that Grunfeld was trying to trade up, and if so, who of that crop was he targeting?

    Good question, Z, I probably should have tempered that point, as it was more a matter being discussed in the newspapers at the time as being “from sources” (as obviously the Knicks are not going to say “we are trying to trade up!”). I was willing to go with it because, well, it just plain ol’ made sense, ya know? But I’ll throw in a qualifier there! Thanks for the pick-up.

  12. Z

    Nick C.: Z-oh wow I never looked at it that way, I thought they picked guys who were great or at least good in the Final Four.I never looked at it like they were too lazy or couldn’t be bothered to do much more than watch the tournament.  

    I wasn’t being fully serious, of course. But the point was: the 1990s Knicks were not looking to draft high schoolers or Europeans. They didn’t want projects. They wanted people who could come in and fill a niche (the reason they traded most of their picks away during the decade). The few picks they made in the decade were all seniors from elite programs: Greg Anthony, Hubert Davis, Monty Williams, Charlie Ward, Wallace, McCarty, etc…. Wallace and McCarty were seniors from the two top college teams in the country and had just played against each other to great exposure in the NCAA finals (just across the Holland Tunnel, feeding the “too lazy” theory! :)

    It’s really not a wonder that they went with those guys (and Jones too, who’d also pumped up his stock with SWMS’s run to the final four). With all the great players in the draft, though, I really do wonder what the Knicks’ draft board looked like that day. Maybe Grunfeld targeted John Wallace and knew he didn’t need to trade up to get him. (Or maybe he thought he could combine Wallace and McCarty into one complete player. That guy would have been great!).

    (ps– McCarty is now an assistant coach with the Pacers. And Monty Williams is head coach of the Hornets. So the Knicks brass was clearly looking for high IQ, high character players in these drafts. So maybe Steve Nash would have been snatched up if he’d been available? Just thinking out loud…)

  13. BigBlueAL

    Wasnt there a real strong rumor that during the 1999 draft the Knicks were close to trading their pick (#15 and we all know who they drafted with that pick) plus Chris Childs to the Cavs for their 1st round pick (#8) to draft Andre Miller which is who the Cavs drafted and kept with that pick??

  14. BigBlueAL

    Knicks-Magic game rescheduled for March 28th at 7:30. Damn, hoping they wouldve forgotten about the game and spared the Knicks from another loss. lol

  15. Ted Nelson

    Brian Cronin: Good question, Z, I probably should have tempered that point, as it was more a matter being discussed in the newspapers at the time as being “from sources” (as obviously the Knicks are not going to say “we are trying to trade up!”). I was willing to go with it because, well, it just plain ol’ made sense, ya know? But I’ll throw in a qualifier there! Thanks for the pick-up.  

    Good stuff, Brian. Definitely an instrumental (largely missed) moment for the Knicks recent history).

    Total speculation, but if the Knicks offer #18 and 19 to move up, say, 1-3 spots, I would think they could have. But, not knowing what’s going to become of these guys why on earth would you be so anxious to move up a couple spots to make 1 risky mid-1st pick rather than hedge your bets with 2 or 3? Maybe the Knicks really saw JO or Nash or Peja as a can’t miss prospect and just couldn’t get up there because others also were salivating about Peja, Nash, Delk, and JO so wouldn’t trade down… but I have to assume the Knicks were more trying to get up to at least the 13 spot or maybe higher and just didn’t want to give away their picks to more up a couple of spots. That makes a lot of sense. In 20-20 hindsight, of course, they should have given all 3 even to move up one spot and take JO. (At the time I wouldn’t be surprised if they traded up and still took a “proven” college guy like Wallace, McCarty, Delk, etc… missing on the higher upside risks who panned out really well…)

    Z: But the point was: the 1990s Knicks were not looking to draft high schoolers or Europeans.

    I agree. However, it’s not 100% true. Dontae’ Jones was a JC guy with only 1 NCAA season and serious attitude concerns… a risky pick. So, with 3 choices in 4 picks the Knicks did take one risk… Say the Blazers take the Jones risk (in a prelude to their Qyntel Woods choice years later) and the Cavs still pick Z… maybe the Knicks do take the JO risk with their 3rd pick… Maybe the Cavs take JO and the Knicks Z… they did trade for Turkcan and take Weis a few drafts later. They were largely conservative, but not entirely.

    Nick C.: JVG wa sloath to play rookies and I think Wallace got the plays no D rap

    He never did anything in the NBA, though, so I don’t know how you can blame not playing as a rookie… JO, for example, barely played for several years and still managed somehow.

    latke: John Wallace did not have a terrible career.

    Wasn’t a particularly good one, either…

  16. AY

    I remember this draft vividly – we were all excited about John Wallace in particular, who had just had a great Final 4 run. Wallace showed flashes throughout that rookie year, but really let us all down during the playoffs when he got a start in Game 7 against the Heat because LJ was suspended. Wallace was terrible in that game and we went on to lose. I remember reading somewhere that he cried in the locker room after the game because he felt he’d let the team down (which he did). He got traded for Dudley the following year. I thought he’d a be a productive player for years to come, but he disappeared after putting up some numbers in Toronto. I think the Knicks even re-signed him under Jeff Van Gundy, but he never played and was gone soon after.

    I will say though that while Chris Mills and Dudley sound pretty terrible, our team was stacked during that year and heading towards long playoff runs. We were two deep at every position except small forward and center, and Dudley and Mills represented quality depth. It was Childs/Ward, Houston/Starks, LJ/Mills, Oakley/Buck Williams, Ewing/Dudley. We were going for it all, so getting two decent veterans was a good fit and really not a terrible outcome.

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