About a week before the 1984 NBA draft, Rod Thorn was getting a little nervous that the player he wanted to select third overall for the Chicago Bulls wasn’t going to be available. Stu Inman, the late former general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, had told Thorn a few weeks earlier that he was going to take Sam Bowie second — if Bowie passed his physical. But Inman had never called Thorn to offer an update.
Houston had spent an entire season tanking to get Hakeem Olajuwon at No. 1 and Thorn was confident that Portland would pass on Michael Jordan. But Thorn needed some confirmation before he turned his focus on the Bulls’ backup plan, Sam Perkins. So he called to check in and Inman assured him Bowie would be Portland’s pick.
“At that time, I knew we would get Jordan at three,” said Thorn, who holds the honor of drafting the greatest No. 3 pick in NBA history but is adamant that he couldn’t have foreseen the five most valuable player awards and six NBA championships that followed the selection. “We had high hopes that he would be a really good player, but to think that he would turn out to be in the conversation for the best player who ever played, who could’ve thought that?”
The Washington Wizards lucked into the third overall pick in the June 27 draft after jumping up five spots at the NBA draft lottery. There certainly isn’t a player in consideration at No. 3 expected to be a franchise building block like Jordan, but history has often smiled upon teams in picking third.
Jordan, Bob Cousy, Pete Maravich, Dominique Wilkins (1982) and Kevin McHale (1980) all posted Hall of Fame careers after being snubbed by the teams drafting first and second, and Carmelo Anthony (2003), Grant Hill (1994), Anfernee Hardaway (1993), Chauncey Billups (1997) and Pau Gasol (2001) have made multiple all-star appearances after going third.
Franchise building blocks are often found among the top three picks, but since 1980 the third overall choice actually trumps the second pick in terms of players who have made the Hall of Fame and made at least one all-star selection. After Jordan eclipsed Bowie, Hardaway would do the same to Shawn Bradley (1993), Billups would have a better career than Keith Van Horn (1997), Anthony would dominate Darko Milicic (2003) and James Harden would run laps around Hasheem Thabeet (2009).
And, in some cases, the No. 3 pick has actually outperformed the top overall selection. If a few drafts could be done all over again, McHale would go ahead of No. 1 pick Joe Barry Carroll, Gasol would go before Kwame Brown, Deron Williams would go ahead of Andrew Bogut (2005) and Al Horford would probably go before Greg Oden – but certainly not Kevin Durant (2007).
“There is always something good at the number three pick,” Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations, said in a phone interview. “It’s a great place to be. Could it be your franchise player? Don’t know. Could it be someone who can make an impact in the game in his first year? Yeah. And if you can do that, that’s pretty good.”
Buck Williams, Sean Elliott, Baron Davis and Shareef Abdur-Rahim had respectable careers. Christian Laettner, the third pick after Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning in 1992, came up short of expectations after being a part of the original Dream Team but still managed to play in an all-star game.
Not every third pick has worked out, with Adam Morrison, Dennis Hopson and Benoit Benjamin headlining the list of busts. Darius Miles, a former high school phenom, showed some promise before his career was derailed by injuries. Chris Washburn threw away his career with a lifetime ban for drug abuse.
“It’s never an exact science because you’re going to have to judge everything based on the future,” said Billy Knight, the former Atlanta Hawks and Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies general manager, who picked both Gasol and Horford.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld had success with the third pick last season, when he drafted shooting guard Bradley Beal from Florida and watched him become just the seventh teenager in NBA history to make the all-rookie team.
The Wizards are considering several players at No. 3 – Georgetown forward Otto Porter Jr., UNLV forward Anthony Bennett, Indiana swingman Victor Oladipo, Maryland’s Alex Len and possibly Kentucky center Nerlens Noel or Kansas guard Ben McLemore if one or both slide past Cleveland and Orlando.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen with Noel. That’s your factor right there,” Blake said. “If Noel goes number one, then Washington has a chance to get Porter. Could Porter go one? I don’t know. This is going to be one of those cool drafts. We don’t even know who is going to be the number one pick in the draft. That’s going to be difficult.”
Thorn, now president of the Philadelphia 76ers, said of the upcoming draft, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
“Ernie knows what he’s doing. He’s going to get a player that can fit a need that they have,” Knight said. “I picked two guys that turned out to be all-stars, but I made some mistakes up there, too. That happens, also. It happened to me.”
Knight famously whiffed in 2005 on Deron Williams and Chris Paul to select Marvin Williams with the second pick. He recovered two years later, believing that Horford was “the next guy” after the Oden-Durant debate over the No. 1 pick was settled. But back in 2001, Knight held an even stronger hunch when he elected to trade Abdur-Rahim to the Hawks in order to take Gasol for Memphis with the third pick.
That year, Brown and Tyson Chandler were competing for the top spot, and Knight was confident that Gasol would be there for him, especially since Eddy Curry had also been mentioned as a possible candidate for one of the top two spots.
“It was sort of a surprise pick,” Knight said of Gasol, who had played well in Spain but raised concerns about his slight build and physical toughness. “I liked him a lot. I thought he was that skilled a big man. He’s not a physical beast, but I thought he was tough enough to play in the NBA. Because it’s a lot of street fights you get into, but you still got to play basketball.”
Knight added that he would’ve taken Gasol first if given the chance. But 29 years after the best draft selection of his career, Thorn still marvels at the role luck played in Chicago landing Jordan. Houston won a coin flip with Portland to pick first, but Olajuwon would’ve gone first to Portland and Jordan would’ve gone second to Houston in that scenario.
“We got fortunate in two cases, because, one, the right team won it and two Bowie passed the physical,” he said with a chuckle. “Happened to be in the right spot and to be perfectly candid, let’s say for some reason, Inman changes his mind and takes Jordan at two, I would’ve taken Perkins at three, over [Charles] Barkley. Perkins was a solid player for many years, but obviously no Barkley. It was one of those years that everything aligned the right way.”