An old saying holds that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.
For the NBA, this was certainly true of the 2002 draft.
A year before LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, and a slew of journeymen and role players arrived to haul the NBA out of the Dark Ages, the league barfed out one last wretched draft class to ensure that the league wouldn’t emerge from the doldrums until that next draft class came of age.
Yao Ming went first overall to the Houston Rockets, and while in theory that’s a great way to start a draft off, in practice, even though he’s a Hall of Famer, Yao only played in 486 games across eight seasons before injuries forced him off the floor for good.
The top three guys by Win Shares in this draft were Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, and Nene Hilario. Nene had the longest career, finally wrapping up his run in 2019, but he couldn’t stay healthy for a full season after 2011.
Any good awful-draft story needs a cursed, tragic tale, and much like in 1986, that cursed player went second overall, thanks to Jay Williams and an unfortunate incident with a motorcycle.
A terrible player with negative career Win Shares going in the top five? Check, with Nikoloz Tskitishvili going fifth overall to Denver and ending up with minus-1.6 WS and minus-2.0 VORP in 172 games across four seasons.
Lack of All-Stars? Check, with only four guys from the draft (Yao, Amar’e, Boozer, and Caron Butler) playing in the February classic.
Only 10 guys cracked .100 WS/48 for their career, and of those, two played in fewer than 100 career games.
The Celtics whiffing on a pick? Bingo, as Darius Songaila went 50th to them and never actually played a game in Boston; he was traded to Sacramento so Boston could screw up two more second-round picks in 2003 (Brandon Hunter) and 2005 (Orien Greene), both of whom stunk out the joint at the NBA level.
The one upside to this draft was that it allowed San Antonio to do the most Spurs thing that the Spurs do, which is pick a foreign white dude late in the second round who ends up having a pretty good career in America. They did it with Manu Ginobili in 1999; in 2002, they got Luis Scola.
Of the 28 picks in the first round (Minnesota forfeited its pick over salary cap violations), only nine played 10 NBA seasons or more.
Of those 28 picks, six were from foreign countries and never played college basketball in the US; 2002 was the year the US finished sixth at the World Championships on their own soil in Indianapolis, a time when it was common wisdom that young American players were uncoachable and had no fundamental basketball skills, something that prompted a lot of the way that draft class of 2003 got coached as they came into the league.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the steaming hot piles of crap that were the 2000 and ’02 draft classes, it’s entirely possible that every 2003 draftee other than LeBron might’ve wasted their talents in systems where they weren’t coached on the right way to play team basketball at the professional level (Melo, looking at you.)
’02 didn’t even have the second-round salvation that ’00 and ’86 enjoyed. Of all the second-round draft picks to play at least 100 NBA games, only two (Boozer and Scola) cracked .100 WS/48. Nine players never played a single game; one player actually did play a single game (Chris Owens, who in six minutes on April 15 scored four points, grabbed one rebound, and turned the ball over once for the Grizzlies and was never seen or heard from again), while only six players lasted 10 years.
It’s really kind of incredible to go back and read the slew of think pieces that were written in 2002 about the state of the NBA and of American basketball in general.
This was the era when David Stern threw in the NBA’s dress code to police what was seen as a gang mentality among NBA players.
This was the era when sportswriters hit their peak of writing frankly racist articles about Black Americans, never missing an opportunity to slag an NBA player for having multiple kids by multiple women and using every euphemism they could get past an editor to avoid just coming out and calling those players the N word.
And all of this would’ve been a passing fancy except for the fact that fans were staying away in droves because the product on the court stunk, the league’s image was about as palatable in white suburban America as Public Enemy rapping “f— the police”, and the owners were looking for something, anything, to stop the bleeding.
They got it a year later in the draft. They got it when Mike D’Antoni discovered fun rotting in a supply closet in Phoenix in 2005. They got it when coaches caught on to the fact that three is more than two and that efficient shooting will win you basketball games.
And they got it when the most storied franchises in the history of the sport got good at the same time in 2008 and 2010.
But man, 2002? Truly the sport’s darkest hour since Danny Biasone thought to himself that maybe teams shouldn’t be allowed to literally sit on the ball for more than 24 seconds at a time.