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 email@example.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!